NEW YORK, NY — When Liberty guard Epiphanny Prince went down with a torn ACL last November while playing for her Russian team, Dynamo Kursk, the impact was felt all the way across the Atlantic Ocean in New York.
In Prince, the Liberty lost their best guard, and second leading scorer from last year. The 5-foot-9 Prince poured in 15 points a game, just behind Tina Charles’ 17.1. For a team that finished 8th in the league with 74.4 points per game last year, that was seemingly a devastating blow.
To combat that loss, the front office put in plenty of work during the offseason. First, they hit the free agent market, picking up Shavonte Zellous, a player they knew well after losing to Zellous and the Indiana Fever in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Next, they signed former No. 1 overall pick, Lindsey Harding. Finally, just a few weeks ago, they swung a deal for former All-Star Shoni Schimmel.
And like that, New York solidified its backcourt.
As it turned out, however, a player set to take on a bigger role without Prince was already on their roster: Sugar Rodgers. The fourth-year guard played well as a reserve and occasional starter last year, averaging 8.1 points (third on the team) over about 19 minutes per game. She was reliable as well, suiting up for 33 out of 34 regular season games, and all six of the Liberty’s postseason matches.
Even with all the new talent in town, it was Rodgers who Head Coach Bill Laimbeer tapped to start alongside Brittany Boyd in the Liberty’s backcourt on opening night against the Washington Mystics on May 14. The decision turned out to be a wise one, as Rodgers dropped a cool 19 points on 7-for-14 shooting, grabbed five rebounds, and swiped four steals. In large part because of Rodgers’ strong play, the Liberty claimed a hard fought win over the Mystics.
Less than 24 hours later, back at home in the confines of the World’s Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden, Rodgers was back in the starting lineup. And she picked up right where she left off — in fact, she played even better. Her first bucket didn’t come until 4:44 remaining in the first quarter, as she snagged a strong rebound, then pushed it up the court and sunk a three. But she didn’t let the late start slow her down, as she lit up the Dallas Wings for six 3-pointers and a career-high 24 points. Thanks to her performance –which also included seven boards and another three steals — along with Tina Charles’ 24 points, the Liberty stayed undefeated with a 79-71 victory.
The season is only two days old, but Rodgers, who before this season had just five career starts, is sixth in the league in scoring at 21.5 points a night — 15 points higher than her career average.
How did this renaissance come about? Well for one, opportunity: no one wants to see an injury, but Prince’s absence provided a chance for Rodgers to shine, and so far she’s delivered. Has starting changed her mindset at all? “Not much,” Rodgers said after Sunday’s game. “I just got the starting position. I’m just playing my game. Yeah, Piph brings a lot to the table, but I can’t be Piph, I can only be me.” True. And the Liberty are just fine with that fact.
In addition, Rodgers put in plenty of work in the offseason, especially with Liberty Assistant Coach, Teresa Weatherspoon.
“(Rodgers) put a lot of work in with Spoon,” Laimbeer remarked after the game. “Spoon gets a tremendous amount of credit for getting her to this point, both mentally and skill wise — learning new moves, learning how to get open — but also working on her mindset and how to be a scorer.”
It’s only fitting that in the league’s historic 20th season, one of the original stars has had a huge impact on one of this year’s best early-season stories.
On Weatherspoon’s influence on her game, Rodgers added, “She instilled the confidence in me, like, ‘you can do it! You can do it!’ And I believe I can do it.”
After her opening weekend performances, so does everyone else.
So far, Rodgers has taken advantage of her opportunity and provided a huge boost to the Liberty. Now, her next challenge will be trying to sustain this level of play over the course of the season.
“Talk to Sugar and I’m sure she’ll say she’ll sustain that throughout the season,” Laimbeer told reporters after the game.
Rodgers sang a slightly different tune. “I’m hoping, I’m praying,” she said.
So are the Liberty.