The start of the WNBA season, like everything else in the world right now, is up in the air. Even so, we expect the season to begin at some point and when it does, we will be ready. Before coronavirus dominated the news, the WNBA experienced its most exciting offseason ever. Nine former All-Stars changed teams, and all of the contenders made significant moves in an arms race that rivaled the NBA’s 2019 offseason. Since we’re all socially distancing anyway, now seems like a perfect time to continue our look at what each team did this offseason and how they are looking for 2020.
- Signed Layshia Clarendon to a two-year deal for $120,000 per year.
- Re-signed Marine Johannes to a two-year deal.
- Extended qualifying offers to Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe and Reshanda Gray.
It’s interesting that the two teams who have consistently been the worst in the WNBA the last couple of seasons are the teams who have done the least in the offseason to this point. Unlike Indiana, New York can at least hang its hat on getting the best women’s college basketball player possibly ever in Sabrina Ionescu with the first overall pick.
Knowing that Ionescu will eventually be in the fold makes the signing of Layshia Clarendon at least a little bit perplexing. In addition to Ionescu, the Liberty already have Asia Durr and Marine Johannes to handle the ball. Clarendon is a terrible three-point shooter who is most useful as a ball-handler and distributor, but any time she has the ball in her hands will be one fewer chance to develop a young guard for the future.
Clarendon’s greatest value to this team may be as a veteran leader. On the one hand, $120,000 per year is a lot to pay someone for leadership when they shouldn’t really be playing more than 15 minutes per game. On the other hand, her signing looks completely reasonable when compared with the contracts that went to Kahleah Copper, Bria Hartley and Tiffany Mitchell.
Those players are younger and theoretically have upside, but at least we have seen Clarendon play at an elite level once before. Clarendon was an All-Star in 2017 when she averaged 10.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 0.9 steals. That season is increasingly looking like an aberration, and if the Liberty are hoping to get similar production, this really was a poor signing. Clarendon is a career 40.6 percent shooter from the field and 27.7 percent shooter on threes. 2017 was the only season she averaged more than 3.5 assists, and it was only the second time she has averaged more than 6.7 points or 2.7 rebounds.
New York’s offseason is really incomplete until we see what happens with Tina Charles. Phoenix was reportedly close to acquiring Charles early on, and if you are reading the tea leaves, it appears the Liberty will trade her at some point, likely during the draft. If that is the case, this team will obviously be in full rebuild mode, and Clarendon could end up the only veteran on this team.
The Liberty will select Sabrina Ionescu with the first overall pick. There was some speculation early in the offseason New York would select someone else or trade that pick, but those options are nearly inconceivable. The Liberty also have the first pick in the second round, but it doesn’t appear there is room for that pick on their roster. The Liberty extended a qualifying offer to Reshanda Gray, and if they sign her, that would take up their last roster spot.
Projected Starting 5:
PG Sabrina Ionescu
SG Asia Durr
SF Kia Nurse
PF Tina Charles
C Amanda Zahui B
For our purposes, we’re going to assume Tina Charles is still on this team. If/when she is traded, we will reassess the Liberty at that time. If she is here, Charles is obviously a starter, likely at the four. I didn’t think the Liberty under Katie Smith played Charles at the five as often as they should have, though there is some indication Charles prefers to play with another big, and if that is the case, she will probably continue to start at the four wherever she ends up.
Amanda Zahui B started 23 of the 24 games she played last season, and while she is probably a bench player on a playoff team, she was ninth in the WNBA in blocks per game and second on the Liberty in rebounds per game. She is a solid presence inside, and she can also space the floor a little bit. Zahui B has shot better than 30 percent on threes with more than two attempts per game in each of the last two seasons.
Kia Nurse was the only player to start every game for the Liberty last season, and that will almost certainly be the case again in 2020 so long as she is healthy. Nurse was probably asked to do a bit too much last season due to the lack of talent around her, but she should fit in perfectly next to Sabrina Ionescu.
The only question mark in the starting five is who will start in the backcourt next to Ionescu and Nurse. Asia Durr started 15 of the 18 games she played as a rookie, but she lost minutes and her starting job down the stretch before suffering a season-ending groin injury. Durr, the second overall pick in 2019, probably should start, and it could help her case that the coach who benched her is no longer with the team.
If Durr doesn’t start, both Layshia Clarendon and Marine Johannes could fill that spot. Clarendon was a starter for much of her time in Atlanta, while Johannes turned a lot of heads filling in for Durr after she went down at the end of last season. Johannes averaged 11.0 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 25.3 minutes playing for Lyon Asvel Feminin in France, and she is certainly the best three-point shooter of this group. While that would make her a good fit playing with the starters, her ability to create shots for herself and teammates could see her leading bench units. My guess is Johannes will begin the season coming off the bench, but if Asia Durr struggles, Johannes could take her spot.
