New York’s New Look: An Interview with Sabrina Ionescu and Natasha Howard

The 2022 WNBA season started about as poorly for the New York Liberty as the basketball gods could direct. A smooth transition wasn’t guaranteed with a new coaching staff and system, but a 1-8 start felt like an unmitigated disaster.

Significant injuries to star forward Betnijah Laney and promising starter Jocelyn Willoughby early on in play threw the Liberty into flux. Throughout May, the losses and missed games from key players stacked, but the inklings of better basketball glimmered through at times. Opposing teams started to throw the kitchen sink at Sabrina Ionescu defensively, employing traps, blitzes, and a variety of junk defenses due to her budding pick and roll proficiency. The rhythm wasn’t there for New York in their offense, often off the same page with passes made one step ahead or behind the next player in the flow of the offense.

While it makes sense that an offense may feel forced or rushed when integrating new players and missing vital parts of the rotation, a grisly 23.4% turnover rate (2nd worst in the W in May) was killer to finding higher levels of offense. The team managed an anemic 85.4 offensive rating through the first nine games, the worst in the league over that span by 7.8 points per 100 possessions. 

The rough start has made the Liberty’s surge in June even sweeter. 

Despite the persistent injuries, now including starting wing Rebecca Allen, the Liberty are 5-3 in June. New York is third in defense over that span, led by the stellar play of their starting frontcourt, Natasha Howard and Stefanie Dolson. Dolson’s rim protection and stability as a paint presence have been crucial in setting the base of the defense. Howard is making a solid case for her third All-Defense selection in her career. Her length, instincts, and ranginess at the four spot elevate the Liberty from a decent defensive team to an outstanding one. The activity all-around has been impressive from the Liberty on that end, and DiDi Richards returning from a hamstring injury adds another feisty wing defender.

New faces have been aplenty in New York.

Han Xu keeps cementing herself as one of my favorite players to watch in the W. Her touch from just about anywhere is pretty impressive, as she has viable range out to three above the break. What she brings as a pick and pop and trail shooter is a great dynamic for the Liberty. Perhaps my favorite aspect of her game is her off-ball awareness and sense of spacing, though. To say that a 6’10 center can cut sneakily sounds off-base, but watch Han Xu ghost the baseline for easy buckets!

Shooting is an essential aspect of spacing, but it’s not the end-all-be-all. Han Xu blends her ability to take and make high-release jumpers with her interior touch and omniscient off-ball movement. She’s been such a fun and practical outlet for this team. Watching her grow in confidence as the year goes on has been remarkable.

French guard Marine Johannes brings an element of randomness and a verve to the Liberty that I absolutely love. Calling Johannes an audacious passer is an undersell.

If you somehow haven’t seen this dish before now, you’re very welcome! How do you even prepare for that pass as a shooter?

“You gotta be ready at all times,” says Natasha Howard with a grin “you don’t know if she’s going to pass it to you or not, but more than often, if she’s not looking at you, she’s gonna pass it to you.”

I actually jumped out of my chair and started pacing around my office when that pass went off.

Johannes’ off-the-dribble game as a shooter and savvy ball-handler has been adept off the second side of actions in New York’s offense. Adding other quality playmakers to supplement and bolster Ionescu has paid dividends for the Liberty.

“Her ability to just come in mid-season and fit right in has been a testament to her and her style of play. But we’ve been able to just kind of familiarize ourselves with her… and just kind of feed off one another,” says Ionescu.

Speaking of that offense, it’s made leaps and bounds in a month of play, as the Liberty are 4th in offense in June with an offensive rating nearly 20 points per 100 possessions higher (104.8) than the first month of the season. The turnovers are down substantially, with the third-lowest turnover rate in the W in June (16.4%).

What’s changed?

“Continuing to grow chemistry,” says Ionescu, “we had a lot of people out in training camp, so our core group hasn’t really been able to be on the floor together… we’re starting to figure out where we want to put players in positions to succeed, use them to their strengths, continuing to build that chemistry on an individual basis, but also on a team basis.”

Crystal Dangerfield’s emergence and synergy with Ionescu have been pivotal.

