NEW YORK — Finally, the 2023 WNBA season is here.
The Liberty conquered headlines throughout the winter and early spring months with a historic offseason haul pulled off by general manager Jonathan Kolb.
Sandy Brondello’s squad is coming off a first-round postseason exit after losing, 2-1, to the Chicago Sky. A repeat of last year’s results would be unlikely and a major disappointment.
The roster is littered with talent and kicked off a training camp that consisted of “the best first day in my training career, per assistant coach Olaf Lange.
Surpassing the franchise’s 23-win regular-season record is expected from the WNBA’s newest superteam during the league’s first 40-game season in history. Vegas sportsbooks also expect the Liberty to make a deep postseason run, predicting a collision course against last years champion Las Vegas Aces.
But how do we get to that point and what factors will play important roles for the Liberty in 2023? Take a look here at the New York Daily News’ 2023 Liberty season preview:
Star guard Sabrina Ionescu was already leading the Liberty back to relevancy, getting the team to two consecutive postseason berths. Now, Ionescu has Courtney Vandersloot added to the starting lineup to fortify a dynamic backcourt. Vandersloot will certainly be featured as the primary ball-handler, pushing Ionescu to a combo guard role she thrived in last season alongside Crystal Dangerfield, who will now suit up for the Dallas Wings.
The Liberty can expect tons of scoring in this new starting backcourt, but teammates should expect tons of scoring opportunities themselves. Last year, Vandersloot and Ionescu ranked second and third in assists per game, respectively. Both averaged just over six assists per game. Vandersloot, should she be the primary ball-handler setting up most plays throughout the game, could see an increase in assists per game closer to her 2019 average of 9.1 assists per game — she averaged 10 per game in 2020 but that was the COVID-shortened season in the bubble.
The Liberty ranked ninth in offensive rating last season. That will certainly not be the case this season. Adding Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones will give defenders fits. Stewart can score from anywhere on the court and her play style will help the efficiency of the Liberty offense. For such an unstoppable player, just 9.1% of Stewart’s points last season came from isolation, making her an easy fit to any system. Most of her points last season came from inside the paint, 39.7%, and Vandersloot fixing the team’s previous issue of lacking a pure point guard will ensure that Stewart will continue to get those looks.
The same goes for Jones, who brings a career 51.1% shooting percentage to Brooklyn. Jones’ defensive prowess will create more opportunities for transition offense, allowing the Liberty to improve from its 10th-place ranking in pace last season.
Heightened attention to these Liberty stars could create more opportunities for other players on the roster. All-Star Betnijah Laney is equipped with the offensive ability to be a potential No. 1 scoring option on many WNBA teams. Laney, entering this season fully healthy after just nine games in 2022, is capable of knocking down shots on the perimeter while defenses are busy with her teammates. Laney has shown that she could score on a nightly basis, averaging 17 in 2020 with the Atlanta Dream and 16 with the Liberty in 2021 while starting every game she played in.
The supporting cast help doesn’t end there.
This Liberty team has depth and the coaching staff can get really creative with lineups. Han Xu saw a breakthrough 2022 season, contributing eight points per game in 17 minutes off the bench. At 6-11, Xu has shown willingness to stretch the floor to hit three-pointers and that hasn’t wavered during training camp. She attempted just one three-pointer per game — shooting 44% — last season, but the defense having to respect her range opens up the floor even more.
The spacing would make defending this team a nightmare. The team has the option of playing Xu at the center position with both Stewart and Jones on the floor, dragging opposing bigs out the paint to allow for easier inside scoring for the stars. The gravity being shifted toward the stars could also mean more open looks for Xu.
French guard Marine Johannes hasn’t been with the team yet, as she’s currently with Lyon Asvel Feminin in France and is expected to return this summer. Johannes would come off the bench, serving as a sparkplug for the club.
Johannes provided 10 points per game on 46% shooting last season for the Liberty. She also has a desire to share the ball and push in transition, making her an essential piece once she returns from overseas.
Xu will miss time in June due to the Asia Cup, which runs from June 26 to July 2, according to The Next Hoops’ Jackie Powell. Han will return to the Liberty, like Johannes, once her international duties conclude.
Guard/forward DiDi Richards’ release headlined a Tuesday filled with brutal roster cuts across the WNBA. Her departure was a bit of a surprise since the former Baylor product could guard positions one through four and bring energy for the team. Richards was a fan-favorite while being an integral part of expanding the footprint for the league and the Liberty.
Sika Kone, the 29th overall pick in the 2022 draft, was the more predictable roster cut. Kone impressed during camp and this preseason, scoring a game-high 10 points in the fourth quarter of a loss against the Sun, but lacked experience on a roster with veterans in win-now mode.
Guard Morgan Greene and forward Stephanie Mawuli were also cut by the team on Tuesday.
Again, depth isn’t an issue for the Liberty.
The team has Xu to go along with veteran big Stefan Dolson. Nyara Sabally was held out of Wednesday’s practice but the team believes the forward isn’t dealing with a long-term injury, according to Winsidr’s Myles Ehrlich. Sabally’s return adds to the depth on the roster.
Forward Kayla Thornton, who was acquired from the Wings as part of the Jones deal, provides defensive physicality that enables her to defend four positions. The 6-1 veteran can plug into different positions and bring leadership to a locker room poised for a title run.
Jocelyn Willoughby also entered camp healthy after playing just 11 games last season due to a quad injury. Willoughby, like Thornton, can guard multiple positions. Last year, Brondello labeled the 6-0 25-year-old as one of the team’s best defenders.
Any team that goes through a roster overhaul will have growing pains, but the team having a 1-7 start like last season is most likely out of the equation.
The team will need time to mesh, considering Vandersloot missed time in camp and didn’t play in preseason action due to a concussion. Stewart and Jones eased their way into camp following their arrivals to the Big Apple, but both were able to play in the final preseason game against the Aces.
Laney, Dolson, Willoughby and the rest of the crew will be adjusting into new roles for Brondello’s club. The team won’t have to wait long for an early-season test with the season-opener Friday against the defensive-minded Washington Mystics on the road.
The Liberty are equipped to end the year with over 30 wins in the league’s first 40-game season. The early odds are justified, with sportsbooks giving Brooklyn’s newest superteam the second-best odds — behind the Aces — to win the title.
The Liberty will have 14 games under its belt before taking on A’ja Wilson and the Aces in June, giving the squad some time to work out some of those growing pains.
By then, we should know how good this new team is.
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