Nyara Sabally has played all of 40 minutes in the WNBA, having appeared in four games in this, her de facto rookie season. Yet, it’s hard to say her career will ever be anything but an objective success; Sabally, after all, made it here in the first place. She made it here after two torn ACLs during her time at the University of Oregon. She’s here, playing rotation minutes on a “superteam” right after another knee injury delayed her WNBA debut by a year.
Not many 23-year-olds can look in the rearview mirror at their career and feel satisfied, even proud to the extent that Sabally can. But then again, not many 23-year-olds have faced as many professional setbacks as the German has. Forget about overcoming them.
On a team stacked with All-Stars and MVPs and blah blah blah, it is just as much of a joy to watch the 6’5” Sabally play, something to look forward to every time we see her walk towards the scorer’s table. So then, how is she actually playing?
The way Sabally moves around the court would be impressive for a historically unscathed player, much less someone who has had knee issues that required her to go under the knife just 13 months ago. But enough about her past medical history. In the present, Sabally covers ground maniacally, just eating up space at a rate that someone her size shouldn’t be able to do.
A theme of the New York Liberty’s defense thus far has been scheme versatility. From night to night, or even from possession to possession, you have no idea how the Sandy Brondello’s squad may guard a ball-screen. Trap? Hedge? Switch? We’ve even seen Jonquel Jones play different coverages on the same possession. This has its pros and cons, the pros of being able to play any style obvious, the cons being that all five players are not always on the same page, especially so early in their journey together.
But Sabally, with her mobility, fits right at home here. In her minuscule 40 minutes as a pro, we’ve seen her thrive in just about every pick-and-roll coverage imaginable. The commonality in all of those situations? Her movement skills:
Some athletes excel in certain situations, exclusively. They can dunk the ball but only with a LaGuardia-sized runway, or spin back to only their dominant sized. 40 WNBA minutes is as small of a sample size you can legally base a film study on, but it’s already clear Sabally does not have what you might call static athleticism. This, despite already having been split on screens a couple time. Welcome to the big leagues, I guess.
Her dynamism shows up on offense as well. Check out this baseline take:
Her first step on that drive, combined with her functional strength? Quite effective. Sabally doesn’t need to clear Ezi Magbegor immediately; she just needs an inch of leverage to power all the way through to the cup. The outlines of a productive player are written in pen here: a multi-talented defender who is either too big or too fast, depending on the matchup, to keep out of the paint on the other end.
Here is the following possession of that Liberty game against the Seattle Storm, by the way:
Sabally, who played with Sabrina Ionescu at Oregon, drives the lane off a catch and commits an obvious charge. Inquiring minds may ask, particularly as the season wears on, why the former Duck isn’t playing more, given the enticing flashes. That is the play to show them. The game, unsurprisingly, is moving at one speed for Sabally right now: fast. Occasionally, a little too fast - too fast on that play to jump-stop and hit Betnijah Laney relocating to the corner,
On one level: duh. Sabally showed up in Eugene, Oregon, in the summer of 2018 to get her college career underway. Think about what you were doing in 2018 - it’s been a while. Sabally has played in just 52 games, whether in the NCAA or the W, since then. About 1240 minutes of organized ball, for an average of 248 a year. Four players in the WNBA have already surpassed that total this season. On the other end, how much leash does Sabally have to use game-reps, especially within a talented front-court group, to acclimate to the speed of pro ball?
It’s not that she’s not a smart player, certainly. In situations where she has time to read the floor, she often makes the right read. Take these off-ball cuts for example, first to create a wide-open 3-pointer for a teammate, and then an interior relocation to create a passing angle:
If the play is in front of her, on either side of the ball, Sabally will see it, understand it, and make it. However, unscripted and chaotic situations test her decision-making skills, and whether they’re at a level that Brondello can fully trust. Here, Sabally is guarding the screener in a pick-and-roll, and her miscue eventually leaves a shooter wide open:
It’s supposed to be a hedge-and-recover (yet another PnR coverage) here, but Laney, guarding the ball-handler, calls an audible. “Stay with mine,” she gestures - whether Laney needed to do that is another question, but she did. Sabally, however, doesn’t pick up on this audible, and leaves DeWanna Bonner wide open behind the 3-point line before making a late closeout.
It’s not an unforgivable sin, but confusion on the court will pop up often for the Liberty and their brand new roster. If Sabally wants to edge closer to the 20-minute mark, these mistakes in chaotic situations - and there will be a lot of ‘em - must cease.
On offense, her role is undefined. How good of a shooter is she? 48% a game from deep in college but on half-an-attempt per game. Can Sabally force defenses to close out on her enough to utilize that explosiveness and get downhill? If defenders aren’t flying by her, can she make decisions under duress?
Nyara Sabally, the rotation piece for the 2023 New York Liberty, comes with questions. But these are purely circumstantial. She is playing in a win-now situation, with a crowded win-now front-court, in fairly limited minutes. She can only adapt so fast to earn major minutes on a contender. Yet, even then, her minutes thus far have been largely positive.
That’s because Nyara Sabally, the overall player, comes with less questions. She’s going to be good. The blueprint is there and so are the early, early, early flashes. Asking how quickly she’s going to be good may be a tad unfair, but it’s a reflection of where the Liberty are, not Sabally. She’s doing just fine.