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NY Liberty first half recap: On the rise

New York Liberty v Phoenix Mercury Photo by Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images

It takes time to get where you want to go. You lay the foundation, develop good habits, and hope that everything goes well when the lights are brightest. If you go about things the right way, good things will follow.

After a 12 win 2021 season that saw them make it to the playoffs, the team went about making some changes. They replaced second year head coach, Walt Hopkins, with Sandy Brondello as her championship experience and pedigree were key to a young team such as this one. In free agency, they brought in Stefanie Dolson from the Chicago Sky and brought back Rebecca Allen. With those changes and the returning players on the club, the team felt optimistic as they embarked on their new journey.

After a 1-7 May that included some of the worst losses imaginable, things finally started to click in June. As Heaven Hill of Her Hoop Stats noted during their slump:

“They’ve competed endlessly, learning what works and what doesn’t and attempting to establish an identity on the court.”

The identity started to form in June. The team went 7-4, put themselves back in the playoff race, and started to figure some things out. One of the keys to their improvement has been continuity. May was essentially an extended training camp as the team had to deal with late overseas arrivals, the adjustment to a new coaching staff, and injuries to key players. In June, NetsDaily asked Dolson about the month-to-month improvement, and she told us:

“I just think, building the chemistry. Everyone’s had their ups and downs this season, already no matter where they are in the standings. So I think for us, we’ve got a lot of new parts, a lot of pieces that came late, Marine [Johannes] just getting here, and I think just finding that offensive and defensive chemistry. We’ve been building it little by little and we still have a lot more room to grow. But we’re definitely happy with how we’ve done in June.”

The chemistry really shined through on offense. Since June, the team has averaged 105 points per 100 possessions, second in the WNBA. Their net rating of four was third in that time. Along with that, they’ve shot 36.3 percent from three point range in that time span as well, good for second in the W. Who’s ahead of them in all of those categories? The reigning 2021 champions, the Chicago Sky. Darn good company to be in. For the Liberty, they’ve been able to get the most out of their possessions on offense and with the talent they have on the roster, it's allowed them to flourish.

Shining stars

2022 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Stars set the course of organizations. They take on the most pressure, lead by example, and hold everyone accountable. When your stars are locked in, buy in to the coaching staff’s strategies, and set the tempo for their teammates, you’ve got all the markings of success. For the Liberty, with the absence of Betnijah Laney, their other stars have stepped up in a major way.

Natasha Howard’s first season in New York didn’t go as well as she wanted as an MCL sprain took her out of action and cost the team its best defender for most of the season. She had an offseason to rest up and not play internationally, and it’s paid major dividends. She’s been the quarterback of an improved Liberty defense and was rewarded with a well deserved All Star nomination.

Health has been essential for her, as she explained to told Geoff Magliocchetti of Baseline Sports New York:

“My body feels really good. I’m healthier, stronger than last season. It feels so good to be on the floor for my team this season. We still got more games to go, but we’re not going to let injuries ruin our team. we’ll just keep building and building until that playoff time.”

Flash and Sab have developed a really nice chemistry on offense as their pick and roll partnership has produced a lot of goodness for the squad.

Ionescu spoke to Mark Schindler of about Howard’s screening ability and said:

“Her ability to set screens and get out of them quickly helps me particularly, especially if they’re trapping or whatever they’re in, but also her ability to catch the ball. Sometimes that’s kind of overlooked. The passes aren’t always perfect; it’s hard to pass through, you know, four to six hands in my face, so her ability to catch the ball, whether it’s right on the money or if it’s a little behind her in front of her is huge.”

For Ionescu, health has been key for her as well. Nagging ankle injuries slowed her down in 2020 and 2021, but she’s 100 percent and looks like one of the players that will be one of the faces of the league going forward. She was named Player of the Month in June, had the first 30 point triple double in W history, the first triple double with no turnovers, and is already tied with Candace Parker for most triple doubles in league history. On the season, Ionescu is eighth in scoring (17.4 points per game), ninth in rebounds (7.6 per game), third in assists (6.3 per game), and fifth in total three pointers made with 56. Opponents have thrown so many different looks at Ionescu, but she’s been able to adapt in real time and succeed despite all the attention teams pay her.

The two also are getting recognition. The two played in the WNBA All-Star Sunday. Ionescu, on Team Wilson, finished with 19 points, six boards and six assists and a plus-21. Howard scored eight points, also for Wilson which won the game, 134-112.

It topped off quite the week for Ionescu. She won the Skills Competition on Saturday after winning Player of the Week and before that, Player of the Month!

