PG: Kelly Miller/Leilani Mitchell
SG: Cappie Pondexter/Essence Carson
SF: Nicole Powell/Alex Montgomery
PF: Plenette Pierson/DeMya Walker
C: Kia Vaughn/Kara Braxton/Kelley Cain/(Quanitra Hollingsworth)
Significant additions: Miller (free agency from Washington), Walker (free agency from Washington), Cain (college draft)
Significant losses: Hollingsworth (with Turkish National Team for Olympic training and qualifiers), Ta’Shia Phillips and Sydney Colson are gone as well (if you want to stretch ‘significant’)
You’ve gotta love Liberty fans. A bizarre draft pick (in a draft everyone said was horrible), and a couple of poor performances in preseason (for a coach whose system is notoriously hard to adapt to) and the sky is falling. Admittedly, dropping into the lottery is a lot more appealing this year than in most seasons. But it’s a little early to give up on a team that went 19-15 last season – while learning Whisenant’s system – and brings back pretty much every significant part of that team. In an Eastern Conference where it’ll be a surprise if anyone runs away, they still have every chance to be competitive. And as with every other season, when Cappie Pondexter’s on your team you’ve got a shot to win any game you show up for.
By her own lofty standards, Pondexter didn’t have the greatest of seasons in 2011. Her shooting percentage fell off to 40%, and her per game average dropped four points. The team just asked her to do so much that it was hard for her to maintain her high level. They expect her to score the bulk of their points, create offense for others, and especially under Whisenant there’s a lot of work to be done defensively as well. She’s an electric scorer when healthy and put in the best position to produce, and her game suits the WNBA style perfectly (she’s more effective in the US than Europe). Assuming there are no injuries to the named squad, she’ll also have the benefit of a month off in the middle of the WNBA season this year, because she’s not on the USA’s Olympic roster. The key for Whisenant and her teammates is to take some of the pressure off Pondexter so that she can play to her optimum level. If she can return to the version of herself that was in a three-way debate for the MVP in 2010, this team can stay right in the hunt in the East.
So where is Pondexter’s help going to come from? Whisenant went out and added veteran point guard Kelly Miller while re-signing incumbent Leilani Mitchell, which should keep Cappie as the nominal two-guard more this year. Even if she’s often the one taking the shot or driving the lane, at least having someone else bring the ball up the floor and initiate the offense will save a little energy for their star. Either Mitchell or Miller could start, and who plays the greater number of minutes likely depends on who can knock down the open three more regularly. With Pondexter drawing so much attention, and the Libs playing inside-out when the ball isn’t in her hands, the point guard has to hit that shot. Mitchell’s outside shooting was inconsistent for a lot of last season which led to her being pulled off the floor – at least this year there’s an alternative option.
Elsewhere on the perimeter, consistency is once again what Liberty fans would love to see. Every now and then, Nicole Powell rains in a couple of threes, or makes a smart defensive play, and you’re reminded of the player she can be when she feels like it. But those occasions been painfully rare since she arrived in New York a couple of years ago. A single-digit scoring average and endless anonymous games is not what they wanted from a player who averaged nearly 17 points per game in her final season in Sacramento. And while she’s not a terrible defender (especially considering she’s not particularly quick), if Powell isn’t scoring then there’s not a great deal of point in her being on the floor. Which is why it’s understandable that a lot of Liberty followers would like to see Essence Carson take over more of the minutes on the wing that Powell swallows. Carson broke out last year after a horrible 2010 season in Ann Donovan’s doghouse, and her ability to create her own offense from the perimeter was huge for the Liberty. She gave them an alternative to Pondexter, someone else who could break down a defense, even if you sometimes wished she’d open her eyes a little and find a pass or two as well. Alex Montgomery showed flashes of being a decent hustle player on the wing in her rookie season last year, and could also push for some extra minutes. Whisenant has a long history with Powell, but maybe this is the year when he finally starts to pull back on her playing time a little.
The post rotation is where much of the offseason discussion around the Liberty has focussed. Whisenant made a left-field pick in the draft, taking former Tennessee center Kelley Cain with the 7th overall selection, despite the fact that she left Tennessee because her body reportedly couldn’t take the physical pounding in the NCAA. Playing in the Turkish second division she had some decent numbers, and she’s big, but even Whisenant has already admitted that she’s a project. Elsewhere, last season’s surprise package Quanitra Hollingsworth, who proved a solid backup after being acquired from Minnesota for practically nothing, is currently with the Turkish National Team. She’ll play in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, and then obviously hopes to be at the Olympics themselves. The Libs have suspended her, and at time of writing I’m waiting on information as to whether it’s the kind of suspension where she’s done for the year (like Janel McCarville last season), or the temporary kind where she can be reactivated once she shows up. Attempting to fill in those holes, Whisenant went back to an old stomping ground and brought in DeMya Walker, who won a championship with him and Powell in Sacramento. Walker will give you everything she’s got, and scrap it out in the paint, but with basically no knees left it’s hard to see them getting too much out of her.
Given those situations, and the energy-sapping nature of Whisenant’s White-Line defense, New York better get some strong performances from their three primary post players. Plenette Pierson has become an emotional leader on this squad, and shown that her skills extend farther than the sixth-woman she always was back in Detroit. She’ll play as hard as anyone in the league, make a nuisance of herself defensively, and slither in for a variety of buckets in every game. Her effectiveness does tend to diminish if she’s forced to play too many minutes, however, so it’ll help if Cain or Walker can at least play 10 a night. At center, Kia Vaughn and Kara Braxton both have their strengths. Vaughn took a big step forward in 2011, proving that she can be a legitimate starting center in this league and earning the WNBA’s Most Improved Player award. It took her a while to work out how to play Whisenant’s defense – as it does with all bigs, due to the unusual amount of fronting and rotation – but that should obviously be less of an issue this year. Her offensive skills are still raw, but there’s plenty of room for her game to continue to grow. Braxton is one of the more frustrating players in the league, which is part of the reason she’s bounced around so much in recent years. She’s got a huge frame, and nice touch, but she makes dumb plays far too often and turns the ball over with alarming frequency. She’s one of the rare players that demands a double-team both because she might be a threat to score, and because you’ve got a good chance of taking the ball away. After being dumped for basically nothing by Phoenix last year – they just wanted her gone for attitude reasons – Braxton rarely impressed in a Liberty jersey during her brief stint at the end of the year. They’ll be hoping for a lot more now that she’s had time to settle in.
Summary and Outlook
I still look at this team and see talent. They weren’t a lot of fun to watch at times last year, as was often the case with Whisenant’s Sacramento teams, and the fear always is that his defensive system takes so much out of the players that there’s nothing left at the end. Still, last season he went into the year without McCarville or Taj McWilliams-Franklin and most prognosticators expected them to struggle horribly. They worked it out and came out with a team that still won games. I think this squad can still win their fair share, and with a rested team for the stretch run – when every other meaningful team has someone going to London – who knows what they might achieve.