Entering the season, FiveThirtyEight’s new Elo-based WNBA projections had the New York Liberty finishing 12th in the league, with just a 26 percent chance to make the playoffs and less than a 1 percent chance at winning it all. Six games into this 32-game season, it’s time to reevaluate. Elo now projects the Liberty at 71 percent to make the playoffs, with a 6 percent chance of a double bye and 2 percent chance to win it all.
Why are the Liberty 5-1? There are many reasons, yet what is probably most fascinating is that none of them look like outliers. And what should be most concerning to the rest of the league is that New York has a number of ways to get even better over the final 80 percent or so of the season.
Sabrina Ionescu, last season’s top overall pick, played in just three games last year before an ankle injury ended her 2020 season, but when playing she held her own in a way that promised stardom once she returned. And her numbers across the board are at or above that 2020 cameo, with a Vanderslootian assist percentage of 39.4 percent, a free throw percentage above 90, and nearly half of her 3-point attempts going in so far this season. She remains an elite rebounder for a guard, too — hence the triple-double in her sixth game, something no other WNBA player had done.
“I mean, we’re six games in, and we’ve talked about how many times [Ionescu] has risen to a moment,” Liberty coach Walt Hopkins said with a chuckle about his starting point guard.
But a team doesn’t turn 2-20 into 5-1 on the strength of a single player, and the Liberty, collectively and with their other primary scorers, have all the hallmarks of a true contending team.
Let’s start with Betnijah Laney. Here’s how a WNBA talent evaluator recently put it to me: “Sabrina is really good, but Laney is their MVP.”
It’s been a dizzying rise for Laney, who went from Indiana Fever castoff to Atlanta Dream mainstay, winning the league’s Most Improved Player award last year. Signed to a free agent deal by New York this offseason, the role and expectations rose once again. But Laney has exceeded them. Through six games, Laney has been every bit the No. 1 scorer the Liberty don’t necessarily need her to be when at full strength (Ionescu and Natasha Howard, after all, also play for New York).1 But she’s not only scoring in bunches, with 20-plus points in each of her first six games, she’s doing it at critical junctures — and using her voice as a young veteran to lead this young roster.
“[Hopkins] came to me and spoke to me about what the team needed,” Laney said. “And that was leadership. And so for me to be able to give them that, and with me, being the veteran on the team, I think it’s just something that came a little natural — just for me to understand, you know, time, situation, score and everything.”
Laney’s added load hasn’t negatively affected her efficiency. In fact, just the opposite. A longtime defensive stalwart who was not even on opposing scouting reports for her offense, Laney shot 40.5 percent from three with the Dream last season on 3.4 attempts per game and 50.7 percent from two on 10.1 attempts per game. In 2021 so far, she’s up to 52.2 percent from three on 3.8 attempts per game and 54.9 percent from two on 11.8 attempts per game.
It’s all part of a teamwide consistency and proficiency from beyond the arc, which might seem like an outlier if Hopkins and general manager Jonathan Kolb hadn’t designed the entire team’s structure and offense around maximizing that part of New York’s offensive game. As a team, they are shooting 43.7 percent from three, which would set a WNBA single-season record. (Per the league, the record is currently held by the 2010 New York Liberty, powered by Cappie Pondexter and Leilani Mitchell.)
But that success from three isn’t coming from just one particular source. Eight Liberty players are north of 40 percent from deep, and a ninth, Rebecca Allen, is a skilled perimeter shooter whose shooting percentage is likely to revert to the mean in the coming games.
Sami Whitcomb, another offseason addition who knows a little something about long-range shooting — 35.6 percent for her career, 38.1 percent last season in Seattle for the WNBA champions — said both the people taking those shots and the kind of looks they’re getting make it clear to her this is the true-talent level for New York.
“I think part of that is the shot selection — the shots we create for each other,” Whitcomb said. “We know when they’re coming — when we are attacking and when we’re more aggressive. And when we’re executing, the reason we’re shooting that percentage is because they’re good shots. They’re good open looks for good shooters.”
Even so, despite leading the league in effective field-goal percentage, the Liberty are middle of the pack in offensive efficiency. And that culprit is one Hopkins readily identified.
“One thing has been the turnovers,” Hopkins said. “Points per possession dropped because of that. Clearly, that’s an issue.”
How much of that can be attributed to newcomers playing together for the first time, combined with a point guard still yet to play double digit games in the league, will determine just how much better that can get over the remainder of the season. But two primary contributors working their way into the Liberty mix after arriving late from overseas obligations — Allen and Howard — are both effective, particularly Allen, at taking care of the ball. They also provide defensive flexibility that fit specifically with the pace-based offense New York runs. Allen is an elite shot blocker for her size and position at the stretch-four, and Howard’s defensive skills have contributed to championship teams in both Minnesota and Seattle, while her athleticism is a different level than New York bigs Kylee Shook and Kiah Stokes.
Howard also finished eight in the league in total rebound percentage last season and 17th in defensive rebounding percentage, according to WNBA Advanced Stats, so both New York’s 10th-ranked average in second-chance points and 11th in second-chance points allowed figure to jump pretty dramatically, while a defense that is currently the fifth-most efficient in the league has the chance to get even better.
“[Howard] still has to get comfortable,” Hopkins said. “She has to get a feel for our schemes and and what we’re doing. She’s a tremendous defender, as is Bec Allen, but they have to learn what we’re asking of them, what the rest of the team is going to be doing in a given moment. So I think that it’s just going to take time … for us to know how much they’re going to move the needle defensively. And I have a feeling it’s going to be quite a bit tangible.”
For a team that’s already begun 5-1, that’s a statement that should strike fear into opponents.
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