Now with the pieces, Liberty working to put them into place

Layshia Clarendon prepares to launch a shot against the Seattle Storm. NBAE/Getty Images photo.
Layshia Clarendon prepares to launch a shot against the Seattle Storm. NBAE/Getty Images photo.

After flailing the last few seasons and returning this year with a new-look roster, the New York Liberty’s task is to put those pieces into place, and get them all working.

The first step of the Liberty’s rebuild this last winter was to sign seven-year veteran guard Layshia Clarendon in free agency. New York knew, of course, that they would be drafting point guard phenom Sabrina Ionescu with their No. 1 pick. But they also knew that they were going to have a very young, inexperienced team, and that Clarendon could provide stability and experience to steady them.

While the national (and for that matter, the local) media embraced the star-centric Ionescu story, Clarendon was mostly labelled her mentor. But that label largely ignored the depth of character and intensity the Liberty was getting with their only free-agent signing. The former Cal standout and vice president of the player’s union executive committee has also been a vocal leader for LGBT rights and the Black Lives Matter movement this year. She has especially promoted advocacy around the killing of women of color by police.

Clarendon was instrumental in the agreement by the players and the league to “Say Her Name,” and to feature Breonna Taylor’s name on every uniform on opening weekend.

Taylor was an EMT shot to death in her Louisville home on March 13, 2020 by police serving a “no-knock” warrant based on the possibility that a drug dealer, who they already had in custody, may have received mail at Taylor’s home. No arrests have been made, though one of the officers was fired in June.

On the court, it took just one game for Clarendon to remind everyone that she is a very good player, who was not going to be a backup. Because she was a bench player with Connecticut, and had a season-ending injury after just nine games last year, it was easy to forget that Clarendon was 2017 all-star with Atlanta, and averaged 10.7 points and 6.6 assists in a 2018 season split between for a not-very-good Dream and the Sun .

In her debut with New York against Seattle, Clarendon led all scorers with 20 points on 5-9 shooting and 10-12 free throws. She was the clear leader on a court full of younger players, calling out plays and encouraging and teaching for 32 of 40 minutes.

The Liberty lost the game by 16 points, but led for several minutes during the second period. The team played much of the game fearlessly, which is one of their mantras for the season. The team is widely predicted to finish last, mostly because they have seven rookies on their roster, but those predictions seem less likely after this game.

Impressively, New York hung with title favorites Seattle for three quarters, and the final score was the closest of the three opening day games. Had Kia Nurse, one of their few veterans, not missed three quarters after spraining her ankle, the result may have been even closer.

While Clarendon may have been most impressive player in the opener, a few of the Liberty rookies also showed they are pro-ready.

Coach Walt Hopkins has preached “position-less basketball,” in which set plays and prescribed positions are abandoned in favor of a system that relies on read-and-react play. New York game notes describe a team focused on “speed, versatility, efficient decision-making, high-percentage attempts, and stretching the floor with long-range shooting.”

That playing style is far from revolutionary, and is reflected in several men’s and women’s professional teams, but many teams play a more traditional style. The Liberty drafted with interchangeability in mind, seeking big guards who could post up, and forwards who could shoot the three. But there also was a practical aspect to the philosophy for a team with seven rookies on the roster, and just two weeks to prepare together for the season.

One of those versatile rookie bigs, 6-4 Kylee Shook (who shot .368 from beyond the arc as a senior at Louisville), defined the approach as “just playing basketball.”

“Everything happened so quick in training camp,” she said, “and we only had two weeks with seven rookies. Um, we’re mainly just playing basketball.”

“I mean, that’s what we came here to do. We’re just reading each other. . . . ‘Position-less’ was mainly just, ‘I can go set a screen for (Kiah) Stokes or I can go set a screen for a Nurse, but then they can do the same for me.’ So it’s just reading and just playing to our capabilities, what we’re good at. And we all know what we’re all good at, so we all kind of play off each other.”

