In the same way that the pot you’re watching can’t boil, maybe a basketball team can’t shine until the hype has cooled. After a lackluster and disappointing 2021, the New York Liberty enter this season as the WNBA’s biggest question mark. How has it been for new head coach Sandy Brondello? Is anyone going to shoot? Can they expect a healthy bounce-back season from the big all-star Natasha Howard? And what to do with Sabrina Ionescu, who showed flashes of brilliance on a night she didn’t seem slowed down by injury? A positive answer to all these questions seems like a lot to look for. Of course, the expectations were met last season, the Liberty have emerged this year as one of the more exciting teams to watch in the WNBA. If they are not more than “Team League Pass” to this point, more compelling in the aesthetics of the record, does it really matter? This is the Liberty team that was promised a few years ago: a young and creative squad that is finally showing that it has a special cut.
One of the reasons for the change is that certain pieces literally did not exist last year. Meet 6-foot-10 Han Xu and French phenom Marine Johannès, both rocking their way back from a two-year WNBA absence. (No, I don’t know why the court looks like this.)
The WNBA season is complicated every year according to the international basketball schedule. Players may miss large chunks of the season (or the entire season) due to obligations to other teams, and international players representing their national teams tend to get caught up in the conflict. This makes some long and high absences. Emma Meesseman, for example, missed all of last year to play in the Olympics and the FIBA EuroBasket tournament with the Belgian national team. Jonquel Jones, already a citizen of Bosnia four years ago, had to leave the Sun right in the middle of the WNBA season to play in EuroBasket. It’s an annoying problem to create the WNBA itself, and the product suffers because of; The international pipeline for the WNBA is not nearly as strong as it could or should be. But in a non-Olympics, non-EuroBasket, non-COVID-protocol year, the Liberty have been able to benefit from talent not born in the US. Johannès is the best passer, the type to cut and tweet. His speed and ability make him give the Liberty something they haven’t had in the last two seasons.
Then, Han! Oh, Han! It’s hard to know what Han will do in his 2019 rookie season, when he’s only 19 years old and has never seen more than garbage time. But he came to state this year and exceeded all expectations. In his profile on FiveThirtyEight this week, Howard Megdal wrote about how his game is hyper-efficient and not just in cat-elides comparison. At 6-foot-10, he has made 15 of 32 three-point attempts this year. There’s a lot to be found in any Liberty game, and there’s still the puzzling Han, who’s so tall and good at shooting, that’s sure to catch your eye.
Returning players should be better and healthier as well. Howard looks more like a former Defensive Player of the Year this year than last year. Importantly, since the beginning of June or so, the Liberty acquired Sabrina Ionescu who is expected to be the face of the franchise.
This is a strange competitor, who can “takeover” spells that you believe every shot he takes is going to happen. Ionescu, who said he regretted playing with an ankle injury last year, has looked more comfortable in attack this season. Still an excellent passer with three WNBA triple-doubles to his name, he is now averaging more than 17 points a game, also up from his 11.7 last year. The faster Johannès complemented Ionescu well; together, they are maybe the best [Italian chef kiss] backcourt in the WNBA.
OK, now I have to admit to you that the mighty Liberty is actually 13-18, thanks to some bad losses in May and July. But damn if this isn’t the best losing team I’ve ever seen. The Liberty will spend the final weeks of the WNBA season fighting to stay in the playoffs. The good news is that they have the advantage of an easy-ish schedule on their side, and they are on a three game winning streak. There’s no bad news: Success or failure, it’s always going to be a good time.