A breakout star

Seattle Storm v New York Liberty Photo by Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

In her first WNBA season since 2019, Han Xu has taken the league by storm. Han didn’t play much at the beginning of the season, but has broken into the rotation as the season has progressed and grown into a fan favorite. Han has been a revelation as her offense has evolved

Didi Richards spoke about Han’s offense with Nets Republic x Winsidr’s Myles Ehrlich and said:

“She’s efficient. I can honestly say when you check in Hanny, it’s gonna be a quick 10 points. Whenever we need it, we throw Han in there.”

With Han, you see the increased versatility, the different ways she’s able to score, and the confidence she has every time she steps on the court. Every time she takes a shot, you believe that it’s going in and you trust that she’s going to make great plays every time she has the ball in her hands. Han is also a student of the game, as Ionescu explained to Jackie Powell of The Next:

“She’s really eager to listen. However she can help. She’s wanting to learn and listen to the coaching staff, listens to us. And so that’s something that’s really helped her and she’s humble. She really wants it. She wants to be great. She wants to be the best that she can be for this team and she puts the work in.”

At just 22 years old, Han is getting better by the minute. She and Dolson make a solid one-two punch at center and with Han already being such a positive contributor at her young age, the sky is the limit for her and the franchise.

Right players at the right time

Washington Mystics v New York Liberty Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

If you wanted to pick a point where the Liberty season turned around, it was June 1 against the Indiana Fever. It was then that Sandy Brondello inserted Crystal Dangerfield into the starting five to help Ionescu out with ballhandling duties and have someone else that can run the offense. When Dangerfield joined the starting five, the team’s turnover rate dropped dramatically and since June 1st, they’ve had the third lowest turnover rate in the W. Brondello has mentioned that she wants the ball moving as much as possible, and Dangerfield helps with that a great deal. Jackie Powell of The Next reported on Dangerfield’s excellence and found:

When the ball is in Dangerfield’s hands, however, she doesn’t hold it for too long. This might be another reason why her contributions can be hard to see. Her assists aren’t the most flashy. Rather, they are practical and reflect her high on-court awareness. According to Lange, once Dangerfield gets the ball, she doesn’t take off large amounts of time off the shot clock dribbling. Instead, her swift reaction time and reading of the opposing defense allows her to take advantage of which defender is a little bit off their assignment. Dangerfield wastes no time and embodies Brondello’s main philosophy of when in doubt, move the ball.

With Dangerfield on the team for the rest of the season, she will run the show and ensure her teammates are in great position to make plays. Her size leaves her susceptible to getting targeted on defense by opponents, but she does a good job of pressuring the ball and disrupting team’s initial actions.

We last saw Marine Johannes in 2019 as a rookie with the Liberty while they were up in Westchester County. She rejoined the organization on June 8 after completing her season in France. Johannes has been a revelation this season as her 11 points and five assists a night on .448/.443/.700 shooting has helped keep the Liberty offense moving. She’s also made some of the most spellbinding passes we’ve ever seen on a basketball court

*there are about 15 different passes we could’ve gone with here. If MJ is in your city, watch her in person. I promise you, you won’t regret it.

One big change for Johannes is she’s been guarding the opponent’s best perimeter players. It’s a new challenge for Johannes, but as she told NetsDaily at the end of June:

“It’s a big challenge for me because in France I’m not used to doing it, to be honest. At the same time, I feel like [the team] trusts me on this, they give me a lot of confidence, and I’m trying to do my best.”

Having an electric player like Johannes on the court makes the team better, opens up more possibilities, and makes them even more fun to watch. As the team gets the rest of its roster back, we’ll see how Brondello deploys Johannes the rest of the way.

The big questions

Seattle Storm v New York Liberty Photo by Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images
  • Will the team be fully healthy down the stretch?

We really haven’t had a chance to see the team at full strength this season as overseas obligations kept Rebecca Allen and Marine Johannes occupied at the start of the season and injuries to Betnijah Laney, Jocelyn Willoughby, Allen, and Didi Richards robbed the Liberty of their depth on the wings. Allen is due back on Tuesday with Willoughby starting to ramp up and Laney hopefully at the end of July. Having Allen, Willoughby, and Laney would give them more versatility on the wings, size to match up with teams, and in the case of Laney, its vocal leader and one of the best scorers in the W.

  • Can they make the playoffs?

Right now, the Liberty sit in tenth place at 9-13. They're within striking distance of all the teams that are currently ahead of them, the: Atlanta Dream, Dallas Wings, Los Angeles Sparks, and Phoenix Mercury. The Liberty will have plenty of opportunities to catch the competition as their final eight games are against those clubs, with two games each against those squads. A playoff appearance and a home playoff game at Barclays would be a welcome development for a Liberty team that stumbled out the gates. It won’t be easy, but we’ve seen this team fight back all season long and give fans a team they can be proud of and latch on to. We’ll see where the road takes them from here.