Sports

The New York Liberty’s rough start, rookies shine and more from Week 2 of the WNBA season

Expectations for the New York Liberty entering the 2022 WNBA season were fairly high. They had brought in a championship coach in Sandy Brondello. Sabrina Ionescu was finally healthy. Natasha Howard, Betnijah Laney and Sami Whitcomb had returned for a second year, promising some stability, and Stefanie Dolson had also joined during free agency.

New York has now lost its past four games, two of them by at least 27 points. None were more deflating than Tuesday’s 27-point defeat to the Connecticut Sun, in which the Liberty nearly broke WNBA records for turnovers committed in a game (32; the record is 33) and points allowed off turnovers (44; the record is 45).

So, is it time to worry about the New York Liberty?

They’re the only team in the league in the bottom two in both offensive and defensive efficiency — their net rating (-17.8) is nearly double that of the next worst team’s, the Minnesota Lynx (-9.3) — as well as rebounding percentage (44.3%). Cleaning up the turnovers, establishing offensive flow through more movement, and better decision-making and execution against tough defensive pressure will be critical.

“It’s all of us being better, myself included,” Brondello said, acknowledging that most of New York’s mistakes have been self-inflicted. “It really does start with me.”

The Liberty’s big three — Ionescu, Laney and Howard, all of whom struggled with injuries over the past few seasons — needs to produce more consistently. Can Laney return to her All-Star level of play? Can three-time WNBA champion Howard embrace the stardom that drew her away from the Seattle Storm to New York? Can Ionescu begin to meet the expectations that were placed on her even before she was drafted and establish her offensive stronghold on the league?

Having a full roster wouldn’t hurt, either: Han Xu (non-COVID-19 illness), Jocelyn Willoughby (knee), DiDi Richards (hamstring) were all out Tuesday, while Rebecca Allen just returned from overseas and barely practiced before taking the floor against the Sun. Whitcomb and Dolson will need to pick up more slack in the meantime.

Things can change dramatically in the space of weeks in the WNBA, and the Liberty’s next game isn’t until next week against Minnesota (8:00 p.m. ET Tuesday), giving them time to figure things out. But they have significant ground to make up if they want to improve on last season’s 12-20 finish, make it past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2015 and become relevant again.

Here’s what else to know about the WNBA this week.

Let’s hear it for the rookies

We have been spoiled by this season’s rookie class, which has made an immediate impact in the league and simply been fun to watch.

The Atlanta Dream’s Rhyne Howard has captured most of the headlines with a historic start: Her 19 points Tuesday against the Indiana Fever made her just the seventh player in WNBA history to score 100 points in their first five games, after Seimone Augustus, Cappie Pondexter, Nikki McCray, Ruthie Bolton, Tamika Catchings and A’ja Wilson. She’s shooting a whopping 45.9% on 3s so far, and has committed just six turnovers in 152 minutes of play.

Entering Wednesday, Howard led the WNBA in Kevin Pelton’s Wins Above Replacement Player per game metric (.297). As Jon Bird of Winsidr astutely pointed out, Howard could become the first No. 1 overall pick to win Rookie of the Year since Wilson in 2018.

Indiana’s NaLyssa Smith, currently out injured, is one of three players averaging a double-double, while Shakira Austin has given the Washington Mystics the frontcourt depth they needed, including 20 points off the bench Tuesday in the win over the Dallas Wings.

But what stands out most about this 2022 draft class is its relative depth. While just two 2021 draftees averaged over 15 minutes of play last year (not counting Bernadett Hatar, who played only seven games), eight from the class of 2022 are averaging that number so far this year, with Smith and Howard averaging over 30.

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Diana Taurasi squares up with Mercury teammate Skylar Diggins-Smith on the bench during their game against the Aces.

Phoenix gets heated

The Phoenix Mercury have had a rocky start to 2022, too. Franchise stalwart Brittney Griner remains detained in Russia, and her presence has been missed on the court: The Mercury are 2-2, with both their wins coming against a depleted Seattle Storm squad, and both their losses to the Las Vegas Aces.

