The WNBA Finals are over, and the Las Vegas Aces are on top of the basketball mountain. When the W returns in 2023, the Aces will try to become the first team to repeat since the 2001 and 2002 Los Angeles Sparks. While we wait, patiently, for 2023 to get here, another championship tournament will be starting up on the other side of the world.
The FIBA World Cup is here, and the W will be well represented. The games are being held across Australia, and the New York Liberty have a large contingent Down Under including Coach Sandy Brondello who’s in charge of the host country team. With the games set to tip off on September 21, let’s take a look at all the Liberty players that will take part in the tournament.
Mali: Sika Kone
The Liberty’s 2022 second round draft pick hasn’t come over to the WNBA as of yet, but she’s been turning heads overseas. Kone is one of the players to watch this tournament and has basketball fans excited to see what she can do as she leads Mali into the tournament. Kone is getting better and better and as the FIBA website notes:
Kone usually wreaked havoc in the paint and around the basket yet she also had a knack for hitting mid-range jumpers and shots from just inside the arc. So any team that believed the key was keeping Kone away from the basket still faced a scoring threat from the perimeter.
Robert Mummery of Her Hoop Stats has more on Kone as well:
Mali’s key player is recent WNBA draft pick Sika Koné, a strong finisher with great athleticism who does the lion’s share of her work at both ends around the basket. She is dominant on the boards and a good finisher but lacks significant range on her jump shot. If you exclude her youth, this generally serves as an apt summary of the Malian team overall.
For a lot of us, this will be our first time seeing her play in real time. There were points this year where the Liberty’s relative lack of athleticism was evident, and getting a glimpse into a possible future with Kone should make for an exciting learning and viewing experience for the fans.
China: Han Xu
We got to see Han Xu take a major step forward this year as she returned to the WNBA after being away for a few years. Han came off the bench and provided some much needed scoring punch for the Liberty. As the season progressed, she gained more confidence by the minute and had Liberty fans excited beyond belief for where her game can go.
At exit interviews, Stefanie Dolson spoke about Han and how she grew as a player in 2022
“I think she learned how to do other things than score. For Han, that’s really great. In China, she’s the number one player, as she should be. But I think here in the W, it matters to know how to play with people. Han learned how to do that really, really well, and she stepped into that role extremely well. She knew she was gonna be a focus every time she was gonna be on the floor. She’s the tallest one out there, and I think she handled that pressure and that physicality really well for how young she is. The fact that she is the age that she is, there’s only growth to be had.”
Han still has to work on finishing at the rim and counteracting physical defenders, but she can still make a statement. Li Yueru will start and Han will be coming off the bench to form a formidable 1-2 punch. The more Han plays, the better she gets, so we’re all excited to see what she can do in this tournament.
France: Marine Fauthoux
We were all geared up to watch the Magic hour, until...
BREAKING: A huge blow to France on the eve of the World Cup with superstar Marine Johannes ruled out by a thigh injury.— FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup (@FIBAWWC) September 20, 2022
Mamignan Toure has been called up to the 12-player squad #FIBAWWC pic.twitter.com/iBKJXK4cKp
Damn. Hopefully Marine Johannes heals quickly and she returns to he hardwood as soon as possible.
For those looking for their Marine fix, MJ’s teammate, Marine Fouthaux is here to make it happen. Fouthaux was taken by the Libs in the 2021 Draft, but probably won’t be in the States for a while. She’s not well known to most of us in the USA, but luckily, Hayley McGoldrick of SportsNet is here to help us out:
Fauthoux was one of the key forces to help France secure a silver medal at GLOBL JAM this summer. She was a fourth-quarter comeback force, scored through contact, made space for her teammates to shoot and crashed the boards. Fauthoux was also a member of the bronze medal-winning team in Tokyo, tipping in 12 points in just 13 minutes to help France beat Serbia.
Guard play will be essential for France as they try to make up for Johannes’ loss. And like Kone above, this will be a great early opportunity for Liberty fans to see a player that may be coming to the team in a few years.
