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The 2022 New York Liberty Season Preview: hope, health ... and Han Xu

New York Liberty All Access Practice Photo by Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

Last season, hopefully, was a year of transition for the New York Liberty. The team greatly improved from a gloomy 2-20 record in the “wubble” and the Libs entered their first season in Barclays Center with a lot to improve upon. They started strong, but slumped down the stretch as they snuck into the postseason on the last day of the season. They put up a heck of a fight before falling short against the Phoenix Mercury, and walked into the offseason with good feelings and good vibes.

So get ready. The Liberty open their 2022 season at Barclays Center starting at 6:00 p.m. Saturday vs. the Connecticut Sun.

How we got here

Over the offseason, the team made a lot of changes. They parted ways with coach Walt Hopkins in December and replaced him with Sandy Brondello right before the calendar flipped over to 2022. Brondello was a major upgrade in experience as she has nine years of WNBA experience, including a 2014 Championship with the Mercury and a Finals runner up in 2021, as well as years of experience coaching the Opals, the women’s national team, in Australia.

From there, they shored up the frontcourt by bringing in Stef Dolson as a free agent from the Chicago Sky. In the draft, they picked up Nyara Sabally, Lorela Cubaj, and Sika Kone. Sabally and Kone won’t be playing this year, but will play a part in NY’s future going forward. And not to be outdone, Han Xu, the WNBA’s tallest player at 6’10” is back with the team after being away for a few years.

In the backcourt, health was the name of the game this winter. Asia Durr (AD) is back after battling long-haul COVID for two years. Betnijah Laney is 100 percent after undergoing left knee surgery last November. Sabrina Ionescu spent the offseason rehabilitating her ankle injuries and says for the first time since severely spraining her ankle in the “wubble,” is back at full strength. Jocelyn Willoughby is back, too, and impressing at training camp after missing all of 2021 with an Achilles injury.

As the team enters into the 2022 season, they’ll be looking to shake things up. Since Brondello’s introductory press conference and throughout camp, the team has mentioned that they need to have a greater presence on the inside. In 2021, they were 11th in points in the paint ... out of 12. Too often last year, the team relied too much on their 3-point shooting and settled instead for hunting even better shots on offense. For the Liberty this season, they are aiming to have a more balanced attack that will vastly improve offensive capabilities.

On the court

WNBA Draftees at Empire State Building Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Leading the way will be Betnijah Laney. In her first season in New York, Laney was the engine that powered the team all season long. The Rutgers product played in all 32 games and was third in the W in minutes per game (second in minutes overall), averaging over 33 minutes a night. Laney struggled down the stretch, but it was more than understandable as she tore her meniscus during season, waiting till after the season to undergo surgery. Even with her injury, she managed to average close to 17 points and five assists a night while being the team’s best option

Laney has steadily improved throughout her career, and as Zack Ward of Swish Appeal noted:

Laney was known for her defense while playing for the Fever in 2019, but then her offensive production skyrocketed with the Dream in 2020. She averaged 17.2 points per game that year en route to being named the WNBA’s most improved player. Last year she averaged 16.8 points as well as 5.2 assists, with the latter marking a high for non-point guards.

Laney will be one of the players that benefits most from the team’s change in offensive approach. Laney had the highest usage rate of her career in 2021, and the highest turnover rate as well. With an offense that is more varied, spacious, and diverse, it will create new scoring opportunities for her and lessen the burden on her shoulders. She’s an excellent player and ambassador for the game, something the Liberty has taken advantage of locally...

Another All Star caliber season will help the Liberty succeed on and off the court.

Throughout camp, the team has also mentioned that they will give more ballhandling responsibilities to players like Didi Richards, Michaela Onyenwere, the league’s Rookie of the Year, and Sami Whitcomb.

Richards and Onyenwere were exceptional as rookies in 2021 and hope to be sensational sophomores in 2022. In their most recent media availability, Onyenwere mentioned she would like to improve upon her 3-point shooting while Richards is hoping to become a better ballhandler and shot creator. Whitcomb has been one of the best shooters in the league since she started with the Seattle Storm back in 2017, and last season she shot a career best (and third best in the W) 42.5 percent from deep. The Liberty are going to need to maintain their success from deep as they try to establish greater presence on the interior.