While her box score isn’t flashy by any measure, please don’t be mistaken; the Liberty are a better basketball team because of her. Per PBP stats, New York’s offense averages 9.89 points per 100 possessions more with Dangerfield on the court than when she’s on the bench. With Dangerfield and Ionescu sharing court time, the Liberty maintain a 112.9 offensive rating (better than the best offense in the league) and a +10.7 net rating.

Adding Dangerfield to the mix mid-season and adding her to the starting lineup provides another ball-handler alongside Ionescu.

“I think I’ve always played combo guard; I’ve never just been in one position,” says Ionescu.

“Having someone else being able to bring the ball up has helped me. Being trapped and picked up 94 feet is not easy for 40 minutes. So I think having someone being able to bring the ball up the floor and get us in our action, get me in my spots, to be able to come off pick and rolls to be able to come off reads, drag screens, while the defense is setting and not able to trap and not able to get into positions is something that we’ve been adapting to and we’re continuing to get better at.”

Ionescu’s usage has actually been higher (22.1% usage to 26.3%), with Dangerfield starting and initiating more sets, one of my favorite stats of the season. By coming off the ball to get on it, Ionescu and the Liberty have found more effective modes of offense that keep the defense guessing and make it harder to set up in their base immediately or send preemptive help. The threat of another player who can attack a defense off the dribble adds strain to a scheme.

The way that Dangerfield has been used to cross-screen open Ionescu in early offense has quickly become a staple of the Liberty, and it’s fantastic.

Ionescu’s monthly averages are stark: 20.8 points per game in June (12.6 in May), on 63.1% true-shooting (49.5% in May) which accounts for trips to the free-throw line, and 36.8% from three on 7.1 attempts per game (31% on 5.3 per game in May). Her assists have bumped up (7.3 per game compared to 4.9) without an increase in turnovers. She’s playing immaculate basketball.

The Liberty were the top-paced team in basketball in 2020 and 2021, according to Her Hoop Stats, playing with an absurd freneticism. They rank 11th in pace this year! Every time I check that stat, I say ‘hmmm’ a little more. Slowing down play has been incredibly fruitful, particularly for Ionescu.

Her pacing and tempo in the halfcourt are predicated on her hesitations and stutter steps. The ability to freeze defenders with her handle and simultaneously keep them on their toes due to her ever-improving blend of shotmaking and wide array of passes is exacerbated by playing under control.

Ionescu became the fastest woman to multiple triple-doubles in league history and has repeatedly toed the line of racking up yet another. She’s played All-Star level basketball in June but in a replicable and consistent way. Watching her grow in comfortability and finding her space as a star within the offense has been a joy in the early season as the Liberty continually tinkered.

Stefanie Dolson has started to cement her place in the offense as well, as New York has employed her more as a high post playmaker, using her vision and the off-ball movement of their perimeter players to generate quality downhill looks.

Howard has also elevated her play to an All-Star level as the offense has sorted out. While the three-ball hasn’t been there for her like earlier in the season, she’s expertly asserting herself in the pockets opened by the way defenses play Ionescu on ball screens. Howard has needed to bail out the offense less in late clock situations, with things humming to a higher degree. Her finishing on the roll and attacking off the catch have been exemplary. How good? Howard is shooting 71% at the rim in June per InStat scouting. That is very, VERY good!

“Her ability to set screens and get out of them quickly helps me particularly, especially if they’re trapping or whatever they’re in, but also her ability to catch the ball. Sometimes that’s kind of overlooked. The passes aren’t always perfect; it’s hard to pass through, you know, four to six hands in my face, so her ability to catch the ball, whether it’s right on the money or if it’s a little behind her in front of her is huge,” says Ionescu

The Ionescu/Howard pick and roll has been one of if not the most effective two-player games in the W over the past month; the seeds were sown last season, and the flashes were fantastic, but the consistency this season after May has been incredible.

To get an inside look at the most potent pick and roll in the league, I sat down with Sabrina and Natasha to run through some clips and get their insight on what makes their synergy so dynamic.

(SI: Sabrina Ionescu, NH: Natasha Howard, MS: Mark Schindler)

MS: So right when you’re coming off of that screen, what kind of things are you reading or looking for?