Phoenix is missing both Griner and Kia Nurse (ACL) on the defensive end, and has earned the third-worst defensive rating in the league. It actually looked like Vanessa Nygaard’s squad was getting somewhere Tuesday when it went up 12 in the first half against Vegas — until it got outscored 30-12 in the third quarter.

Most talked about from Tuesday’s game, however, was the heated exchange that TV cameras caught between Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith on the bench. Nygaard chalked it up to both players being passionate in the heat of the moment, adding “our team has even more going on with the [Brittney Griner] situation, too.” Competitive figures will butt heads, including behind closed doors. Whether it’s just that, or a sign of disarray in Phoenix, is certainly something to monitor.

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The Lynx spoil the Sparks’ home opener after Kayla McBride’s and-1 bucket.

The overseas grind

On the heels of winning the Turkish Women’s Super Basketball league title with Fenerbahçe, Kayla McBride landed in L.A. on Monday afternoon and played 38 minutes for the Lynx on Tuesday. She notched a game-high 24 points, and, crucially, converted the winning layup with 2.1 seconds to play against the Los Angeles Sparks.

McBride is part of the influx of WNBA players who have arrived in the States over the past few days after competing overseas. Some immediately suited up for their teams, while others have opted to take some time to rest before stepping on the court. Those players shouldn’t be faulted for taking a breather, either. As much as what McBride did is a testament to her competitive spirit and will to help her team win, is it actually good to normalize playing following such a quick turnaround (including substantial jet lag)? The debate might just end here, with prioritization kicking in next season and penalizing WNBA players for reporting late to their teams.

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Ezi Magbegor hauls in a no-look dime from Sue Bird and lays it in to extend the Storm’s lead in the second quarter.

Looking ahead

As fabulous as the Dream’s 4-1 start has been, their wins came against teams with .500 or worse records, and their sole loss was a 96-73 beatdown at the hands of the Aces. Will they fare better against a top-tier Mystics team (7:30 p.m. ET Friday)? Atlanta doesn’t need to be an upper-echelon team to demonstrate the franchise has turned a corner — making the playoffs, which they’ve done just once in the previous five seasons, and not since 2018, will do that. The return of Tiffany Hayes should help.

The sole remaining winless team in the league finally shed that distinction this week, when Minnesota defeated Los Angeles, and it will look to build a winning streak with victories at Las Vegas (10:00 p.m. ET Thursday) and at Dallas (8:00 p.m. ET Saturday). Even amid Minnesota tumultuous start to the season, it’s important to remember that Cheryl Reeve has turned this around before — the Lynx started last season 0-4 before finishing 22-10 and earning the No. 3 seed in the playoffs.

The Storm have a chance at finding their footing now that their team is mostly whole again (Epiphanny Prince and Breanna Stewart returned Wednesday from absences due to COVID-19), with a meeting against the Sparks (10:00 p.m. ET Friday) before a weeklong break. The Storm’s win against the Chicago Sky behind the heroics of Ezi Magbegor (21 points, six rebounds, four assists) showcased how dangerous their depth can be outside of their big three of Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird — and a storyline to watch all season.

Fantasy picks

Who to start: A host of players have returned or will return shortly from overseas commitments, including potential fantasy picks Tiffany Hayes (Atlanta), Bria Hartley (Indiana), Satou Sabally (Dallas), Kahleah Copper (Chicago) and DeWanna Bonner (Connecticut).

Who to bench: New York’s Jocelyn Willoughby and DiDi Richards could be out for a few weeks because of injuries. Rookie Rae Burrell (Los Angeles) is also sidelined by a knee injury. Monique Billings (Atlanta) is out due to health and safety protocols. Raina Perez (Seattle), Katie Benzan (Washington), Yvonne Turner (Minnesota) and Kaela Davis (Seattle) meanwhile were all released from hardship contracts this week.



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