Sabrina Ionescu brings the ball up court in her WNBA debut. NBAE/Getty Images photo.
Sabrina Ionescu brings the ball up court in her WNBA debut. NBAE/Getty Images photo.

No player coming into the WNBA more represents the position-less philosophy than Ionescu – one of the best rebounding guards in NCAA history. Her 26 college triple-doubles crushed previous records, and she is the only player in collegiate history to amass 2,500 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists. Her intensity and competitive nature have been legendary.

Ionescu shot poorly Saturday, especially from long range (0-8). But her court presence, and her willingness to take charge, confirmed that she will have an immediate impact on the league, and will fill a vital role on this team.

She finished with 12 points, six boards, and four assists. When running the point, she directed players and took the initiative when Seattle’s defense seemed to have New York frozen.

Hopkins was pleased with what he saw – even the many missed shots.

“[O]ne of the things we’ve talked about a lot in the preseason with her is her having a willingness to take shots at times when it’s stagnant,” he said. “Or you know, she’s running up and defenses don’t guard her because they know that she wants to set up a player; things like that.”

“And it was something that when I watched her at Oregon, oftentimes I wondered, I mean, ‘why don’t you just pull up and shoot that and make them come out and guard you?’ And so it was a lot of factors that influenced some of the decisions that she made and that we made, you know, as a team and as a staff. But all in all, I think it was the right move for her to try to find her way.”

Hopkins isn’t worried about Ionescu’s opening day jitters.

“[H]ad that not been her first game  . . . I think the outcome probably would have been a little different in terms of her making shots,” he said. “The shots just didn’t go down, but I think it was the right move.”

The other rookie standout in the first contest was former Duke Blue Devil Leonna Odom, whose play epitomized the style the team wants. She rebounded, brought the ball up court, and set up the offense from the top of the key. She shot threes, hitting one of two. She posted up. She defended inside and outside. She was active on both ends of the court, and finished with nine points on 4-6 shooting (and three turnovers.)

Her coach was enthused by her play.

“She’s really active, and she’s more confident than I saw her play sometimes in college,” Hopkins said. “She looked comfortable asserting herself.”

“She was cutting, she was crashing the boards. It’s a matter of kind of learning the offense and learning the times when to do those things. . . . And then I think you’re going see more and more growth from her as she gets used to understanding kind of the why and the when to do those things. But in terms of her just ability to go in and impact the game on both ends of the floor, she’s been really exciting.”

Despite the positive beginning with the Liberty youth movement, they did lose the game. They met their defensive goals for the middle two quarters, but too many lapses in the other 20 minutes allowed the Storm too many open looks. Most obvious was New York’s apparent decision to go under most screens. Against Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd – great mid-range shooters –  that strategy was disastrous. The two combined for 37 points on 11-21 shooting, and sealed the win for Seattle.

Overall, the Liberty can be optimistic after their first game. They played well against one of the WNBA’s best teams, despite having several scorers unable to play. Nurse, who was limited to nine minutes, has a sprained ankle, but should return within a week or so.

Sharpshooting rookie Megan Walker, out due to COVID-19, practiced with the team for the first time on Monday, and should become an important part of the rotation in another game or two, as she gets comfortable with the league.

And Jazmine Jones, another big, scoring guard, should also have a chance to contribute soon, after recovery from her sprained ankle. She was listed as “probable,” but did not play against the Storm.

Playing more consistent defense will likely be the biggest learning hurdle for the team. You cannot just “play basketball” and master defensive rotations or sets. It takes time together, experience, and great communication. New York does not have the first two of those, and will gain them only with time. They have a good start on the third, with Clarendon and Ionescu on the court most of the time, and with defensive stalwart Stokes under the basket. But expect more breakdowns, and more lost points that will need to be countered by better shooting.

The Liberty face the Dallas Wings, another very young team, tonight.