There’s something to leveling up. When you’re in a new space, everything changes. The expectations are greater, you put more on your shoulders, and the goals are not the same as what they used to be. It’s a lot of pressure to be under, but if you can conquer it, it can change everything for you.
On Monday, the New York Liberty held their annual Media Day. It was a full house in the Barclays Center interview room and on Zoom as reporters from all around the world were on hand. Jonathan Kolb, Liberty GM and architect of their unprecedented off-season, spoke about how the Libs can help the WNBA grow more. He gave a big picture answer:
“I think you’re gonna have the opportunity to cover the greatest players in the world in one spot. That’s amazing. It’s a great opportunity, but it’s a great opportunity for fans of basketball that maybe haven’t had the chance or really the opportunity to key in on on our league. Now’s the time, and so I think through your coverage, your storytelling, our players, I think it’s a great opportunity for for something that’s pretty unprecedented.”
Investing in the game is something the Liberty have made a point of since the ownership change in 2019, going from James Dolan to Joe and Clara Wu Tsai, and teams across the W have also made new and greater efforts to invest in their teams and provide players and fans with first class accommodations. It’s a welcome first step and something the league needs to get even better at as the W continues to grow.
Breanna Stewart, the single biggest investment the Liberty made this off-season, mentioned how it affected her decision:
“As a free agent when I was looking at New York, you know, you realize that you have an amazing front office, obviously with the ownership. They want to make sure that this team is getting everything that they need. And you realize that the moment that you walk in. You walk in, there’s breakfast, and then there’s treatment, and then there’s the weight room, and then there’s the court and there’s all these people around who are trying to help you. And the WNBA should have teams that have a one stop shop. I shouldn’t have to travel all over the place to get everything I need. And here in New York, you can get that right here. So to be able to come in and have that, it’s amazing because of what I just touched on before, is I want to be my best and I wanna be able to to do everything I can to to get that. And that means the resources, and here we have all the resources.”
To put on my labor hat for a second, when you create good conditions for your workers, you get great work as a result. That means when you invest in the workforce, you get great work and everybody wins! Hopefully that’s something the league office will take into consideration going forward.
Throughout the day, the team spoke of earned expectations, which Kolb explained:
“To have expectations means we’ve earned them.” - GM, Jonathan Kolb pic.twitter.com/QQt0OizszO— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) May 10, 2023
Sandy Brondello and the coaching staff acknowledged the title hopes surrounding the team, but also stressed the importance of winning the day, building a foundation in the right way, and ensuring you follow the process and don’t skip steps. With the additions of Jonquel Jones, Courtney Vandersloot, and Stewart, everyone’s hoping the Liberty can succeed where the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks have not, which is to bring a basketball championship back to New York City. There’s a temptation to put more on your shoulders considering the stakes, but the Liberty say they plan on taking it day-by-day and make sure they do everything right. Like Brondello said, you can’t win the championship in preseason, but if you build the right culture and lay down the right foundation, it’ll help you make it to the championship stage.
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind to begin Sabrina Ionescu’s WNBA career. Year one was the “wubble.” Years two and three were spent recovering from injuries incurred in the “wubble,” but she put together her best campaign yet last season and was named all-WNBA. We got a chance to ask Sab about how rewarding it was to have an offseason where she could just hoop without anything getting in the way, and she told us:
Sabrina Ionescu: "It's been a blessing. As athletes, when you haven't dealt with an injury, you can take the days for granted, the practices, all the small things. Having my first healthy offseason, being able to train then to now... it's been rewarding already." (Q: @busyxb)— Myles (@MylesEhrlich) May 8, 2023
Brondello noted that Ionescu has expanded her game and has a quicker shot release this time around. She mentioned over the winter that she wanted to be better at creating her own shot, and with all the room to operate with on offense, she’ll be able to put all of her new skills on display.
Betnijah Laney dealt with nagging injuries in 2022. A knee injury kept Bee sidelined for most of the year, but she came back strong towards the end and got her team into the postseason. With an offseason to heal up, she’s back at full strength and ready to play at her All-Star level. The Rutgers product has been a leader throughout her time in New York and works to ensure that everyone on the team is comfortable and able to lead in their own ways as well.
Jonquel Jones is working her way back to full strength, but she’s been making progress day-by-day. She noted that this is her first time playing under a new coach in the WNBA and in NY, she’ll have a lot more spacing to operate with than she did with the Connecticut Sun. Some things are a bit different, but the 2021 MVP should be able to fit into any role and will take on that leadership role on both sides of the ball.
Welcome to the W
Being a rookie is hard. Being a rookie in a hyper competitive league like the WNBA is tougher. Being a rookie in a hyper competitive league like the WNBA as you’re just coming off of a deep NCAA tournament run is even tougher. That’s the situation recent National Champion at LSU, Alexis Morris, found herself as she detailed her first day of training camp with the Connecticut Sun a few weeks ago
Two of the Liberty’s recent draft picks have had a different entry into the WNBA. Nyara Sabally and Sika Kone were drafted by the Liberty in 2022, but neither player donned the seafoam last season. Kone played overseas while Sabally was recovering from a knee injury she suffered at the University of Oregon. At Media Day, they were asked about that extra year as compared to the usual two weeks college players get before they enter the league:
“It helped in a sense of last year, I was able to watch the team already and knowing this is the system I’m going to fit in. I made it a point to watch all the games and really study their offense and make sure like, “okay, this is a system I will fit in very well.” So I feel like that definitely has a benefit to it and learning the players, knowing who you’re going to play with helps a lot.”
