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All In on Five: Betnijah Laney, Sabrina Ionescu have Liberty rolling past expectations

·11 min read
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Each week of the WNBA season, we'll go "All In" on five topics that are worth a closer look and preview what is upcoming.

(Graphic by Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Graphic by Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

OK, New York. We see you. And we send our apologies for the doubt.

The New York Liberty (5-1) are the most surprising story of the young 2021 campaign. They've turned around from a 2-20 demolition of a season to be tied for first place at the two-week mark. The success goes beyond the return of 2020 No. 1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu, but in explaining the team’s best season-opening streak since 2007, the triple-double queen is a good place to start.

Ionescu was named the first Eastern Conference Player of the Week after her historic triple-double and showed again Monday night how she earned it. The former Oregon superstar will do whatever is needed that night for the team, whether it be scoring in droves or dishing out no-look assists or pulling down rebounds. 

And you don’t want to get in a close game against her. She underlined that fact again earlier this week when the Dallas Wings climbed back to within two points. Almost immediately upon re-entry she nailed with a 3-point dagger just under the four-minute mark and scored 10 in the final quarter to finish with 15.

The Liberty, which BetMGM has at +2500 odds to win the title, as a team are barely outscoring their opponents, averaging 83.7 points per game and allowing on average 82.3 (+1.4). Their expected record, per Basketball Reference, at this point in the season is 3-3, and that it's not is creditable to Ionescu’s late-game heroics from game No. 1.

New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) tries to get past Chicago Sky guard Diamond DeShields, left, and center/forward Astou Ndour-Fall (45) during a their game on May 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Eileen T. Meslar)
New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) tries to get past Chicago Sky guard Diamond DeShields, left, and center/forward Astou Ndour-Fall (45) during a their game on May 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Eileen T. Meslar)

In her "super-rookie" season, she's averaging 17.8 points with team-bests in rebounds (6.8) and assists (7.8) per game while shooting 48.6% from 3-point range.

Ionescu is the face of the franchise, the generational star on billboards poised to lift the Liberty back to relevance and into the top echelon of New York basketball again. In the present, though, this is Betnijah Laney’s squad.

Laney, the vocal presence in huddles, is on fire as the reigning Most Improved Player. She has at least 20 points in all six (averaging 22.7 ppg) and ranks fifth in most 20-point games to start a season. The company on that list is the most elite of the elite. Her sixth game pulled her into a tie with Cappie Pondexter (2008). They trail Hall of Famers Cynthia Cooper (nine games, 1999) and Sheryl Swoopes (eight, 2000); Lauren Jackson (eight, 2009), a 2021 Hall of Fame inductee; and Washington Mystics star Elena Delle Donne (seven, 2015).

Time to go even deeper. For a rookie class without the depth of previous and future years, Michaela Onyenwere and Didi Richards are coming up clutch for New York. Onyenwere has started every game and doesn't look like a first-year player. Richards is dangerous any time she gets the call and can change the energy of the game. Her 1.2 steals on average are tied for best on the team despite playing about 10 minutes a game. Of the top 25 players in steals, Richards is one of six to average fewer than 20 minutes. 

The most outsized reason the Liberty are in this position is because they're executing coach Walt Hopkins' game plan. When he came into the role last season, he wanted a group that could rely heavily on the 3-point shot. New York finished last by a long stretch (27.7%) in 2020 despite taking the most attempts of any team (27.4). It was cringey at times to watch. That has flipped to best in the league at 43.7% on a second-most 26.3 attempts, plus incredible ball movement with a third-best 20.5 assists per game. Multiple players becoming a threat from 3 and Ionescu hitting players without looking will have that effect. 

The one downside is the Liberty, despite playing six games in 11 days to kick off the season, had a favorable schedule and lucky breaks. The next few weeks, particularly while three-time WNBA champion and former Defensive Player of the Year center Natasha Howard is out with an MCL sprain, will determine if this team is for real. They'll face some of the best from the west with their talented, veteran bigs; Sun coach Curt Miller called it "murderer's row" ahead of Connecticut's trip there last week. New York will be challenged with three meetings in two weeks against the title-favorite Aces with A'ja Wilson and Liz Cambage.  

Respect. It's all James Wade is looking for 

The players who take the court every night are women. They are not girls. Society is rightfully working to normalize this in everyday conversation.

A male coach is a man. He is not a boy, the term used for a male child. Society is mostly pretty good about this proper definition. When “boys” is used, it’s usually not done to demean. 

Then if we consider what happened to Chicago Sky coach James Wade within that lens, it’s clear the coach was disrespected. This is a man leading a professional basketball team and doing it incredibly well. He’s a former Coach of the Year trying to lead his group through a rough patch of injuries that has also impacted their ability to practice 5-on-5. He was also listed as many writers’ pick for this year’s Coach of the Year.

By position alone, he has earned a level of respect from those in his professional work environment. Telling a player, “hey, explain to your boy” is not it. Wade was not irate on the sideline or throwing a jacket or screaming at officials. He was coaching and advocating for his players.

That basic respect, which he did nothing to lose, is literally all that Wade is asking for.

Chicago Sky head coach James Wade talks with his players in a huddle during their game on May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Daniel Kucin Jr.)
Chicago Sky head coach James Wade talks with his players in a huddle during their game on May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Daniel Kucin Jr.)

