New York’s progress still runs through its stars — Kelsey Plum speaks — Must-click women’s basketball links
The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, September 1, 2021
Walt Hopkins was as downcast as I’d ever seen him when he entered the postgame media avail with us at Barclays Center Wednesday night.
There were many places to assign blame for what was an ugly 106-79 loss to the Phoenix Mercury, but a primary concern had to be Natasha Howard, who shot just 2-for-14 from the field and provided none of her trademark defensive toughness at the other end.
“She’s just not quite there yet,” Hopkins said of Howard. “She’s cleared. There’s nothing wrong physically, but anybody who’s had an injury, contact injury particularly, I understand that it’s scary getting any contact. And I think that that could be part of it. But it’s very clear that she’s still not right.”
That’s been true for the Liberty as a whole, losing 8 of 9 dating back to July 9’s defeat to Indiana. That’s turned a 10-9 start into a 11-17 record, and even so, New York is hanging onto that eighth spot in the playoff race.
But if we’re evaluating the Jonathan Kolb/Walt Hopkins project in big-picture terms, outlasting the injury-ridden Washington Mystics and offensively-challenged Los Angeles Sparks for a longshot first-round playoff game on the road isn’t really the way to do so. The pair have a championship as the goal, and it is worth remembering that 2021 is significant in how much closer it moves New York to that elusive goal, really, not whether they are 11-17 or 14-14 at the moment.
There are reasons for optimism on that front. Foremost in my mind in DiDi Richards, who was a project drafted with the hope she could become an offensive player, but whose defense alone wasn’t going to be enough to get her regular minutes in the league. Well, she’s shooting 47.4 percent from three, and she’s been a critical part of New York’s rotation.
That’s helped mitigate the loss of Sami Whitcomb, but the veteran guard has upscaled her minutes without losing any of her defensive or offensive versatility. The Liberty bet on Whitcomb and Betnijah Laney as franchise pillars, and the early returns on both suggest they were right to do so.
Ultimately, the 11-17 comes not from development, or system, or team-building at the margins. It’s as simple as this: Howard missed a bunch of time early, and hasn’t been remotely the frontline star New York planned on making her. And Sabrina Ionescu, more disconcertingly, hasn’t been healthy since early this season. I asked Hopkins back before the break about when she can be expected to fully heal from what have been complications with her left ankle this season. There wasn’t a clear answer for that, either, which is not Hopkins’ fault to be clear.
But it does mean that whatever the ceiling is for the Liberty will largely be determined by the health and effectiveness of their best two players. Howard is 22-for-72 from the field (30%) over her past five games, all New York losses. Ionescu, dating back to that Fever loss, is 32-for-93 from the field (34%) in that span, and 12-for-57 from three (21%).
For this reason, it is hard to judge the New York experiment. But at a certain point, it will become worrisome if Ionescu cannot return to her pre-2020 normal when it comes to the health of her ankle, and Howard needs to find her pre-injury self as well. Because no matter how many DiDi Richards’ the front office identifies and the development staff coaches up, the Liberty need their stars to become a power.
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