“It was helpful not to come last year and be able to watch the game and know the players you’re gonna play with and the position you’re gonna play and get to know the plays, so it was really great for me.”
The issue of roster spots continues to be an issue in the W, and the extremely short turnaround for rookies coming into the game is something to consider in the future as well. There’s so much talent in the USA and around the world that expansion has become an issue for players and fans. It’s up to the league to create environments and opportunities for players to have a chance to succeed.
Didi Richards and Jocelyn Willoughby have been two of the standouts from Liberty training camp thus far. Laney and Stef Dolson have spent a lot of time with Richards, and they noted that she’s been excellent in camp and has been more confident in camp as her defensive and decision making skills have really shined through. Richards noted she put up a lot of shots in the offseason and worked some things out on offense to go along with her defensive work. I asked Jocelyn what part of camp has been the most successful for her, and she said:
“You know, for me, how I would define success is comparing where I was last year to this year. And so for me last year, coming off of injury, getting used to the new coaching staff, it was very overwhelming and I would say I was lost. And so now this year, just having a better sense of the style of play, spacing, filling the floors and doing those things. I feel like for me, that’s big growth in what I would count as success and being healthy as well.”
Richards and Willoughby both talked about the importance of patience in their WNBA journeys. They’ve both dealt with a lot of adversity in their young careers, but have overcome it and continued to keep at it. The Liberty have depth all over the roster, and the versatility and flexibility of Richards and Willoughby will be crucial when the Liberty tinker with various lineup combinations.
Han Xu is back, and she’s now standing at 6’11” the second tallest player ever in the W! She’s coming off of a spectacular World Cup showing where she was named one of FIBA’s best players. Brondello and assistant coach Olaf Lange noted that Han is continuing to adapt to the speed of the WNBA after playing in the WCBA in China. Dolson noted that even beyond her height, Han’s willingness to learn and expand her game has everyone excited to see her game grow even more.
In camp, Han has been positioned in the corners to take catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. In 2022, she shot 44.4 percent from deep and this year, she’ll have plenty of opportunities to score as the Liberty offense can punish opponents in a myriad of ways.
In her availability, Han spoke more about her defense and has a goal of averaging two blocks per game along with some more rebounds. Han has grown a lot since we first met her as a 19 year old with the Liberty way back in 2019. Her game has improved by leaps and bounds and she’s someone that will be critical to New York’s chances in 2023. Han mentioned that she wants to play more patiently, and with the talent alongside her, she won’t have to put too much on her shoulders.
She also spoke about the relationship she’s built with Jonquel Jones
The Liberty have created an environment where everyone is there to support each other and help their teammates be their best selves. At exit interviews last year, the team talked about the sisterhood they’ve developed, and it’s something that will always be with them as they embark on this new adventure.
All around the world
When thinking about the Liberty roster and organization, it’s helpful to revisit this quote from former Liberty guard, Sami Whitcomb:
“That’s one of my favorite parts about the New York team, we are so international and we’ve got such great talent from all over the world,” Australian Sami Whitcomb said. “I think that represents our fan base as well.”
When you look at the training camp roster, you get a feel for the scope of talent here and around the world:
- Jonquel Jones (Bahamas)
- Han Xu (China)
- Nyara Sabally (Germany)
- Marine Johannes (France)
- Sika Kone (Mali)
- Stephanie Maluwi (Japan)
- Morgan Green (Jamaica)
The work of Rebekah Gardner and Yvonne Turner playing overseas was cited as examples of players who played in Europe and were able to have sustained success in the league. Maluwi mentioned that if she made the team, it would help make Japanese players more willing to come over and play in the WNBA. Morgan Green added and spoke of what it means to be a part of this Liberty franchise right now:
For me as well coming from an island that starts with J, Jamaica, it’s definitely a huge thing... We’re not really pushing basketball [in Jamaica], you know, it’s more so track and we’re a small country. So for sure. You know, I wear the pride of my country here as well. And knowing that it’s been quite the journey to make it here, I’m definitely trying to soak up as much as I can from the experience and put my best foot forward.
The game of basketball can take you anywhere. The game is the game and if you work hard, try your best, and do right by others, there will always be room for you. Now that we are one week away from the regular season, the Liberty have a chance to do something special and historic. It’s an exciting time and everyone is ready for where this new adventure will take them.
Preseason starts Wednesday ... morning
The Liberty open their preseason schedule at 11:00 a.m. ET vs. the Connecticut Sun. Game will be available on WNBA.com.
- Rebuilt Liberty aim to make good on growing WNBA superteam buzz - Bridget Reilly - New York Post
- The Liberty are sharper but aren’t taking chances in training camp - Jackie Powell - The NEXT
- The male basketball players helping prepare a WNBA superteam for a championship season say average Joes would ‘get smoked’ trying to keep up - Meredith Cash - Insider