Freedom reinvents itself

The Liberty aren’t sure what their revamped team’s full identity should be. But they are certain of one aspect. “I want the teams to b...


The Liberty aren’t sure what their revamped team’s full identity should be. But they are certain of one aspect.

“I want the teams to be a bit scared of us when they have to be in attack,” said the striker Natasha Howardwho won the 2019 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year award 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 his first. The team has a new head coach (Sandy Brondello), a new veteran center (Stefanie Dolson) and, according to the players, a new commitment to become a championship contender once the season begins on May 6.

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

The Liberty finished last season with a 12-20 record and qualified for the playoffs as the eighth seed. They lost to fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury in a single elimination match in the first round. The team has struggled with injuries all season: Jocelyn Willoughby tore his Achilles tendon in a preseason scrimmage; Howard missed 15 games with a knee injury; Ionescu has faced a lingering ankle injury.

All three are back and said they feel good.

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

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

“It’s pretty hard to stay patient every day,” Durr said, punctuating the last three words.

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

More dots in the paint. Fewer rotations. Don’t settle for outside shots. Draw more fouls.

“We are trying to develop a strong team,” Brondello said.

At the heart of the team are players like Ionescu; Howard; Betnijah Laney, who was named to her first all-star team last season; and Michaela Onyenwerethe 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 — even if people don’t think she does — and it will be tough for teams to play against. her and the 6-foot-2 Howard.

“It’s hard to spot when the two post players can kind of do it all,” 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 their development and where they still need to improve.

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

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

Onyenwere spoke confidently of defense – “not really a skill; everything is an effort” – but also said she wanted to improve her offense after shooting just 32.7% from 3-point range last season.

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

However, some things happen quickly in sports – like going from WNBA prospect to Liberty rookie.

The Liberty traded with the Storm to get the 18th pick 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 later, training camp began.

On Thursday, she said she developed as a facilitator at Georgia Tech and hopes 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: food. Cubaj, who is from Italy, joked that she wouldn’t miss the Atlanta pizza now that she’s in New York.

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