The team is a lot healthier this time around as Asia Durr (AD) and Jocelyn Willoughby will be back on the hardwood. AD had a decent rookie season way back in 2019, but has been out of action due to COVID-19. Willoughby is a certified bucket-getter. Playing at Virginia, the New Jersey native led the ACC in scoring as a senior in 2019-20, averaging 19.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game

Of course, whenever you return from a long absence, it’s going to take time to get reaccustomed to the speed of game action, so it’ll take some time before we see the version of them that went second in the Draft. With them back in the fold, the team has another capable ballhandler and someone that can turbo charge the fastbreak and keep up the pace.

With Willoughby, they have a guard that can defend bigger wings and make some threes as well. New York’s defense suffered without Willoughby last season and now that she is back, they will have some more versatility on that end. She and Rebecca Allen (when she returns from international play) will be key parts of the team’s defense this season.

The frontcourt duo of Natasha Howard and Stefanie Dolson will work on the inside. Howard dealt with an MCL sprain shortly into her Liberty tenure, which caused her to miss close to three months of action. Without Howard, the Liberty were without their best post option and one of the best defensive bigs in the sport. Now that she’s back, Brondello and the Liberty have a versatile option that can post up, step out and knock down jumpers, and perhaps most importantly, match up against some of the elite frontcourt players in the league.

Howard can move over to her traditional slot at power forward and Dolson will play center. Dolson gives the team a rock solid screen setter that can hit threes, work in the post, and handle her own on the boards. Dolson and Howard give the Liberty an excellent frontcourt tandem that allows Brondello to play a bit bigger while also maintaining the offensive flexibility the team will need to succeed. Not to be outdone, Lorela Cubaj and Han Xu will look to provide rebounding, some scoring, and size coming off of the bench.

Minnesota Lynx v New York Liberty Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

There have been stretches of brilliance, but injuries have gotten in the way of a promising tenure for Ionescu. Year one was in the wubble and only lasted three games before an ankle injury cut her season short. In year two, she fought through ankle injuries in the 30 games she played in. Now that she is back at 100 percent, she will be looking to leave her imprint on the team and WNBA at large.

For Ionescu, her two years in the W represent the first time she has primarily played point guard. It was rocky at times due to the turnovers, but you could see the superstar in waiting peeking through. After the season ended, Corey Annan of Sports Illustrated wrote:

The biggest positive sign was that Ionescu was in her element—not only as a facilitator and rebounder but as a scorer. Whenever the Mystics tried to reclaim momentum in the game, Ionescu always had the answer, whether it was a big-time assist or sinking difficult shots to close out the game. When Ionescu is at her best, the team is tough for anyone to beat. Her facilitating opens the door for good looks for the other primary scorers in Laney, Whitcomb and Howard.

In the playoff game against the Mercury, Ionescu’s court vision was on full display as she handed out 11 assists to only two turnovers. Even though they took the L, you could start to see the outline of a special partnership between Ionescu and Howard forming

At the WNBA website, Mark Schindler wrote:

She’s adept at contorting her body and using angles to hit windows that most ball-handlers can’t. Her ball placement and timing, while not always consistent, are routinely impeccable.

As far as her shotmaking continues to go, the game will continue to open up for her. The more the defense cares about what Ionescu can do as a scorer, the more she’ll be able to bend the defense to her will to pick it apart with her passing.

For Ionescu, that’ll start with getting to the basket a lot more. When she gets there, she’ll need to have a bit more success. Ionescu only shot 58.7 percent inside of the restricted area in 2021, and if she’s able to improve upon that, it’ll open up a lot more avenues for her. She’s already an excellent passer and with the improved roster this season, she’ll have a chance to rack up a ton of assists.

Han Xu is probably the most intriguing player on the roster. She didn’t play for the Liberty the last two seasons because of COVID-19 concerns and commitment to the Chinese national team. Since then, she’s grown an inch to 6’10”. She’s more than just a curiosity however. Now 22, she was the youngest player in the 2020 Draft class at 19 and she showed some sparks of being a productive player, In an exhibition game against the Chinese national team at Barclays Center in May 2019. Obviously a favorite of Liberty co-owner Joe Tsai, she’s said she’d like to justify his faith in her.

What are the goals for this season?

New York Liberty All Access Practice Photo by Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

Throughout camp, the team has talked about building their identity and culture. With the season going from 32 to 36 games, they’ll have a bit more time to fully flesh out the vision of what team they hope to become. A championship may be too optimistic, but a playoff appearance and record above .500 is definitely within reach. It would represent one more step forward for a franchise.