Coming off Vegas loss, Liberty add speed and strength to the roster

New York’s cavalry and infantry are coming. We know who’s in, but who’s out?

Following the blowout loss at home against the Las Vegas Aces, Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb and head coach Katie Smith got to work almost immediately, waiving Tiffany Bias and terminating Avery Warley-Talbert’s short term contract on Monday.

Smith said she had a “fairly good idea” on Sunday when asked about potential roster changes in her post-game presser.  “It’s the not fun part of the job,” she said. “But we’ve got to get our team intact this week as folks come back. That’s the toughest part of the gig of having to let folks go that have really have laid it on the line for you.”

The decision comes as no surprise amid the returns of Amanda Zahui B and Bria Hartley, and the debut of French rookie Marine Johannès. But who else was the hot seat? No one, actually. Apparently, Kiah Stokes made it easier for the Liberty front office, sitting out the rest of the season for “personal reasons”.

Minutes following the announcement, Stokes took to Instagram to clarify. “A lot of people asked, but I won’t be returning to the Liberty this summer!!,” she wrote on a story. “But I’ll be back next summer don’t worry.”

Power forward/center Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe will remain on the roster along with Reshanda Gray, who in Amanda Zahui B’s absence has averaged 7.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, including the double-double against the Wings on Pride night.

While Raincock-Ekunwe stepped up on the road, she struggled against Las Vegas, scoring two points on five shots.  But, we also learned on the road that in order to match up against the league’s premier post players, New York must have depth.

Welcome back Amanda Zahui B and Bria Hartley 

BELGRADE, SERBIA – JULY 04: Amanda Zahui (17) of Sweden in action against Sonja Petrovic (5) of Serbia during the FIBA Women’s Eurobasket 2019 quarterfinals match between Serbia and Sweden on July 4, 2019 in Belgrade, Serbia. (Photo by Filip Stevanovic/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Bria Hartley and Amanda Zahui B accomplished quite a bit while overseas. Hartley’s French National team took home the silver in the tournament final, falling 86-66 to the defending Eurobasket champion Spain.  Zahui B’s goal was to point her Swedish national team in the direction of the 2020 Olympics.

While Serbia defeated Zahui B’s native squad in the quarterfinal handily, the road to Tokyo is still very much alive for Zahui B and Team Sweden. They join five other European teams, including France, Spain, Belgium, Serbia and Great Britain to represent in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments.

Hartley had a solid outing for France playing alongside WNBA rookie Johannès. (Yes that is correct. New York will have three rookies on their roster.) She averaged 11.2 points per game on shooting a little over 40 percent from the field. Her tournament highs came in the Final against Spain, putting up 17 points and shooting 6-10.

Zahui B. almost averaged a double-double in the EuroBasket, scoring 13 points and bringing down 9.3 boards per contest. She racked up a total of 11 blocks, four of which came against Russia in the consolation game.

“[Amanda] had a great time overseas too for Sweden and Bria has also done well for France,” teammate Rebecca Allen said.  “And we’ve got Marine coming in and it will be interesting to see how she adjusts for the WNBA. I’m really just excited to have them back. They are just going to add the depth to our team and our roster is going to be pretty exciting.”

Speaking of Allen, she was caught engaging in some warm-ups before the Sunday afternoon game against the Aces. I saw her take a few layup drills with some of the other forwards. She later joined Tina Charles for some water on the bench.

When asked about her progress, Katie Smith said that Allen is getting closer. She noted that it’s a definite positive for her to be able to shoot and dribble. “It’s good for her too,” Smith said.  “She’s been a little stir-crazy.”

Allen’s pretty pleased with where her hand is at.

“Just getting it warm and seeing how it feels,” she said. “It’s basically a test.”

I asked her how it feels.

“It’s pretty good, honestly yeah, it’s pretty good.”

When I caught up with Allen, she couldn’t give me an answer when it came to a potential return against the Sky on Friday. She told me that she has another doctors appointment this week and she’ll know more after that visit.  Although, this cryptic Instagram post makes me think otherwise?

View this post on Instagram

Always trusting the process 🙌🏻

A post shared by BEC ALLEN (@bec.allen9) on

I don’t know, I could be overthinking it a little bit. Allen could have just been in the mood to post a smiley photo with a ball in her hand.  But look at that, there we have the New York Liberty unofficial team motto once again: “trusting the process.”

Who exactly is MJ?  

Katie Smith answered that question partially for me on Sunday during her team’s pregame warm up.

“Yeah, I know who she is, she’s a scorer,” she said. “She’s a three baller, she can put it on the board. She’s talented on the offensive end. I’m anxious to see what she looks like in this league and when she gets here in practice and also playing in games. So it’s always good to see people when they are overseas, but there is a difference when you come here. And figuring it out how to play in the WNBA.”

Marine Johannès is an Olympian. She played in the 2016 Rio Games on the French National team, making it to the Bronze Medal Game. In addition to playing with Hartley, she also has been on a squad with Raincock-Ekunwe. Johannès played in this year’s Euroleague season on the French Tango Bourges Basket club, earning two fan-determined awards: Most Entertaining Player of the Year and Best Guard of the Year.

Smith sees value in Johannès’ experience playing with some of the roster already.  “I’m sure she’s played against Zahui over there,” she said. “My limited conversations with [Johannès] have been good. I think she’s a great kid. I’m anxious to see what she looks like and have her back with us.”

In the EuroBasket she stood out significantly in the Semi-Final against Great Britain.  She scored 20 points on shooting 50 percent from the field, in addition to racking up to five assists and steals.

I watched her highlights. She’s very nimble. Her reverse layups are clean and she’s not afraid to go airborne. She’ll leap over a defender as if she’s competing in a track meet.  She’d be a natural at hurdles.

Her ball handling can be quite pristine as well as she has mastered no-look passes and a dribble behind the back on defenders before firing off a three ball. FIBA commentators were wowed by her, referring to her as “poetry in motion.” She’ll need to adjust to the size, strength and tempo of this league,  but once she does, the guard has the potential to take some pressure off Kia Nurse with her quick release from beyond the arc.

Chicago will have to get ready for a more agile New York squad with the addition of both Hartley and Johannès.  Zahui B, who racked up a double-double (of course) against the Sky will be coming back with some fire in her back pocket, especially after her airline fiasco coming home to New York.

New York is ready for its infantry and cavalry to arrive. Those are players who can run the floor,  pound the paint and may have some artsy tricks up their sleeves.

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