Will 'Bec and Amanda days' be back in Brooklyn?
Why the Liberty should bet on a foundational friendship in 2021
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This past summer for the first time in five years, Amanda Zahui B. was without the constant in her WNBA career. For the first time in five years, she was wearing seafoam green, grinding it out in practice and jumping up from the bench after a score without her close friend and teammate Rebecca Allen.
2020 was supposed to be the year where both Allen and Zahui B. took not only professional leaps on the court but were put in a position to settle into leadership roles on a team that acquired them both when they were just around 22 years-old.
Just a few years ago, those prospects appeared distant, almost inconceivable. Both Allen and Zahui B. were playing under ten minutes a game three years ago, back when Bill Laimbeer was head coach and James Dolan still owned the Liberty.
The two international players warmed the bench, observed, and learned in their first few years together. Their finesse style of play expanded as Zahui B. developed defensively, learned how to foul less, and unleashed her three-point jump shot. Allen proved that she has the potential to score from anywhere, knows how to use her 6’5” wingspan to her advantage, and is the efficient snipper from long she was touted to be.
But before Allen opted out of the Wubble season, the global pandemic, and even the news that the Liberty were officially moving to Brooklyn and undeniably in rebuild mode, the two teammates were catching their breath after practice in early September 2019, reflecting on their journey together. It wasn’t something they did often or at least considered all that much before they were asked. “Man, this is so deep,” Allen told The Next almost 15 months ago.
During their years digesting and dissecting the game from league veterans and adjusting to life in the New York metro area, both found solace in having someone else to share a similar irresolute WNBA beginning with. From each other, they learned about growth and its harsh realities. They learned about what growth meant for them as people and not only as athletes.
“I think what’s fun for the both of us is we've sort of grown together along with a similar sort of path when it comes to everything in life,” Allen said.
Zahui B. added in response: “Literally, every aspect of life. I feel like we just… everything’s been happening [for us] at the same time…We are just thrown together.”
As the 2021 WNBA season approaches with the draft lottery on Friday night and the free agency period beginning in February, the Liberty have some difficult decisions to make. In what could be their first full year in Brooklyn, New York’s roster construction ought to be intentional. In October, I laid out the potential road map that lies ahead, but what’s missing is the destination. The how is there, but what exactly is the what for 2021? The Bradenton Wubble was all about growth and assessment, so what is 2021 all about?
While determining the Liberty’s goals for 2021 remains a topic for later analysis, here’s what shouldn’t be all that elusive: both Allen and Zahui B. should return in 2021. The evidence lies in their comfort with each other not only off the court but on.
“I don’t need to tell her what I’m thinking”
Walt Hopkins had to amend his five-out motion offense down in Florida mainly in part because he couldn’t start these two together. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t try to do what he initially planned in 2020. But this time around, New York has more information about what works and why. General Manager Jonathan Kolb said in September of this year that he believes the system has been installed. But now’s the chance to implement it with those who can execute its principles with more adroitness.
For Hopkins’ system to work, personnel is obligated to know each other and their tendencies. That was the issue in 2020 for the Liberty: at most five players had played with someone else on the roster before.
In comes Allen, who has a proven track record of performing well alongside Zahui B., and when on the floor, she made the Liberty considerably better during the confusing final year of the Tina Charles era. While Zahui B. experienced an increase in her minutes in 2019, Allen was still functioning as a role player. Also, there was Eurobasket and Allen’s infamous hand accident, so while the sample size isn’t ample, it’s enough.
What sticks out the most is their cumulative net rating from 2019, which was a hair off of zero and was a team-best. New York played better on both ends of the floor with this duo, and not only the eye test, but now the numbers can back this claim.
In 2020, however, Zahui B. was often paired with Kiah Stokes, someone who she’s had experience playing with. While Allen and Zahui B. were mostly garbage time reserves during the Laimbeer years, Stokes played at least 19 minutes per game before clocking in a tad over 27 minutes a game for Walt Hopkins this past summer. After comparing the advanced statistical output from Allen and Zahui B. of 2019 to Stokes and Zahui B. of 2020, I found that the former duo outperformed the latter in all ten statistical categories that I pulled.
The net rating between the two pairs experienced a 2,750 percent decrease, shifting from -0.4 in 2019 for Allen and Zahui B. to -11.4 for Stokes and Zahui B in the following year. Also, from 2019 to 2020, the assist percentage between the two pairs endured a 16.43 percent decrease from Allen and Zahui B. generating a 76.1 assist percentage to Stokes and Zahui B. tallying up a 63.6 assist percentage a year later.
It’s no secret that these two play well with one another, and here’s why. According to Zahui B., Allen doesn’t need any prompting. She knows exactly what her friend is thinking. That’s the Swedish center’s favorite thing about the friendship they’ve built over the past half-decade. It’s almost telepathic. Although Allen wasn’t quick to admit it, shrugging the assumption off a bit, Zahui B. bought the theory, nodding her head up and down with her signature smile.
Zahui B. : I don’t need to tell her what I’m thinking. That’s my favorite thing. Like she just does…
Allen: Bec and Amanda Days.
Zahui B.: Oh we have a B.A.D.
