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.

The value of centers in the WNBA

Only one center was drafted in the first round in the 2020 WNBA draft, Ruthy Hebard to the Chicago Sky at 8. Tina Charles was traded for less than one would think given her resume. These raise a question of what is the value of a center in the WNBA?

Inspiration for this post came from Kevin Pelton from ESPN who wrote about centers in the context of the NBA ahead of the 2018 draft. I was curious if this held up in the WNBA, and it looks like it does.

One can look at how productive centers were using win shares, a stat from Basketball Reference meant to sum up how many wins a player contributed to their team’s total. To get a sense for the value of different positions, I averaged the win shares of the 12 starters at the five positions in the WNBA for the 2019 season. This is an imperfect method, but works as a quick check.

PG: average win share: 2.1

SG: average win share: 2.2

SF: average win share: 2.0

PF: average win share: 2.5

C: average win share: 3.7

Centers are over represented in the most win shares in the league, and this is true up and down the league. What this shows is that production is easier to find at the center position, and thus is more replaceable.

The gap between Jonquel Jones, who led the league in win shares for center with 5.6 and Mercedes Russell, 8th in WS for centers at 3.1 WS, is not large. Compare that with Napheesa Collier at 5.2 and the 8th best small forward, Jackie Young at 1.3 WS. 1.4 is the lowest WS for a center in the WNBA, from Amanda Zahui B, whereas other positions the lowest point ranged from -.1 to .5.

Centers producing high WS across the league extends to backups as well, with Chiney Ogwumike posting a 3 WS, Natalie Achonwa posting a 2.7 WS and Tiana Hawkins a 2.7 WS.

Single stat summations of basketball players do have their limitations. Good defenders who don’t rack up steals and blocks tend to rank lower than their actual value on the court. For instance, I would value Latoya Sanders higher than Mercedes Russell, though their win shares are pretty similar. But for broad purposes, I thought this was illustrative of how teams should be, and in quite a few cases are, looking to build.

This also shows that if anything just looking at a stat like win shares understates Elene Delle Donne’s dominance last year. While her 7.7 WS was the highest by a decent margin in the WNBA regardless of position, when you consider that she was able to play at both small and power forward, both positions that it is hard to find productive players at, her importance really stands out compared to her competition, 3 centers who all performed similarly.

While it matters to have a center, over investing in the position is a mistake, given productive centers can be found outside of the top of the draft and in free agency, where many of the best players at other positions are taken.

Two main changes in the WNBA have caused this. The rise of the 3 point shot has placed a premium on shooting and spacing the floor, while also opening up the floor for a wide variety of centers to post good numbers. Also, changes in rules and strategy for defense has made it much harder for post players to be efficient enough to justify running post ups.

An exception to not paying the max to a center is the very best who can have an offense run through them, like Liz Cambage and Brittney Griner. Even then, it’s no accident both lost to Breanna Stewart and Elene Delle Donne in back to back years in the playoffs.

The replaceability of centers can be seen in the past 3 drafts, in both how teams are drafting and the outcomes of the centers that were drafted in the first round. 

For 2020 only 1 center was picked in the first round, Ruthy Hebard at 8. And Ruthy may end up playing the 4 some of the time for the Sky, at least defensively, next to Stefanie Dolson. Otherwise, teams went elsewhere, drafting wing players in particular that surprised draft observers. 

The 2019 draft featured 3 true centers in the first round, but only Teaira McCown is guaranteed a spot in the 2020 season. Kalani Brown will probably make the Atlanta Dream roster, but Kristin Anigwe is going to have competition in Dallas. Both are also already on their second teams. Players who bounce around can later on thrive, but often it is not a great sign when a player is traded within a year of being drafted.  

The 2018 draft had Azura Stevens drafted 6th. She is also on her second team. She is also not a true center, as she can play power forward, given she is fairly mobile for a 6’6″ player and can shoot the 3. The final two picks of the first round were both centers, Maria Vedeeva and Marie Gulich. Vedeeva in particular was a good pick. Even there one can see that center is replaceable as she was often stuck behind both Ogwumike sisters, or awkwardly playing with one of them in a front court that could not stretch the floor.

Kalani Brown was also on the Sparks, but then traded for Gulich, cause apparently the Sparks can not have enough centers. Chiney does play a lot of power forward, but how effective I think that is will have to wait for my Sparks preview. Put me down as skeptical for now.

In contrast to the Sparks, the New York Liberty appear to be taking this logic and running with it. They invested first round picks in guards and wings, and are only carrying two centers, one a second round pick from the 2020 draft. The Liberty are the most interesting team for the next few seasons for me for this reason, even beyond Sabrina Ionescue, who of course I am dying to actually see play WNBA basketball. Look for my preview of them coming this Tuesday.