The least inspiring option to start would be Brittany Boyd, who started 17 of 33 games played last season. Boyd is a pretty good athlete and has had a low usage the last couple of seasons, but she has given no indication she is anything more than a bench player in this league. Starting her would be a mistake when there are younger options with higher upside.
This is a young team with a lot of promise but also a lot of questions. On the plus side, they may have the best rookie since Breanna Stewart in 2016. With Sabrina Ionescu and Kia Nurse, the Liberty should have the best young backcourt in the league outside of the Seattle Storm. They have shooters in Rebecca Allen and Marine Johannes and solid backup bigs in Amanda Zahui B and Reshanda Gray. The problem is, that’s basically all they have.
If the Liberty keep Tina Charles they could make a push for a playoff spot, but even then, their most likely result is another trip to the lottery. The Liberty have never had a good frontcourt partner for Charles, and that would have to change if they are going to be a playoff team.
Charles is a free agent after the 2020 season, and if she wants to go, and you’re going to be a lottery team anyway, you may as well trade her. The Liberty would probably need to get at least one young big out of the trade, either in the form of a young player or draft pick.
It’s hard to find a trade partner that fits. It’s obvious why Phoenix was trying to trade for Charles, but is the 10th overall pick and some combination of Sophie Cunningham, Alanna Smith and Brianna Turner enough to get it done? Minnesota can offer a better draft pick, but they really can only offer Jessica Shepard in terms of young players. They could possibly add Cecilia Zandalasini, but I think they need her in the backcourt if they’re going to contend.
The contender that needs Tina Charles the most is probably Seattle, but the best they can offer is the 11th overall pick and Mercedes Russell, and it is unclear if they would even be willing to include Russell in a trade.
Dallas has by far the most to offer, with four first-round picks as well as interesting young players like Katie Lou Samuelson and Megan Gustafson. If Dallas would be willing to part with the second and fifth picks in the draft, the Liberty could conceivably reunite Sabrina Ionescu with her Oregon teammates Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard. I just don’t know if Tina Charles would improve Dallas enough to make them cash in so many of their future chips right now. One reason Dallas might be willing to do it is that they have so many draft picks and young players already on their roster that they have to make a trade or lose a significant number of them. Perhaps they view one year of Tina Charles as better than cutting those players with nothing to show for it.
It is also interesting to consider what, if anything, the Liberty would be willing to send out with Tina Charles as part of a trade. Do they like Marine Johannes enough to be willing to part with Asia Durr or vice versa? I would assume Amanda Zahui B is available, though I don’t think any of the contenders need another backup big. This team’s final roster is as unsettled as any in the league outside of possibly Dallas, but like Dallas, the Liberty seem destined for the lottery almost no matter what they do.
The Liberty have 50/1 championship odds, ahead of only the Dream and Wings. I think those odds are overestimating the impact Sabrina Ionescu will have as a rookie and the likelihood Tina Charles stays in New York. It’s not hard to imagine that Ionescu, Asia Durr and Kia Nurse could be a championship backcourt in a few years, but Durr especially would have to take a big step forward for that to happen. There is no way I would bet the Liberty at 50/1 when I could get the Lynx at 40/1.
The first thing everyone is going to want to know when the season starts is what Sabrina Ionescu’s DFS price will be. Of course, if the price is reasonable, everyone will want to play her, and for good reason. If she starts out a bit pricy, she may be a GPP play only, just because we don’t know if she’ll have an adjustment period as a rookie. It is worth noting that even Arike Ogunbowale took a little while to get going, averaging 9.2 ppg over her first six games before she topped 20 points in a game for the first time. I don’t especially expect Sabrina Ionescu to start slow herself, but it is in the range of possible outcomes.
Whoever starts in the backcourt next to Ionescu and Nurse will probably be underpriced for fantasy, though there might be a limited ceiling in that role. I’d prefer it for fantasy if Asia Durr or Marine Johannes got to start and play the most minutes, but that may be too much to hope for.
Kia Nurse almost certainly has the most upside of the returning players. She was named WNBL MVP this season and between the natural improvement of her game and the addition of Ionescu to help shoulder the load, there is an excellent chance Kia Nurse improves on her 21.0 fppg from last season.
People have been calling for a Rebecca Allen breakout for years, and while I’m not sure I see it, stranger things have happened. She is one of the better three-point shooters in the league, and she is interesting for fantasy if she can stay on the floor. Allen averaged 0.83 fantasy points per minute last season, but she averaged just 17.2 minutes per game. She could help step into the void if Tina Charles is traded.
It’s probably a bit negligent to go this far in a New York Liberty Offseason Breakdown without mentioning Han Xu. She was the youngest player in the WNBA last season, and may be again this season. She finally got a little bit of a chance to play down the stretch in 2019, but she could benefit from the new coaching staff, especially if Tina Charles moves on. Han Xu was always going to be a project, which is why she slipped to the second round in the draft last year, but she has a ton of talent. She will be a punt play if she can earn regular minutes, and while I think it’s more likely she breaks out in 2021, it wouldn’t be shocking if she took a leap forward this season.