For the New York Liberty, a roster with six rookies means 'more opportunity'

While international sophomores Han Xu and Marine Johannès will stay at home in 2020, GM Jonathan Kolb says they are still very much part of the organization's future

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In a preseason game against the Sun in 2019, Han Xu looks to pass. (Photo Credit: Chris Poss)

For the WNBA and its players, uncertainty has been the name of the game since the conclusion of its April 17 draft.

When will training camp start? Which city or cities could host a fan-less season? Will a season actually be played before summer and fall’s end?

But for the New York Liberty, in a sea of uncertainty, what is definite is their commitment to their youth movement. Has any WNBA roster been half-stocked with first-year players before? Six rookies appearing in a game is nothing short of historic and is the result of a franchise reset.

This youth movement won’t move forward into 2021 and beyond without Marine Johannès and Han Xu. While the Internet remains glum imagining a 2020 season without “the walking highlight,” Liberty General Manager Jonathan Kolb reassures fans that both Johannès and Han are significant pieces for the franchise’s future. He acknowledged that signing MJ to a two-year-deal was no mistake and rather purposeful. With Han, Kolb expressed his and the staff’s commitment to her development.

“We're very excited to have her work with Walt [Hopkins] and our development staff to get her game where we think it can go,” Kolb told The Next in a phone interview.

It’s not ideal, of course. Kolb is disappointed about the French guard. He mentioned that a bunch of logistical uncertainties contributed to her “painstaking decision.” The precariousness of the 2020 WNBA season includes the lack of a known location and whether or not players will have access to widespread testing. The Liberty didn’t have any concrete answers to thwart her apprehension.

“This was a really hard decision for her, and I need to emphasize that she struggled with this,” Kolb said. “And at the end of the day, she really needed to look at her health.”

And those elongated European flights.

Marine Johannès drives with the ball looking for an opening. (Photo Credit: Chris Poss)

For Han, virtual training camp on Zoom was exciting for all involved. According to Kolb, one of the best parts of keeping in touch with Han during the offseason into virtual training camp was talking to her and noticing how well she could communicate in English.

“Her English has improved so much and we were really excited for her to be here,” he said. “She had a call with Walt at one point going over some offensive-defensive schemes and, and she just was really grasping the material and really understanding it.”

She’ll play in 2020 — just not in the United States. An exhibition game for some CBA and WCBA players in Beijing points toward play resuming soon for both the men’s and women’s basketball leagues in China. Both Chinese leagues aim to complete their seasons that were suspended in early February. Kolb thought that the WCBA might have canceled the rest of their 2019-2020 season, allowing for Han to play in the US this year, but “she’s obligated to remain over there.”

Expectations for the rookies

The absence of Johannès’ jaw-dropping drives and Han’s overwhelming presence creates more opportunities for the five other rookies not named Sabrina.

“In terms of how this can be a benefit, it's going to mean more court time for players that would have, otherwise, not necessarily seen that,” Kolb said. “It's going to allow some people to rise to the top and it's going to be just more opportunity at the end of the day… and we're really focused on these 12 and really getting them to the to be the best players that they can be so that we can collectively be the best we can be.”

Whether or not it’s by design, the Liberty have a group of twelve who can be divided into six groups of two. For each rookie there lies a slightly older mentor with a similar skill set. It’s been written in the stars that Layshia Clarendon would uphold the mantel to mentor Ionescu, but how do all the others match up? I’ll explain pick by pick.

  • Megan Walker: She’s set to follow a similar trajectory of fellow UCONN alumna Kia Nurse. Walker might be the most versatile option the Liberty drafted, with the potential to play at the two, three and at moments, the four. Her three-ball set her apart in college, but Kolb said that in the “New Era” system, her offensive game will expand.  That could entail more driving with the intent of getting to the line. Sound familiar? “I think that's very similar to what we saw with Kia Nurse once she left UCONN.”

  • Jazmine Jones: A more defensively minded guard with Asia Durr’s speed on transition and attacking the rim, although, she might challenge Amanda Zahui B. as the reining motivator-in-chief. Jonathan Kolb described Jones as someone whose enthusiasm is “intangible.” He noted that she’s the most well-suited person to have on a roster in a situation where most likely fans won’t be present. “Jazz is the type of player that's really going to pump up her teammates, both with her play, and even from the bench.”

  • Kylee Shook: Amanda Zahui B. squared or another “3-and-D.” Described as someone who’s eager to step on the court, Kylee Shook knew her role at Louisville. But similar to Ionescu, who realized that she saw similarities from her days at Oregon in the Hopkins playbook, the same goes with the third former Lousiville Cardinal on the roster. She’ll get to pick-and-pop a whole lot when she sees the floor. But as our own Ben Dull noted in his newsletter Floor Game, Shook’s edge might not be her range or ability to rim protect— both are which skills that Zahui B. excels in — but rather her nifty footwork when she’s guarding on a drive, dribble or when her team switched screens.

