This isn’t because Marine Johannés is playing well, though. In fact, it’s been the opposite for much of this season, her third in the WNBA and with the New York Liberty, but especially so over the last 15 games. In that timeframe, the Frenchwoman is scoring 5.1 points a game and taking 5.5 shots a game. The shooting splits are as you’d expect with a statistic like that, at 33/31/75, only made worse an assist-to-turnover ratio under one.
Quite the intro, I know.
Perhaps a more accurate headline would be, For Marine Johannés, It’s Time, because it is. The Liberty don’t need much from her, certainly not as much as they needed last season when Johannés started ten games, and another one in the playoffs, playing over 25 minutes a game. But they need something.
This is not to disparage Johannés, not only a beloved player and teammate whose quiet demeanor belies the fact that, on the court, she is (and I stress here that this is meant with much the utmost reverence and affection) an insane person...
lol Marine Johannés with a casual baseball entry pass: pic.twitter.com/BFcFL4Zuk1— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) August 12, 2023
...(because who does that?), but also a tremendously accomplished one. Remember, she missed the start of the W’s regular season, as she was busy winning Finals MVP at EuroCup. The basketball world is better off when Johannés is hitting threes and throwing no-look passes while falling into the front row.
So too, though, are the New York Liberty, not just because of what MJ can be at her best, but because of what their bench can be at its worst.
New York’s starting five are flat out destroying opponents this year, having already played nearly 400 minutes together and flirting with a +20.0 net rating as a unit. However, that heavy-minutes load is not just thanks to Sandy Brondello’s desire to expedite a gelling process, but because she simply can’t trust many of her reserves. Yes, Stefanie Dolson is back after an extended, ankle-related absence, and Kayla Thornton has been solid all season, and Nyara Sabally was productive here and there, but there is something all of those players have in common.
They don’t dribble the ball.
More specifically, they don’t attack the paint, maintaining some pressure on the rim when starters take their rest. Enter Marine Johannés, who we can call a combo guard. We’ve seen her run pick-and-roll, and we know she can shoot, thus drawing aggressive closeouts. Theoretically, MJ is the perfect bench candidate to keep the offense flowing and get into the paint, whether on the ball or off the ball. Not if she’s doing this, though:
Aside from passing up open threes, the biggest problem for Marine Johannés right now is that she's picking up her dribble *way* too early. Providing minimal rim pressure right now: pic.twitter.com/GjqYIirqEN— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) August 7, 2023
That last turnover is especially egregious, given that there was a 2-on-1 opportunity under the basket if an apparent ghost hadn’t forced Johannés to pick her dribble up. Why is she picking her dribble up so early anyway?
Perhaps it’s a confidence issue, and MJ is overthinking out there, which would explain her taking incredibly difficult, leaning 3-pointers but passing up open ones like this:
However, there’s all the reason in the world to think these are fixable issues for Johannés — she’s overcome them before. Even at her best, questionable shot selection and decision-making are not only part of the deal, but an inevitable side effect of playing with that much ... chutzpah. Johannés is willing to try any and every angle she can think of, but nobody bats a thousand on over-the-head, no-look passes.
With New York, MJ is free to play her game, uninhibited by the threat of other reserve guards taking her minutes or opportunities (her usage rate has actually increased this season), but for whatever reason, she clearly isn’t feeling free enough to play it right now.
Perhaps that will change with the return of Dolson, not solely a close personal friend of the French guard, but a natural bench partner for Johannés. Dolson is the team’s harshest screener, and has the necessary skills to run two-woman actions with MJ, namely soft hands, passing ability, and an understanding of offensive space.
Heck, in the Liberty’s Friday night victory over the Chicago Sky, Johannés had her most effective gave in quite some time, just by nailing the little things. She took the ball all the way to the rim on a fast break opportunity. She got a stop on one end, then came off a dribble handoff, saw drop coverage, and hit a three:
Marine Johannés' best sequence in quite some time: pic.twitter.com/hEvNwBxYqc— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) August 12, 2023
After the game, Brondello praised her efforts accordingly: “I was complimentary of Marine, just coming in and being aggressive and just defensively too, executing and getting steals. It was great. It was fun. And that’s how we want her to play.”
More importantly, that’s how the Liberty need her to play. They don’t need the experience at full-throttle, though that’s certainly welcome, too.
Marine Johannés is the ultimate basketball treasure for American viewers like moi. Initially stumbling onto the fact that a 20-minute per game reserve on what was then an average WNBA squad is one of the most fun basketball players (man, woman, child, alien) on the planet is a slice of basketball heaven, like finding the perfect peach in July.
New York is no longer the average squad they were after signing Mariné Johannes in 2019. That’s well-documented. However, Johannés hasn’t faded to black on this team. The world-destroying New York Liberty need her to reach their goals; their bench isn’t complete without her production. It’s up to Marine Johannés to deliver.