Australia: Rebecca Allen and Sami Whitcomb
It’ll feel like being in New York for Allen and Whitcomb as Sandy Brondello will be coaching the Opals. Sandy’s been coaching the team for a long time and got to do something pretty damn cool last month as she announced basketball Hall of Famer, Lauren Jackson, had made the national team
❤️ The beautiful moment Sandy Brondello told Lauren Jackson that she will be heading to the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup with team Australia.— ABC SPORT (@abcsport) August 9, 2022
(Courtesy Basketball Australia) pic.twitter.com/n1GPG1Tpk8
Jackson is returning to the sport of basketball after retiring six years ago. At exit interviews, Bec Allen was asked about playing with LJ, and said:
Bec Allen on playing in the FIBA World Cup with Lauren Jackson next month: "It’s super special for someone who’s gone through so much and also had an incredibly successful career. For me, it’s so impressive and exciting to play alongside her." @Winsidr #OwnTheCrown #WNBA— Myles (@MylesEhrlich) August 25, 2022
With Bec, we know the deal with her. She’s a heady cutter, solid three point shooter, and rangy defender with go-go gadget arms. Back in June, Whitcomb spoke about Spida’s length with Myles Ehrlich of Winsidr x Nets Republic and said:
“It is really helpful, but a lot of people are long and just don’t know how to properly use it. She’s really good at knowing where and when she can really implement and utilize that [strength]. She doesn’t just reach silly. She baits you a little bit, she makes you think you can do something, and then she’s really great at timing that stuff. She’s good at knowing the personnel, at knowing what we want to force people into, and then trying to take away those best looks for them.”
Allen didn’t play much during the year due to concussion symptoms. She’s healthy now and Brondello will count on her a lot during this tournament.
Whitcomb is one of the veteran leaders of this team and will play point for the Opals. She will be counted on to provide toughness, ace three point shooting, and perhaps most importantly, good ballhandling. Whitcomb has been playing off the ball for the Liberty this year, but will take on ball duties this time around. It’s a large responsibility, but Whitcomb is up to the challenge.
Team USA: Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney
This is the first major tournament in a long time without either Sue Bird or Diana Taurasi, so the Team USA backcourt will be looking pretty different. It’s impossible to replace two legends, but that’s the task awaiting the United States as they look for their fourth straight World Cup. Luckily for the home team, our hometown heroes are ready to lead the charge!
For Betnijah Laney, she has worked her way back from knee surgery that limited her to only nine games with the Liberty this season. She returned in August and gradually started to look her old self the more reps she got in. Over her final five regular season games, Bee averaged 9.6 points on a .432/.357/1.000 shooting split.
Sandy Brondello called Bee the toughest player on the Liberty, and Laney will bring her toughness and skill to Team USA. Laney will join a forward/guard rotation that includes Kahleah Copper, Jewell Loyd, Ariel Atkins, and Chelsea Gray. Team USA head coach, Cheryl Reeve, mentioned that the squad won’t have their full contingent of players for their first game as five players are coming over to Australia following the end of the Finals. That presents a big opportunity for Laney to set the tone as her post play, 3-point shooting, and defense will be counted on for the USA.
As for Ionescu, she’ll look to build on her All-WNBA season and end her 2022 on a high note. Kelsey Plum and Gray aren’t here yet, so Sab will be running a lot of point for Team USA. Her game went up a few notches when Brondello moved her off the ball once she inserted Crystal Dangerfield into the Liberty starting five. However, Ionescu still ran the offense a tremendous amount for New York and was excellent while doing so.
After a win against the Indiana Fever in June, I asked Sab if there was a different level of preparation on game day when she’s at the point vs. the two, and she said no and that her level of prep is the same since she plays both positions during the game. With this being her first World Cup, look for her to put on a show as she helps the next generation of USA basketball. The pressure is on, but Ionescu has shown she can handle it and succeed under difficult circumstances.