“I just want accountability and I want to be respected just like my peers,” Wade told reporters on a Zoom call on Thursday. “I mentioned that to the league and I don’t think that situation would have happened to [Storm coach] Dan Hughes or [Mystics coach] Mike Thibault or any other coaches in the league. It’s just about a respect thing.”

The Sky filed a complaint and the WNBA, which spoke with Wade, opened an investigation but hasn’t said anything publicly. 

There is a racial component to this as the term “boy” has a long history of being used in a derogatory and demeaning manner toward Black men to put them in their place. And Wade said Thursday he had an issue in 2019 he addressed with the referees association regarding an issue that was “a little bit more flagrant than this one.”

Race is a hot-button issue, and the U.S. does need to reckon with its history of discrimination that still exists. But sometimes, the use of "racially derogatory" draws all the attention when it’s more about a basic level of respect that sometimes feels largely absent in the world today. It’d be nice to simply get that back.

“I don’t know if it derived from anything racial or anything. I don’t know that. I don’t know that to be true,” Wade said. “I just know it was disrespectful, and it has no place in our league. Now, what I want from it. I never want anyone to not be given a second chance and I don’t want to take someone’s livelihood away from them, whether it’s a mistake or not. I feel like everyone deserves a chance to redeem themselves.

“It has to be respect across the board, and that’s just a matter of it. And the reference I didn’t appreciate and I just think it doesn’t happen in other places in the league.”

Officials, players, coaches, team staff, arena employees and media are all working in a professional environment at these games. All should have a basic level of respect for one another in their actions and words. It’s as simple as that. And yes, it goes for fans, too.

Roll call: injured list edition

The official announcement by the Phoenix Mercury came seemingly out of nowhere on Tuesday. Veteran Diana Taurasi is out for at least four weeks with a fractured sternum.

Say what now?

Taurasi took a hard hit or two against the Connecticut Sun late last week, but it turns out she suffered the injury in the first meeting against the Sun on May 16. She played two games before undergoing a CT scan, totaling 30 points on 11-for-21 shooting and five assists in 51 minutes. That’s another GOAT note.

As for the Mercury, Taurasi will miss at least the next nine games — nearly one-third of the season — and could return for the June 26 contest vs. the Los Angeles Sparks. Phoenix has a favorable schedule coming up, but will miss its star as other teams return to full strength. 

That news was followed Tuesday morning by the Liberty announcing Howard’s MCL sprain. The Sparks later announced Jasmine Walker, the seventh overall pick in the 2021 draft, will miss the season with a torn ACL. It’s been a tough start to the season for injuries on top of players returning late from overseas commitments and leaving for Olympic qualifying competitions.

The injury rundown, both preseason and in-season:

  • Diana Taurasi (sternum fracture), Mercury, 4 weeks

  • Natasha Howard (MCL), Liberty, 4-6 weeks

  • Candace Parker (ankle), Sky, played one game

  • Allie Quigley (hamstring), Sky, played one game

  • Elena Delle Donne (back), Mystics

  • Amanda Zahui B (back), Sparks

  • Bria Hartley (ACL), Mercury

  • Rennia Davis (foot stress fracture), Lynx, indefinitely

  • Aerial Powers (hamstring), Lynx, indefinitely

  • Briann January (ankle), Sun

  • Alyssa Thomas (Achilles), Sun, out for season

  • Alysha Clark (Lisfranc, foot), Mystics, out for season

  • Jocelyn Willoughby (Achilles), Liberty, out for season

  • Angel McCoughtry (ACL), Aces, out for season

Most players are back with their WNBA teams, including recent arrivals Napheesa Collier (Lynx) and Awak Kuier (Wings). Wings’ second-year forward Satou Sabally, currently with the German 3v3 team, is expected back with the team on Monday. The Team USA 3v3 Olympic team of Allisha Gray (Wings), Stefanie Dolson (Sky), Katie Lou Samuelson (Storm) and Kelsey Plum (Aces) are all expected back by next week as well.

Put some respeCT on Jonquel Jones' name 

It's tough to stop the Connecticut Sun when center Jonquel Jones does stuff like send a game into overtime with a 3-pointer. Yes, a 3-pointer (around 2:14 below).  

Jones did a little bit of everything against the reigning champion Seattle Storm with 28 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks in a tight overtime loss. She's doing everything that earned her two All-Star nods as well as expanding her game beyond the arc. In overtime, she hit the step-back 3. 

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Jones is shooting 44.8% from deep while taking and making more shots (13-for-29) than prior seasons. That she's hitting them at opportune times certainly helps. 

RELEASE THE TAPES 

A'ja, don't do us like this. 

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The people want this. Chelsea Gray and Dearica Hamby are even on board. A change.org petition would go wild with signatures. Give us something. We haven't seen any Aces fun since the all-time great pass the phone challenge.

Catch up on the week 

What to watch for the weekend

Los Angeles Sparks (0-2) at Chicago Sky (2-2) — Candace Parker's Sky will go up against her old team, likely without her, and Nneka Ogwumike.

When: Friday at 8 p.m. ET on CBSSN; Sunday at 6 p.m. ET on Facebook

Minnesota Lynx (0-3) at Seattle Storm (4-1) — Napheesa Collier will take her first minutes of the season with the Lynx.

When: Friday at 10 p.m. on CBSSNCommissioner's Cup game

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