SI: “I’m always reading my defender and then the post defender, the screener’s defender. So whether they’re trapping, whether they’re hedging, they’re in a drop, whatever it is, I’m reading, it’s basically a two-man game between my defense and the big, so at that point, you know, whatever they do I’m just trying to find an angle, I’m either going to drive, keep my dribble alive and get to the basket or if I see a passing angle, I’m going to ball fake and get the ball into the roller.”

MS: Natasha, for you, as well. I think one of the things that I’ve most enjoyed this season is seeing all of the ways you screen for Sabrina, like I think in this game, you set like 12 different variations of screens in the first 10 minutes. How do you two work on and communicate the way you’re going to screen? Is that just practice reps, or is there a lot of discussion on that?

NH: “Sometimes me and Sab we talk about it like I’ll ask her if that’s the way she wanted to set the screen and like, but more I just read my defender, and I read her defender too as well and see how they’re guarding her if they’re pressuring her, so I set the screen kind of early to get her loose. With this right here, I knew they were pressuring her, so I kind of like flip the screen… and I got out of the screen really fast. Her defender came really back to her and like my person was kind of lost, so that was an easy dip off for me from Sab.”

MS: So right there on that one. What led you to want to reject the screen? I’m assuming it’s because they’re about to go into ICE. What’s your thought process going through here when you see this side clear up?

ICE: a ball screen defense that aims to push the ball-handler away from the middle of the floor and force them towards the sideline with the screen defender denying the middle and the screener defender often playing closer to the level of the screen before recovering after the point of attack defender reconnects after the screen.

SI: “Yeah, they’re in an ICE. So my defender jumps, pushing me to the baseline, and the post defender hadn’t made it there, so that whole side was open, so you just have to kind of punish them for giving you that and take the ball and drive.”

MS: You call for this screen from Marine here, and one of the things I wanted to hit, how much of what you two are running through on court is impromptu or unscripted and just in the flow? It really seems like Sandy has been comfortable giving the team offensive freedom.

NH: “There’s scripted stuff, but more than not, it’s read and react. Me and Sab are really good at read and react off of each other. Lately, teams are trapping her more, and she knows that, and she’s reading the defender and how they’re guarding her too and using her vision.”

MS: Going off of this too, Sabrina, your pull-up has been essential for you during this stretch. What kind of things are you looking for with your defender and the screener to get the most out of space and get off as clean a shot as possible?

SI: “Being patient and getting my defender into the screen, because that’s always an advantage, that’s really the main thing. Finding space. Obviously in a trap, it’s hard, but being able to reject, pitch it, come off of it (the ball), reject the screen, just keep being unpredictable, and not doing the same reads over and over again helps me and keeps the defense kind of on their toes.”

MS: Going off of that, how do you keep that randomness? I feel like as someone watching, or in practice, it’s easy to say “be random,” but what kinds of things do you do to embody that? Is that just practice? Are you thinking things through before the game?

SI: “Well, I never get the same defense over and over again; it’s usually a pretty junk defense. Sometimes they trap, sometimes they drop. I think I’ve gotten probably everything thrown at me this year. And so, just being able to stay patient and really read and not predict what’s going to happen helps. And obviously, my passing ability helps because I think I’m able to get out of those traps, or get out of those drops and be able to pass and get my teammates involved, which obviously is probably the biggest threat.”

This team is still gelling. 

As mentioned earlier, Betnijah Laney and Jocelyn Willoughby have played eight games combined, with neither playing in June. Rebecca Allen, a vital starter for her two-way play, has played in 10 games but played less than 10 minutes in her last two, dealing with both non-COVID illness and entering concussion protocols. 

While injuries undoubtedly impact every team, New York has felt that impact to the highest degree. It’s important to keep that perspective when gauging who the Liberty are now and who they may be during the stretch run. 

“I wouldn’t say we’re where we want to be, but we’re definitely starting to learn, and like all of us, five on the court are starting to learn how defenses are playing and what we need to do to counter their punches,” says Ionescu.

The Liberty aren’t where they want to be yet, but the foundation they’ve started to set in June lends credence to hope of an even higher level of play as the roster gets healthy and the team continues to find cohesion.

Newly hired WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.