Wright provided confidence to a young team and that was invaluable. Could the newly retired veteran find herself as a member of New York’s coaching staff in 2020?
The final minutes of the regular season for the New York Liberty could have been considered a hit song followed by an encore for 14-year veteran Tanisha Wright.
With under two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of the Liberty’s 2019 regular-season finale against the Atlanta Dream, Wright looked to her right to see if a teammate was open. The arc was clogged and she knew that Bria Hartley wouldn’t be able to penetrate through a crowded lane.
Atlanta’s Maite Cazorla was muscling through Tina Charles in order to contest Wright, but she had enough room to fire. On the sideline, once the ball swooshed through the hoop, former teammate and now head coach Katie Smith celebrated. While Keeping her dry erase marker securely in her hand, Smith threw her right arm across her body in the form of a celebration. It was some sort of accentuated fist pump.
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With a little over a minute left in regulation, Wright got a hand on a driving Alex Bentley, and the whistle blew. That was her encore. She gave her last foul to the game.
Smith started a standing ovation from the sideline right across from the arc. Assistant coach Herb Williams and the bench followed suit. The hand grab hugs poured on from each starter on the floor. Point guard Brittany Boyd rushed off the bench not only because her number was called to replace the recently fouled out Wright, but to give her friend the proper thanks.
Wright had quite a sendoff; her late-game three-ball was the game-winning basket for New York. She received the game ball. The college students that she coaches from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte arrived in Atlanta to watch Wright play. Her last hurrah.
While the New York guard and her head coach downplayed retirement rumors in the locker room after the win, Charles and Mystics Center, LaToya Sanders were quick to confirm the reason for Wright’s grand exit in Atlanta.
Wright brought the “facts, knowledge” and spirit to team with an average of 3.6 years of league experience
23 years of WNBA experience came from Charles and Wright. The rest of the team, combined, had 21.
When the Liberty achieved their first win of the season on June 9, Charles called Wright the MVP when she played in New York in 2016. Charles saw Wright’s value as what she could impart to all players young and old, including Amanda Zahui B.
“[Wright] just gives us straight facts,” Zahui B. said. “She’s been in the league. She’s been playing basketball long enough that she notices the small things whenever we need a change. She just brings that facts and the knowledge.”
Wright leads not only with her IQ but with her ability to motivate and inspire. It was almost routine this season to see her leading pre-game and post-game pow-wows on center court or conducting the Liberty’s “We Are New York” chant before charging the floor for tipoff.
In addition to providing Zahui B. with knowledge, Kia Nurse acknowledged how easy it was to trust the veteran on the court. “T was a huge spark for us,” Nurse said coming off a win. “She does a little bit of everything. And that’s something that we see each and every day in practice. And it’s the experience that she has and the leadership that she brings. For me, having that trust in a guard who has the ball in her hands all the time, it makes my life so much easier. It makes the game so much easier.”
What’s next for T-Wright? Does she return to New York’s bench in 2020?
On August 23, Chris Shearn of YES provided the Liberty’s broadcast audience with a bit of insight on Wright. “Having her out there is like having an extension of a coach on the floor,” Shearn said that was something Katie Smith told him before tipoff. “That’s what Tanisha Wright brings to the equation for this Liberty squad.”
Since mid-August, Smith had been hinting at uncertainty when referring to Wright moving forward. “Tanisha’s finishing her thing up,” she said pregame in New York’s second contest against the Dream.
That begged the follow-up question during her postgame presser. Could Wright coach in this league? “Yeah if that’s what she wants, it may be,” Smith answered. “I know she coaches in college. But yeah, T 100 percent thinks the game, competes, is a great teammate, gets it all. Everything that she would need to be a coach, she already has. I’ve been her teammate, I’ve competed against her and I’ve coached her. I have a lot of respect for how she approaches the game. I feel like it’s very similar, but if she wants to I’m sure she’ll get an opportunity and be very good at it.”
And Smith isn’t the only one who sees coaching in this league as a part of Wright’s destiny. As a part of the WNBA’s youtube video series “The Pickup,” where fans could learn more about the women of the W, the New York players answered a series of personality-driven and team-oriented questions. They were asked: “If you could make one of your teammates a head coach who would it be and why?” The answer was pretty obvious: ” Uhh… Tanisha,” then New York guard Tiffany Bias said.
New York struggled trying to figure out who would run the point this season. While Wright hadn’t assumed the role for a majority of her career, her basketball IQ and defensive dominance got her considerable minutes at the one.
All season long, the Liberty ran their offense via a committee. Each person who had a try at the role in 2019 didn’t have the complete package. Boyd had the intensity and the command, but couldn’t find her shot. Hartley, New York’s combo guard who played a wing and the one in spirts, looked to score and has a developed shot from long. But her slow start followed by Euorbasket in the middle of her season made her an unreliable choice.
Trading Sugar Rodgers to Las Vegas along with a draft pick to Minnesota to acquire Wright in April was completed for Wright’s leadership, experience, versatility and defense.
“Her defense is something that just amps up everybody,” Smith said after her team’s first win of 2019 against the Aces. “What she demands of herself and what she brings ultimately brings out more out of everybody else and she’s a great communicator that challenges people to do better and to start doing stuff. [She] will always make an impact in the game because she’s going to compete on every possession.”
And in 2019, Wright’s mind competed on every possession, but with 36 creeping up on her, sometimes her body limited her productivity on the court. Both she and Boyd finished this season with turnover percentages a hair below 30. All three guards including Hartley all averaged over two turnovers per game. In addition to the tendencies to give the ball away, Wright periodically struggled with her swiftness on switches. With all of that at bay, I still do not understand why Wright was given Elena Delle Donne as a guarding assignment on August 25.
With the draft lottery taking place on September 17, New York has a 44 percent chance to receive the opportunity to choose first in April. All eyes have been pointed toward the triple-double machine and extraordinaire Sabrina Ionescu. While the Oregon Duck has received comparisons to Storm legend Sue Bird, Ionescu will need a mentor, someone who understands the transition and the pressure expected out of a rookie point guard.
If the Liberty do indeed draft a rookie point guard and intend to start her, it would be foolish to not have someone in the wings ready to provide support to a young person dealt with an extraordinary hand. If Wright would like to return home to New York in 2020 after she finishes coaching in Charlotte, it might not be on the court, but it could be serving as a mentor and a coach on the Liberty bench.
If Katie Smith is retained, this is a personnel move that would make rational sense. The young New York Liberty core respects Wright and is comfortable with her. She was instrumental in pushing Zahui B. to refocus and redefine her career. The early departure of Charmin Smith put pressure on New York’s head coach. That was undeniable. While I learned how the workload was positioned to be delegated, I don’t know how that was executed.
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