2020 WNBA Season Preview: New York Liberty

New York Liberty is the next team up in my preview of the 2020 WNBA season, assuming it happens in some fashion. No team in the WNBA has gone through as radical a reshaping (link trade grades for Tina Charles) of their roster as the New York Liberty. With multiple draft picks in the 2020 first round and the first half of the second round, this is going to be the team to watch for the next few years as they play out their vision of the changing dynamics of the WNBA. Lots of wings, few bigs.

Last year’s Liberty team struggled on both defense and offense, but especially defense, ranking last in defensive efficiency per wnba.com. This year’s team may not be much better on defense, but they will hopefully not rank third from the bottom in offensive efficiency. Sabrina Ionescue + a bunch of shooters are promising, even given their youth.

Roster Breakdown

Notable additions:

Layshia Clarendon

Key losses:

Tina Charles, Brittany Boyd, Bria Hartley, Tanisha Wright. 

Draft picks:

1st round: Sabrina Ionescue, Megan Walker, Jazmine Jones, Jocelyn Willoughby (via trade)

2nd round: Kylee Shook, Leonna Odom. 

Projected depth chart: 

Guards: Sabrina Ionescue, Layshia Clarendon, Aysia Durr, Marine Johannes.

Wings: Kia Nurse, Megan Walker, Jazmine Jones, Rebecca Allen, Jocelyn Willoughby.

Bigs: Amanda Zahui B, Kylee Shook, Han Xu, Kiah Stokes

There are 13 players listed here. The max a team can have in the WNBA is 12, so something will have to give. If a 2020 season happens, it is likely that at least some of the international players on the roster will not come. So as long as one of Zahui B, Johannes, Han Xu, Allen does not play this year, that makes things easier. Though it will be interesting to see where the team goes next year. Kiah Stokes has a nonguaranteed contract, so could an option to be cut.

As Gabe Ibrahim points out, second round picks are going to struggle to make rosters this year, nevermind third round picks, so Odom will have to really impress or hope quite a few international players don’t make it over.

Playing time breakdown:

This team has their point guard and center down. Sabrina Ionescue should start from day one. Rookie point guard is the hardest position to learn in the WNBA, so Ionescue may struggle at the start, but she is the long term bet and will get all the playing time she could want. 

While it is unclear to me why Clarendon still plays with Team USA given other options, she is a solid backup who was hurt by an ankle injury last year and likely would have played more without them. I am excited to see if the Liberty use Ionescue off ball at all, given her shooting. Her running off screens and bending defenses will add variety to her excellent on ball skills. I’m as excited to watch Ionescue as I have ever been for a basketball player. 

For center, Amanda Zahui B was the second best player on the team last year after Kia Nurse. While the Liberty should be careful to not overpay Zahui B after this year and hamstring their flexibility going forward, she is a good player, especially given her ability to shoot from deep. Backup center is going to be interesting. If the team keeps Kiah Stokes, she is the most reliable. Kylee Shook provides a stretch factor, but may struggle against bigger opponents, and defense as a big is hard for most rookies.

Han Xu will hopefully get more playing time at center. She showed flashes last year in limited minutes. At only 20 years old, she is a 6’9” center who has a pretty looking shot from 3. Should continue to get stronger and improve her mobility on defense. It will be interesting to see what kind of appetite the Liberty have for a long term project. But given the importance of growing the Chinese market to the WNBA and the Liberty, and Hu’s own real basketball skills, bet on her staying on the team.

Kia Nurse is a guaranteed starter. What will be interesting is whether she plays the three, as she did much of last year, or if she is slid down to the 2 to make way for one of the many wings the Liberty drafted. If Nurse stays at the 3, Marine Johannes would make sense based on production for the 2, but Asia Durr for the future, as the Liberty’s #2 pick from last year. Might see some combo Clarendon + Ionescue lineups as well.

The Liberty appear to be all in on switchable wings for the three and the four. Kia Nurse may play the 3, but if not her, then pick 2 of the Megan Walker, Rebecca Allen, Jocelyn Willoughby, and Jazmine Jones grouping to play the 3 and 4. Allen and Walker together provides a ton of shooting, but will they be able to handle playing defense against bigger players. Who of this group is the least overmatched against A’Ja Wilson will be a key task for Johnathan Kolb to figure out.

Kylee Shook has the size and possibly the shooting. I’m less familiar with her game, good piece on her here by Ben Dull. She would be an interesting option at the four.

Takeaway:

Offense, offense, offense. Offense will be the reason to watch this team. . It is hard to play so many young players and have a competent defense, so the playoffs are unlikely. But the offense should be fun. This will be my #1 League Pass team should the season come to pass.