New York Liberty: Making Sense of a Backcourt Logjam

Katie Smith had a lot of mouths to feed in her first season as head coach of the New York Liberty. The team’s 3-21 finish after a 4-6 start was puzzling to see from a team that returned 10 players from last season’s 22-12 team.

Some combination of late arrivals, lost time to injury and an eventual glut of capable guards played a part. They did play 241 minutes (17.6 percent of the time) with small lineups, referring to any stretch in which just one of Tina Charles, Kia Vaughn, Kiah Stokes or Amanda Zahui B was on the floor.

With five of those eight players projected to be free agents this offseason, here’s a player-by-player attempt at making sense of what we saw in 2018 and who the team may want to prioritize in their plans for the future. (Stats obtained via Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, Swanny’s Stats, Positive Residual and the High Post Hoops salary database.)

Epiphanny Prince

Projected unrestricted free agent, entering age 31 season
2018 stats: 16 games, 19.1 minutes per game, 50.9 true shooting percentage, 22.2 usage rate, 15.4 assist percentage, 11.4 turnover percentage, 19.7 free throw rate

It truly was an injury-riddled season for the nine-year vet. Prince missed the first seven games of the season recovering from a concussion. She then missed the remainder of the season after going down with a knee injury in the team’s final game before the All-Star break.

Her early absence may have been understated. Even last season’s team lacked a bonafide second option behind Tina Charles. Prince was the third most efficient pick and roll ball handler in 2017 among players that used at least 60 possessions, scoring 154 points in 160 possessions (0.962 PPP) that ended with a Prince shot attempt, drawn foul or turnover.

She still had to work her way back after missing so much time. She did not play 20-plus minutes in consecutive games until the end of June—the exact midway point of their regular season. That fact alone explains in part why the team was unable to reap the benefits of its roster continuity.

Shavonte Zellous

Projected UFA, entering age 32 season
2018 stats: 22 games, 24.1 MPG, 51.2 TS%, 17.3 USG%, 20.0 AST%, 13.3 TO%, 40.9 FTr

Zellous was sidelined by an ankle injury for the final 12 games of the season. She was probably due to regress after posting a ridiculous 56.4 free throw rate in 2017. She was also used much differently, using just 43 possessions as a pick and roll ball handler in 22 games (compared to 129 in 34 games in ‘17).

This put a cap of her ability to the basket in addition to the drop off in free throw attempts (246 by Zellous and Prince combined in ‘17). A concussion and an ankle sprain shouldn’t be enough to make Liberty brass flinch in free agency. Both have been productive as starters, but competition for minutes on the perimeter may be stiff once again, especially if the team elects to draft a guard with the No. 2 overall pick.

Sugar Rodgers

Signed contract extension 8/19, entering age 29 season
2018 stats: 31 games, 19.6 MPG, 50.2 TS%, 17.2 USG%, 16.2 AST%, 15.6 TO%, 12.4 FTr

She cut out most of her attempts inside the arc, seen in her 71.9 3-point rate. But her midrange frequency stayed about the same. Her attempts around the basket are what went way down. Perhaps that is for the best. She shot a miserable 37.9 percent on 87 attempts within five feet in 2017.

Rodgers is still a valuable depth piece. Very few players can dart around screens and approach the mid-30s from deep. With the addition of somebody that can generate more spot up opportunities, those difficult on the move attempts will not have to be as much of a crutch.

Bria Hartley

Signed through 2019, entering age 26 season
2018 stats: 34 games, 23.7 MPG, 49.0 TS%, 20.3 USG%, 24.9 AST%, 18.8 TO%, 24.5 FTr

The UConn alum was one of the few on this roster that made it through the season without hitting a major speed bump. Her usage ticked up a tad, as did her free throw rate and assist percentage. You like to see that from a player who may still be on the ascent.

But more jumpers need to go in the basket in 2019. She came back down to earth after some hot shooting from the midrange in 2017. The 3-point percentage (30.8) looks much better with just a few more makes for any player taking three or four per game.