A B.A.D. is an ironic acronym. On the surface, it represents something of poor quality or inferiority. But for these two long-time friends and teammates, it’s really quite the opposite. A B.A.D. entails exactly what it sounds like: it’s Allen and Zahui B.’s quality time spent together off the court. If that meant exploring the five boroughs or hanging out at Bloom Cafe on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, B.A.D.s were a form of self-care. Apparently, their telepathic tendencies included knowing each other’s food schedules and cravings.
“I feel like we are giving you answers that like you can’t write down because it’s like we understand,” Zahui B. blurted out in 2019. “We also just communicate like a lot of people don’t understand…”
The telepathic energy, (deny it all you want Bec) is palpable. These Bec and Amanda days do translate to the hardwood. Here’s how.
In the Liberty’s first win of 2019 against the Las Vegas Aces, Allen and Zahui B. made plays and I’m not just talking about scoring. With over four minutes left in the first half, Tanisha Wright dribbled the ball off a Tina Charles screen from the right-wing all the way into the paint. Allen was stationed at the left-wing during the drive, and Zahui B. was right outside the left block. Allen saw the space at the top of the key and just as she motioned her right hand to that open space, Zahui B. cut to her right to position herself in the open space. When Wright got outside of the paint, Zahui B. was beyond the arc without a defender in sight. Once the center caught the ball from Wright, Allen was on the run and cut across the baseline. She hesitated once she moved into the paint and saw Zahui B.’s shot land right above the basket. But once she saw the ball bounce off the rim, she hopped to her right, secured the rebound, and handed the ball over to an open Kia Nurse.
Earlier in that quarter, Allen and Zahui B. collaborated on defense as well. Allen knew exactly where to position herself while Zahui B. was battling for the box out up against Liz Cambage. After an Aj’a Wilson long two that didn’t land, Cambage would have brought down the rebound if it wasn’t for Allen moving off of Jackie Young and helping in the restricted area. The Aussie sharpshooter snatched a second chance opportunity away from Vegas.
In the fourth quarter, however, was when Zahui B. felt Allen’s presence and assisted her teammate. After Bria Hartley’s entry pass to Zahui B., the Swedish center found Allen cutting from the wing back into the paint for an easy layup. It almost looked systematic, done without any thought in the world. A backdoor cut, that sounds familiar, right? A function so important to head coach Hopkins’ style of basketball. When executed correctly, the backdoor cut served as a reliable action that allowed for New York to put points on the board in 2020. And Bec And Zahui B. were doing it a year earlier.
Picking up where they’ve left off
A lot has changed since Allen last wore a Liberty uniform. But, what hasn’t changed is her style of play and how well suited it is to what Liberty basketball will be in years to come. She exudes the main factors and elements of a five-out motion offense. It’s naturally how she moves and plays.
Basic cutting and back cutting, she’s got it. Shooting lots and lots of three balls and making them, is that even a question? Driving in the lane confidently, she’s more than capable. Finding mismatches on the block, posting up, and scoring Joceyln Willoughby style? Well, she made Courtney Vandersloot pay in 2019.
Creating screens to either pick and roll or pick and pop, however, will be something Allen must adjust to if the Liberty do re-sign her. A league source confirmed to The Next that because Allen opted out and didn’t receive a medical exemption, she’ll remain a restricted free agent and can only negotiate with the Liberty. But, something that is also apparent about Allen is her natural ability to read and react to stimuli on the court.
Against the Washington Mystics in September of 2019, Allen and Zahui B. were trying to execute what looked like a dribble handoff. But, Natasha Cloud’s defensive prowess blocked the pathway. So what did Allen do?
She saw what the defense was giving her, and faked Cloud inside, opening up a wad of space between Zahui B.’s defender, Elena Delle Donne and the two other Mystics players hovering outside the right block. Once the handoff was faked, Allen cut immediately into the open space and received Zahui B.’s pass almost on cue. While she didn’t score on her drive following the pass, Allen absorbed contact from Emma Meesseman and was fouled. Bucket or no bucket, this is something very much a part of Liberty basketball in the now and beyond, reading and reacting and attempting a lot of free throws.
Allen will pick up where she left off with the Liberty if she returns, just like how she can go eight months without speaking to Zahui B. and then immediately they reconnect. Interpersonal connections have their own muscle memory too.
They made it clear back at practice in September of 2019 that after the WNBA season, they go months without a word. But then they tag each other in a meme or comment on one of their photos on Instagram to make sure they keep tabs on their whereabouts throughout the rest of the year. In years past, Allen and Zahui B. might facetime and catch up a month before training camp after having spent months with limited communication.
But who knows, is this dynamic duo headed for splitsville come free agency this February? Zahui B. is looking for a “sweet new contract.” The Liberty have the money within their salary cap to resign her as well if they so choose, but depending on the Friday draft lottery and if other free agents are wooed by New York and what the Liberty have to offer, both parties might move on.
But, amid the evidence of their chemistry and success on the floor, why not keep them together for at least one more year. They didn’t get that shot in 2020 and it would be disappointing to never see what Allen and Zahui B. could accomplish on the court together for extended minutes, starters minutes.
Even if a Bec and Amanda day in Brooklyn becomes a distant memory, for Zahui B., the most inspiring part of their friendship is that it exists in the first place. The two came from very different backgrounds, they think differently and sometimes even get into “heated” conversations. But for Zahui B., the most beautiful part of this will always be the unity, the sisterhood.