The Liberty Are Reinventing Themselves

The Liberty are not sure what the full identity of their revamped team should be. But they are certain about one aspect of it.

“I want teams to be kind of scared of us when they have to be on offense,” said forward Natasha Howard, who won the WNBA’s Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2019, when she was with the Seattle Storm.

This will be Howard’s second season with the Liberty, but in many ways, and for many reasons, it seems unlikely to be much like her first. The team has a new head coach (Sandy Brondello), a new veteran center (Stefanie Dolson) and, players said, a new commitment to becoming a championship contender once the season begins May 6.

“There’s a sense of urgency,” guard Sabrina Ionescu said during Liberty’s media day on Thursday. She added that the team didn’t want to wait years to become better, and had a “Why not us?” mentality.

The Liberty finished last season with a 12-20 record and slid into the playoffs as the eighth seed. They lost to the fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury in a first-round single-elimination game. The team had injury woes all season: Jocelyn Willoughby tore an Achilles’ tendon in a preseason scrimmage; Howard missed 15 games because of a knee injury; Ionescu dealt with a lingering ankle injury.

All three are back and said they are feeling good.

“I’m way ahead of where I used to be,” Willoughby said.

Another returner is guard Asia Durr, who goes by AD. Durr, the second overall draft pick in 2019, missed the past two seasons as they recovered from Covid-19. On Thursday, Durr said they were still dealing with confusion and brain fog but that Liberty teammates had been helpful.

“It’s pretty challenging to be patient every single day,” Durr said, punctuating the last three words.

Like Howard and several others, Durr mentioned defense as the focus of this year’s team. Brondello, who coached Mercury to the finals last season in her eighth year with the team, said she wanted Liberty to have an “aggressive mentality.”

More points in the paint. Fewer turnovers. Not settling for outside shots. Drawing more fouls.

“We’re trying to develop a tough team,” Brondello said.

At the core of the team are players like Ionescu; Howard; Betnijah Laney, who was named to her first All-Star team last season; and Michaela Onyenwere, the 2021 WNBA rookie of the year. “I’m always looking to grow,” Laney said, adding that she’s surrounded by great players.

Joining them is Dolson, who won a championship with the Chicago Sky last year.

Dolson, a 6-foot-5 center entering her ninth season, said she likes to post up – even though people don’t think she does – and that it will be difficult for teams to face off against her and the 6-foot- 2 Howard.

“It’s hard to scout when both post players can kind of do everything,” she said.

Dolson averaged 7.5 points and 3.5 rebounds per game last season, and shot 40.4 percent from 3-point range. Howard averaged 16.2 points and 7.2 rebounds in 13 games last season.

Veterans like Howard and Dolson will be key to Liberty’s success, but so will the younger players, who spoke on Thursday about how they’ve grown and what they still need to improve.

“I was so lost last year,” said DiDi Richards, a second-year guard-forward.

Richards said she was often in her own head while on the court, instead of being vocal, but she is working on changing that as coaches ask her to take on a bigger leadership role. “I’m ready for it,” she said.

Onyenwere spoke confidently about defense – “not really a skill; it’s all effort ”- but also said she wanted to improve on offense after shooting just 32.7 percent from 3-point range last season.

Guard Sami Whitcomb, who went 42.5 percent from 3-point range last year, is the team’s most prolific and best long-range shooter. She came to the Liberty last year after four seasons in Seattle, and she said she was excited about helping the team create a new identity. But, she said, it won’t happen “overnight.”

Some things do happen quickly in sports, though – like going from WNBA prospect to Liberty rookie.

The Liberty traded with the Storm to get the 18th pick in the draft on April 11 and used it to select Lorela Cubaj, a 6-foot-4 forward from Georgia Tech. Four days later, she signed a rookie contract with the team. Three days after that, training camp began.

On Thursday, she said she had developed as a facilitator while at Georgia Tech and hoped to use that skill with the Liberty. “I just want to put my teammates in the best position to score,” she said.

One thing she wants to leave in Georgia: the food. Cubaj, who is from Italy, joked that she would not miss the pizza from Atlanta now that she is in New York.

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