WHITE PLAINS, NY — Approximately 24 hours after the New York Liberty got absolutely pounded in a 100-65 loss to the Las Vegas Aces, the team had to muster up the energy and confidence to battle the Los Angeles Sparks at the Staples Center on Saturday night. Enter Amanda Zahui B., who scored 37 points, a career-high and WNBA-high this season, to lead the Liberty to victory and a split of their two-game West Coast road stint.
The Liberty are undoubtedly headed by Tina Charles, as they have been since 2014, who’s sporting 18 point and eight rebound per game averages so far on the 2019 season. However, she’s struggled over the past four games, going a combined 19-for-65 for just 43 points.
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Zahui B. did a solid job helping New York to a 2-1 record last week, posting 58 total points during that stretch and highlighted by her performance in Los Angeles. She continued her recent high-level play in a loss to the Chicago Sky on Wednesday night, logging a double-double with 13 points on 50% shooting along with 10 rebounds.
The Liberty have been searching for consistent complementary scorers to help Charles for several years now, and Zahui B. has the ability to not only fill that role, but prove effective wherever the team needs her the most.
“I just try to be a consistent teammate, whether it’s scoring, rebounding, or playing defense. We have some real nice scorers on this team,” she told High Post Hoops before the game against the Sky.
Zahui B. was a highly anticipated prospect when she entered the WNBA Draft early after playing two seasons for the University of Minnesota. She averaged 19 points and 13 rebounds per game during her senior campaign, and once scored 39 against Iowa. She also racked up numerous awards and accolades throughout the year, highlighted by earning AP First Team All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year, along with being selected as a finalist for both the Wade and Naismith Trophies.
Despite having been selected second overall in the 2015 WNBA Draft – and afterwards declaring through The Players Tribune that she wanted to be the best player in the entire world – she experienced a lackluster season with the Tulsa Shock (now the Dallas Wings). Zahui B. posted averages of just over three points and two rebounds in approximately 10 minutes per game.
New York’s then-GM Bill Laimbeer clearly saw potential in Zahui B. and felt as though she could reach it on his team, saying in a press release that a 2016 trade for the post player “addressed [the Liberty’s] needs in the frontcourt not only for [that] season, but for the future of the franchise.”
Zahui B., 25, is currently in her fourth season in New York. She’s started all nine games thus far, and is averaging by far a career-high in minutes per game (27.4 MPG this year, greatly eclipsing her career-best mark of 15.9 last year). She logged a season-high 35 minutes against LA.
“What she did last year and building on that, and being able to lock down and basically guard anybody you need her to, is a key because she can stay on the floor,” coach Katie Smith said about the decision to start Zahui B. this year, “You gotta be able to guard, shoot and score from all five positions, and she helps us do that.”
When the Liberty ran pick-and-pop sets on Saturday, the Sparks were consistently late to recover to the perimeter, often leaving Zahui B. free to fire from behind the arc. The Swede had made just 5 of 23 three-point attempts on the season before going 7-8 from distance in LA.
“Amanda shot the ball well tonight; that’s not something that normally happens,” Sparks Coach Derek Fisher bluntly told the Los Angeles Daily News after the contest.
However, it’s also the dramatic uptick in attempts that represents the various manners in which she’s contributed to her team’s offense. She took only 23 attempts during her entire final season at Minnesota, and attempted 60 total three-point shots during her first three years in the WNBA. She launched 61 in 2018, and is on pace for over twice that number in 2019.
“[Coach Smith] has encouraged me throughout all my years in New York to shoot the ball with confidence, it’s all about confidence,” Zahui B. told High Post Hoops.
The center also acknowledged that her recent success can also be attributed to the veteran presence of Tanisha Wright, who’s been encouraging her to “play like a vet”. Zahui B. knows that because of her potential and the versatility she brings to the game, she plays a critical role in the composition of the Liberty.
“The team needs me on the floor and not on the bench. And I’m going to make mistakes, but if I can learn from them as quick as possible,” she said after a win last week against the Minnesota Lynx.
Zahui B.’s hasty development and positive momentum comes at an unfortunate time for the Liberty – she temporarily leaves the team to compete for native Sweden at Eurobasket.
With Rebecca Allen also missing time with a metacarpal fracture, the Liberty will be challenged for significant depth over the coming weeks. Once Zahui B. goes overseas, the Liberty will be allowed to seek external support due to the WNBA’s emergency hardship policy for active rosters containing less than 10 players. Before the game against the Sky, Smith stressed that Zahui B.’s absence will also allot minutes to players who haven’t seen much playing time early in the year.
“It creates opportunities for other people… Han [Xu] included, and Nayo [Raincock-Ekunwe] to go in there, and [Reshanda] Gray will get more minutes,” she said, “It’s not fun to lose [Zahui B.], but happy that she’s going over there to compete.”
At the moment, the team is additionally missing Kiah Stokes, Bria Hartley and Marine Johannes, the French guard who signed this past offseason and plans to make her WNBA debut following the international competition.
Regardless of her temporary hiatus, the Liberty have to be extremely encouraged that their investment in Zahui B. has begun to make significant returns. With Tina Charles recommitting herself to the franchise before the start of the 2019 season, New York has secured itself a fearsome frontcourt duo for years to come.
“The more people that can score will obviously help our team and the more threats we have,” Katie Smith concluded at her pregame media availability on Wednesday, “and Zahui’s been huge.”
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