Some of that lies in how she was used (0.752 PPP in 125 possession as a pick and roll ball handler). She’s been an effective spot up player that may be better off with that as her primary source of offense.

You already have Rodgers and Hartley who profile more as off guards. Once you factor in the next player on this list, you can already begin to understand the numbers game that Smith might be facing.

Kia Nurse

Rookie scale through 2021 (team option), entering age 23 season
2018 stats: 34 games, 22.8 MPG, 53.5 TS%, 18.7 USG%, 11.7 AST%, 9.4 TO%, 30.1 FTr

Nurse’s rookie season was fascinating. She impressed in areas that were seen as more immediate question marks—getting to the line, running off of screens, scoring at the basket (shot 61 percent on 77 attempts within five feet).

She shot just 25 percent on spot ups as a rookie. Spot up 3-point shooting was viewed almost as a given after she canned nearly 43 percent of 488 attempts in the past three collegiate seasons. A 4-of-24 mini-slump from deep had a heavy hand in where she finished the season (29.4 percent on 126 attempts).

Her playing time spiked at the beginning and end of the season, when Smith had fewer bodies available. Nurse has already added plenty of value as a No. 10 overall pick. One of the big questions hanging over their offseason: How good do they think she is right now and will they intentionally clear the deck some to make sure that she gets more run?

Brittany Boyd

Projected restricted free agent, entering age 26 season  
2018 stats: 30 games, 20.4 MPG, 49.7 TS%, 20.2 USG%, 42.1 AST%, 29.6 TO%, 31.4 FTr

Boyd successfully returned to the floor after suffering an Achilles tear early in the 2017 season. But she turned the ball over too much, which only draws more attention to some of her deficiencies. She isn’t a clean fit playing with Charles and a non-shooting center. Defenders can sag off of her to limit her effectiveness as an entry passer and she has been well below the league average around the basket.

Having a more traditional point guard, even in a backup role, can be very helpful. She can be the one looking to set up Rodgers with their second units and run some pick and pop with Amanda Zahui B.

The latest mock drafts have not paired the Liberty with a point guard. Boyd would still be bringing something different to the table than the rest of the players in this group aside from a scenario in which Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu leaves school early and is not selected by the Las Vegas Aces at No. 1 overall.

Marissa Coleman

Projected UFA, entering age 32 season
2018 stats: 21 games, 18.3 MPG, 41.7 TS%, 15.4 USG%, 9.1 AST%, 10.0 TO%, 5.2 FTr

Coleman’s shooting has been down for three seasons now. Sample sizes are going to always be relatively small in a 34 game season, but she needs to be producing as a 3-and-D type player to demand big minutes.

Rebecca Allen

Projected RFA, entering age 26 season
2018 stats: 28 games, 10.4 MPG, 47.8 TS%, 19.9 USG%, 4.6 AST%, 12.5 TO%, 24.8 FTr

Allen has hit 36 percent of her 116 career 3-point attempts. She and Coleman likely will be necessary if the team plans to continue rolling out some small lineups, being the two bigger wings that can jostle with some bigger players inside. Allen hasn’t had an opportunity yet to play extended minutes for a long stretch. The Liberty can take the inside track in retaining her if they choose to extend a qualifying offer.

Closing thoughts

Which of these players is getting big minutes in 2019? Many of them may find new homes in free agency. A shot in the breeze prediction: They draft one of UConn’s Katie Lou Samuelson or Louisville’s Asia Durr and roll with Prince, Nurse and Zellous in the starting lineup to begin the season. Minutes become tougher to come by for Hartley and Rodgers. Allen and Boyd are retained because it’s easy for the team to do so while Coleman finds a home with a team hurting more than they are for wing depth.

How many wins does that net them? If Prince and Zellous bounce back and stay healthy, they’ll stick in more games. If that No. 2 pick is knocking down shots and Nurse takes a step forward—making more open 3-pointers, kicking it out to shooters, doing damage at the rim and getting to the foul line—you can begin to envision a revitalized offense better equipped to keep up with the leaps being made across the league.

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