  • Jocelyn Willoughby: The Skillset and Humanity of Rebecca Allen. Walt Hopkins has made it clear that Allen and Willoughby can and will play the four. Both can also rotate to the three if needed. While they are long, they both use their length differently. For Allen, she isn’t intimidated on a defensive mismatch. Who remembers her block on Stefanie Dolson against Chicago last August? While Kolb says that Willoughby will be an “interface defender,” her length was best used at Virginia at getting to the free-throw line, which breeds “offensive efficiency.” Kolb referred to her as someone so uses angles wisely and is “well thought out” on and off the court. While she’s someone who plows aggressively through the lane, ould co-pilot an offense run by Ionescu or Clarendon, Willoughby has been described with an “easygoing, genuine and kind personality.”

  • Leaonna “Nay” Odom: Has the athleticism to impact the defense and rim protect akin to Kiah Stokes. When scouting and recruiting Nay Odom, Assistant Coach Shelley Patterson compared her to reigning defensive player of the year Natasha Howard, who both Patterson and Hopkins coached in Minnesota. Kolb is hyped by Odom’s athleticism and how it will pair with her developing basketball skills.

When you watch Nay play, you can’t help but notice the athleticism, it's just something different. It's like when you watch a Diamond Deshields, I'm not talking about skillsets, I'm talking about athleticism. Where you watched a young Angel McCoughtry.  Those players’ athleticism really just jumped off the screen. And it's the same thing here with Nay, so we're going to try to harness athleticism, whether it's defensively at first, sure that's fine for us. That's great, but I think she's going to excite fans on a nightly basis. Something to get ready for. 

And he isn’t exaggerating her defense. In Duke’s January 9 matchup against Jocelyn Willoughby’s UVA, Odom nailed a monster block on a driving Willoughby.

But, the Virginia alumna doesn’t mind. She’s actually looking forward to playing alongside rather than against all of her former ACC rivals.

So far, all six rookies have met the criteria that Kolb, Hopkins and his staff have established. They’ve been engaged and focused during team and position-specific video calls.

He even sees bonds forming, virtually. The rookies have also sought out comfort in the newest additions to the coaching staff — former WNBA Champion Kelly Raimon and league newcomer Dustin Gray. Raimon has provided a player’s perspective, communicating with a relatability, expressing what worked and what didn’t work for her when she was in the league. Gray has been vital in reinforcing the system.

“The players have seemed to really gravitate towards him, which sounds funny when it's virtual, but they really have,” Kolb said. “He's somebody that they really pick his brain on questions on the offense, on the defensive schemes.”

What the New York GM notices about his extensive 2020 rookie class is how well their skillsets complement each other. They each bring a different piece to the puzzle, and in his words “don’t overlap.”

“I think you can understand why we did keep six rookies on this roster,” he said. “All of these players fit mightily into our plan, and so we want to see what we have. And we're really excited to have that opportunity if the season’s announced.”

Amanda Zahui B. and Bec Allen fight for a rebound. (Photo Credit: Chris Poss)

Adversity continues for an international roster

While coordinating travel from China and France no longer remains an issue, the case isn’t closed on logistics for international players. Kia Nurse, Amanda Zahui B. and Bec Allen all remain as players who may need further assistance to get into the United States if there is a season.

As of May 28, Sweden had 639 new coronavirus cases, Canada contracted under 1,000 new cases and Australia only recorded 11 total new cases. While travel is currently restricted in all three countries, Kolb noted that a wavier would have to be acquired. But another issue that remains is the Visa status of each player intending to come and play from abroad. Players whose Visas have expired ought to make appointments with their embassies. In any typical circumstance, there wouldn’t be an issue, but COVID-19 has stopped embassies from providing appointments.

While the WNBA works with international employees associated with the NBA on securing appointments, embassies won’t budge because a simple question can’t be answered: when is the WNBA season? Right now, we don’t know.

Kolb referred to the situation as a prolonged “waiting game” until a plan for a season is revealed. So how does the New York Liberty organization quell the anxieties of those players who plan on making the trip? According to Kolb, it’s all about “constant communication.”

“I think the biggest thing is a trust factor and it's just letting them know that we're not going to put them in any situation that we wouldn’t to put ourselves in,” he said.

Creating a family atmosphere

Layshia Clarendon dribbles the ball away from her defender. (Photo Credit: Chris Poss)

I asked Kolb to reflect on Reshanda Gray’s time in New York, and he referred to her as a “bright light” during what was an uncertain time for the Liberty.

Even with her status on the roster initially uncertain and then eventually determined, Gray gave her passion and brightness to even creating comfort within a virtual locker room. Both Sabrina Ionescu and Kylee Shook referred to Gray as someone who made them feel welcomed and included.

“I think that most players that were on that roster last year would speak to that and obviously in her short time with our rookies, they felt that that light as well,” he said.

So who takes her place? His answer: a collective effort. But the two who he cited by name are Zahui B. and Clarendon. From day one of the rebuild, the goal of the front office was to create a familial environment on the New York Liberty.

“What we're trying to accomplish when we built this roster isn't just to put skill sets together,” Kolb said. “Obviously, that's a major part of it but it's also personalities together because these players are around each other all of the time. And so it's creating that positive energy that can lift each other up during games, whether you're up or down and just keeping each other motivated and playing for one another.”