The 2021 WNBA season will begin with a bang, with Sabrina Ionescu making her WNBA re-debut in the long-awaited debut of Barclays Center as a WNBA venue.
Ionescu and the New York Liberty take on the Indiana Fever on Friday at 7 p.m. ET (NBA TV).
Last season, these two teams finished at the bottom of the league. Without Ionescu, the Liberty struggled to a 2-20 season while the Fever failed to sustain a promising start and stumbled to 6-16.
For New York, the problems were on the offensive end, as they sported a league-worst 87.3 offensive rating. Although head coach Walt Hopkins attempted to implement his modernized, space-and-pace offense system, the Liberty lacked the shooting needed to make this system succeed. While the Liberty were not shy about launching from deep, as they took 27.6 threes per game, they only converted a putrid 27.7 percent. Overall, New York shot a cellar-dwelling 37.2 percent from the field.
The return of Ionescu should improve these numbers. Not only do her collegiate stats indicate that she is a high-level shooter, but her proficiency as a playmaker also suggests that she can create easier opportunities for others.
As long as she maintains the leap she made last season, free agency addition Betnijah Laney also will bring needed shooting and scoring to the Liberty. In her 2020 breakout season, she posted career-high shooting and scoring numbers, shooting 48.1 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from 3 on her way to 17.2 points per game. The sharpshooting Sami Whitcomb should further enhance the offensive attack. Even with Natasha Howard, New York’s most prominent offseason addition, finishing up her overseas obligations in Italy, the Liberty’s offense should look much-improved in their season opener.
The also might be aided by a still-porous Fever defense.
In contrast to New York, Indiana did not as effectively address last season’s biggest weakness — their defense. The Fever’s 111.8 defensive rating in 2020 was the worst in the league — and the least-efficient defense in WNBA history.
In an attempt to improve, Indiana turned to some steady defensive-minded vets, re-signing Jantel Lavender (who has yet to play for Indiana because she opted out of the 2020 season) and importing Danielle Robinson and Jessica Breland. While Lavender and Breland can provide experienced interior defense, Robinson can pester opponents on the perimeter. However, among Indiana’s young core of potential stars, defense remains a question.
On Friday night, the Fever offense will have to try keep up with the Liberty’s. Luckily, Indy employs Kelsey Mitchell, who can explode for pounds of points on most any night. If she is engaged, Teaira McCowan also should have the opportunity to put up points in the paint on the relatively-undersized Liberty.
New York Liberty (0-0) vs. Indiana Fever (0-0)
When: Friday, May 14 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY
How to watch: NBA TV
Keys to the matchup: Rookie debuts! The play of high-profile rookies — Michaela Onyenwere and DiDi Richards for the Liberty and Kyrse Gondrezick for the Fever — likely will not swing the outcome of this game. However, their opportunities (or lack thereof) can provide an instructive preview of how these players will fare this season. While Onyenwere’s athleticism should quickly translate to the WNBA, is her game refined enough to make an immediate impact? Can Richards be enough of a threat on offense to earn significant playing time? Will Gondrezick show herself to be worthy of the No. 4 draft selection? These questions, of course, will not be answered in the absolute, but the opening game can provide some helpful hints.
Fever injury report: Jessica Breland (questionable; undisclosed), Kysre Gondrezick (questionable; undisclosed); Aaliyah Wilson (questionable, undisclosed)
Liberty injury report: Natasha Howard (out; overseas), Kiah Stokes (out; overseas), Rebecca Allen (out; overseas), Jocelyn Willoughby (out; Achilles)