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The Liberty Are Reinventing Themselves

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The Liberty are usually not sure what the complete identity of their revamped team needs to be. But they’re certain about one aspect of it.

“I need teams to type of be terrified of us after they need to be on offense,” said forward Natasha Howard, who won the W.N.B.A.’s Defensive Player of the 12 months Award in 2019, when she was with the Seattle Storm.

This can be Howard’s second season with the Liberty, but in some ways, and for a lot of reasons, it seems unlikely to be very like her first. The team has a recent head coach (Sandy Brondello), a recent veteran center (Stefanie Dolson) and, players said, a recent commitment to becoming a championship contender once the season begins May 6.

“There’s a way of urgency,” guard Sabrina Ionescu said in the course of the Liberty’s media day on Thursday. She added that the team didn’t wish to wait years to develop into higher, and had a “Why not us?” mentality.

The Liberty finished last season with a 12-20 record and slid into the playoffs because the eighth seed. They lost to the fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury in a first-round single-elimination game. The team had injury woes all season: Jocelyn Willoughby tore an Achilles’ tendon in a preseason scrimmage; Howard missed 15 games due to a knee injury; Ionescu handled a lingering ankle injury.

All three are back and said they’re feeling good.

“I’m way ahead of where I was,” Willoughby said.

One other returner is guard Asia Durr, who goes by AD. Durr, the second overall draft pick in 2019, missed the past two seasons as they recovered from Covid-19. On Thursday, Durr said they were still coping with confusion and brain fog but that Liberty teammates had been helpful.

“It’s pretty difficult to remain patient each day,” Durr said, punctuating the last three words.

Like Howard and a number of other others, Durr mentioned defense as the main target of this yr’s team. Brondello, who coached the Mercury to the finals last season in her eighth yr with the team, said she wanted the Liberty to have an “aggressive mentality.”

More points within the paint. Fewer turnovers. Not settling for outdoor shots. Drawing more fouls.

“We’re attempting to develop a tricky team,” Brondello said.

On the core of the team are players like Ionescu; Howard; Betnijah Laney, who was named to her first All-Star team last season; and Michaela Onyenwere, the 2021 W.N.B.A. rookie of the yr. “I’m at all times trying to grow,” Laney said, adding that she’s surrounded by great players.

Joining them is Dolson, who won a championship with the Chicago Sky last yr.

Dolson, a 6-foot-5 center entering her ninth season, said she likes to post up — though people don’t think she does — and that it’ll be difficult for teams to face off against her and the 6-foot-2 Howard.

“It’s hard to scout when each post players can type of do all the things,” she said.

Dolson averaged 7.5 points and three.5 rebounds per game last season, and shot 40.4 percent from 3-point range. Howard averaged 16.2 points and seven.2 rebounds in 13 games last season.

Veterans like Howard and Dolson can be key to the Liberty’s success, but so will the younger players, who spoke on Thursday about how they’ve grown and what they still need to enhance.

“I used to be so lost last yr,” said DiDi Richards, a second-year guard-forward.

Richards said she often was in her own head while on the court, as an alternative of being vocal, but she is working on changing that as coaches ask her to tackle an even bigger leadership role. “I’m ready for it,” she said.

Onyenwere spoke confidently about defense — “probably not a skill; it’s all effort” — but in addition said she wanted to enhance on offense after shooting just 32.7 percent from 3-point range last season.

Guard Sami Whitcomb, who went 42.5 percent from 3-point range last yr, is the team’s most prolific and best long-range shooter. She got here to the Liberty last yr after 4 seasons in Seattle, and she or he said she was enthusiastic about helping the team create a recent identity. But, she said, it won’t occur “overnight.”

Some things do occur quickly in sports, though — like going from W.N.B.A. prospect to Liberty rookie.

The Liberty traded with the Storm to get the 18th pick within the draft on April 11 and used it to pick Lorela Cubaj, a 6-foot-4 forward from Georgia Tech. 4 days later, she signed a rookie contract with the team. Three days after that, training camp began.

On Thursday, she said that she had developed as a facilitator while at Georgia Tech and hoped to make use of that skill with the Liberty. “I just wish to put my teammates in the most effective position to attain,” she said.

One thing she wants to go away in Georgia: the food. Cubaj, who’s from Italy, joked that she wouldn’t miss the pizza from Atlanta now that she is in Recent York.

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