Liberty at 10: Looking to New Faces – March 2006

Ah, spring cleaning. It’s a wonderful thing. Out with the old and unused. A chance to revel in newly discovered space, to consider the future with eager anticipation and innocent optimism.

Of course, that’s only true when you have control of the cleaning. It pretty much stinks when you realize your mom’s come in and thrown out your favorite shirt and your best pair of jeans. That’s sort of what happened to the New York Liberty this past off-season. Free agency and the upcoming World Championships have stripped the team of four of their five starters. Gone are guard Vickie Johnson, small forward Crystal Robinson, and centers Elena Baranova and Ann Wauters.

There is no underestimating the impact of these losses. Johnson, the only remaining player from the Liberty’s inaugural season in 1997, was the quiet leader and steadying influence of the team. The third leading scorer, she also was second on the team in assists. Robinson, though plagued by injuries the past few years, spent the last seven years earning a reputation for timely threes and ferocious defense on players who often outsized her. Baranova led the team in rebounding and kept the opposition honest by shooting .388 from beyond the arc. The young, and ever improving Wauters, earned herself a trip to last year’s all-star game by averaging 13.7 ppg, 6.57 boards and shooting 54% from the field.

In some ways, as the Liberty and the WNBA enter their tenth season – a record for a women’s professional league – it might be said the team has returned to where it started: a recognizable star surrounded by a bunch of players who no one is particularly sure about. In ’97 the “name” was Rebecca Lobo. Now the marquee player is the feisty point guard Becky Hammon. Hammon led the team in points, assists and steals, but now she’ll have to work with a new cast of characters. It’s unclear who will survive training camp, or if there are any steals or surprises in this year’s draft, but one could project the following opening day line up:

Second year guard Loree Moore shakes off an unimpressive rookie year and steps into the point guard position. This frees up Hammon to return to her most effective position of shooting guard. Shameka Christon, now in her third year with the team, raises her game on both ends of the court and seamlessly takes over for Robinson at the three. At power forward would be the steady 7-year veteran La’Keshia Frett, and mid-season pick-up Cathrine Kraayeveld, who wowed fans with her bone-shaking picks and three-point range, moves in as center.

General Manager Carol Blazejowski has promised fans “younger, faster, more athletic players that will grow in our system and be successful for the long term.” Kelly Schumacher, acquired from the Indiana Fever, and free agent Barb Farris bring additional size and experience in to the paint (they’re 28 and 29, respectively), but the Liberty will have to look to training camp invitees for youth. Iciss Tillis, a 6′ 5″ post player out of Duke, as well as Connecticut guard Ashley Battle are intriguing prospects. Battle is known as a high-energy defensive disrupter, but can fall short on offense. While Tillis can shoot the three, she’ll have to shed the reputation of being soft in the block if she’s to make the team, much less an impact. Finally, having the twelfth pick in this year’s draft means the Liberty will have to pay close attention the women’s NCAA tournament and hope that no other team spots a keeper before it their time to choose.

There’s plenty of uncertainty surrounding the upcoming season, but fans may take comfort in one small fact: They’ll no longer be able to complain that coach Patty Coyle doesn’t play her bench, for the simple reason that all her bench players have been upgraded to starters. Of course, this bunch of no-names could do worse than emulate the team from 1997. That group made it all the way to the WNBA Championship game.

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