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WNBA

You Must Watch The Liberty

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - MAY 27: Han Xu #21 of the New York Liberty looks on against the Seattle Storm in overtime at Climate Pledge Arena on May 27, 2022 in Seattle, Washington.
Steph Chambers/Getty Images

In the same way a watched pot never boils, maybe a basketball team can’t shine until the hype has cooled off. After a bland and underwhelming 2021, the New York Liberty entered this season as the WNBA’s big question mark. How would they fare under new head coach Sandy Brondello? Was anyone going to shoot? Could they expect a healthy bounce-back season from all-star big Natasha Howard? And what to make of Sabrina Ionescu, who showed flashes of the brilliance she was drafted for on the nights she didn’t look slowed by injuries? Positive answers to all those questions seemed like a lot to bet on. So naturally, expectations fully tempered by last season, the Liberty have emerged this year as one of the more fun teams to watch in the WNBA. If they are not much more than a “League Pass team” to this point, more compelling in aesthetics than in record, does it really matter? This is the Liberty team that was promised a few years ago: a young, offensively creative squad finally showing that the pieces for something special are there.

One reason for the change is that certain pieces literally were not there last year. Meet 6-foot-10 Han Xu and French phenom Marine Johannès, who have both rocked in their returns from two-year WNBA absences. (No, I don’t know why the court looks like this.)

The WNBA season is complicated every year by the international basketball schedule. Players might miss large chunks of the season (or a season entirely) due to obligations to other teams, and international players who represent their national teams tend to be caught up in the conflict most often. This makes for some long, high-profile absences. Emma Meesseman, for example, missed all of last year to play in the Olympics and the FIBA EuroBasket tournament with the Belgian national team. Jonquel Jones, having become a Bosnian citizen four years ago, had to leave the Sun right in the middle of the WNBA season to play in EuroBasket. It’s an annoying problem of the WNBA’s own making, and the product suffers as a result; the international pipeline to the WNBA is not nearly as strong as it could or should be. But in a non-Olympic, non-EuroBasket, non–COVID-protocol year, the Liberty have been able to take full advantage of their non–U.S.-born talent. Johannès is a superb passer, the kind who exists to be clipped and tweeted about. Her speed and creation ability give the Liberty something they have noticeably lacked in the last two seasons.

And then, Han! Oh, Han! It was difficult to know what Han might become in her 2019 rookie season, when she was just 19 years old and never saw much more than garbage time. But she arrived stateside this year and surpassed all expectations. In a profile of her over at FiveThirtyEight this week, Howard Megdal wrote about the way her game—hyper-efficient and not just in the paint—eludes comparison. At 6-foot-10, she has made 15 of 32 three-point attempts this year. There is so much to find intriguing in any given Liberty game, and still it is the confounding Han, being insanely tall and good at shooting, who will draw your eye the most.

The returning players who needed to get better and healthier have, too. Howard looks much more like a former Defensive Player of the Year than she did last year. Crucially, since early June or so, the Liberty are getting the Sabrina Ionescu they hoped could be the face of the franchise.

This one is a freakish competitor, capable of “takeover” spells where you believe every shot she takes will go in. Ionescu, who has said she regrets playing through an ankle injury last year, looks far more comfortable on offense this season. Still a very good passer with three WNBA triple-doubles to her name, she is now averaging more than 17 points a game, well up from her 11.7 last year. The quicker Johannès complements Ionescu nicely; together, they are maybe the most [Italian chef kiss] backcourt in the WNBA.

OK, now is when I must confess to you that the mighty Liberty are actually 13-18, thanks to some ugly losing stretches in May and July. But damned if this is isn’t the coolest losing team I’ve watched in a while. The Liberty will spend the final weeks of the WNBA season fighting to hold on to a playoff spot. The good news is that they have the advantage of an easy-ish schedule on their side, and they are on a three-game win streak. There is no bad news: Succeed or fail, it’s sure to be a good time.