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Liberty look to rebound after last year's difficult season

Liberty center Tina Charles shoots over China National

Liberty center Tina Charles shoots over China National Team center Liu Jiacen during the first half of a WNBA exhibition game at Barclays Center on May 9. Credit: Corey Sipkin

There was never a season like last season in Liberty history.

It was the worst since the franchise tipped off as one of the WNBA originals in 1997 — seven wins, 27 losses, including the final 13 games.  

“It was extremely difficult,” said Tina Charles, the six-time All-Star power forward-center. “I don’t think any athlete, any team, would want a record like that. It took an emotional toll.”

The outside expectations aren’t for the Liberty to suddenly rise from second worst in the standings to first and then claim their first WNBA title. But how about at least being a legit contender for one of the eight playoff passes?

Can do, according to the Liberty.

“For us, being in the playoffs is not unrealistic,” second-year coach Katie Smith said. “It’s something that we can definitely get done.”

The Liberty, with a new owner in Joe Tsai, will play most of their home games at Westchester County Center for the second straight year, beginning with Friday night’s season opener against Indiana. They will need their two prize rookies to ascend the learning curve quickly.

They took Asia Durr out of Louisville with the second overall pick. She was the 2019 Dawn Staley Award winner as the nation’s top guard and the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award winner as D-I’s top shooting guard. The 5-10 Durr can also play the point.

Expectations? Rather high.

Durr was voted as the co-favorite with Dallas’ Arike Ogunbowale in the GM survey to become Rookie of the Year.

“She’s going to be a star in this league,” Charles said.

The Liberty had a need for more offense to help the 6-4 Charles, the only player who averaged in double figures, at 19.7. Durr averaged 17.8 points, including two 47-point games, and 38.5 percent on threes over the last four years.

“One thing we wanted and needed was a scoring, playmaking guard,” Smith said. “There were a couple in the draft, and we thought Durr, for us, was the right fit, somebody who can score at all levels, who also can distribute.”

Han Xu can also score from out to the three-point line. The 14th overall pick is 6-9 and can play center or power forward. But Han, the second Chinese player drafted by a WNBA team, is slender. The question is, how will she do against strong post players?

“I must have good footwork because I’m not strong,” Han said.

Kia Nurse finished tied with three others in the GM survey as the player most likely to have a breakout season. The 6-foot guard-forward from UConn, a first-round pick in 2018, led the Liberty in preseason scoring at 17.3 points after averaging 9.1 as a rookie.   

“I think just all the work I put in in the offseason, being able to go to Australia [to play] for a couple of months as well, [I’m] using that to my advantage and trying to be more consistent offensively and defensively this year,” Nurse said.

Brittany Boyd and North Babylon native Bria Hartley are returning point guards. Tanisha Wright, a 35-year-old combo guard with defensive and leadership skills, was reacquired after spending the 2015 and 2016 seasons with the team.

The Liberty also have 6-5 forward-center Amanda Zahui B and 6-2 guard-forward Rebecca Allen returning. Both can be outside threats. Returning 6-3 center Kiah Stokes and new 5-10 French guard Marine Johannes have to complete overseas commitments.

“When you go into a season, you have to believe you’re a legitimate contender in every single game that you play,” Nurse said. “I think we’re going into the season with the belief in that.”

Three players to watch

Tina Charles, 10th season, 6-4 forward/center: Charles is always the central player to watch on the Liberty. The 30-year-old leader of the team led them in scoring at 19.7 points and rebounding at 7.0 last season. She’s already the franchise’s all-time leading rebounder after five seasons here, and she needs 67 points to break Vickie Johnson’s record of 3,246 and become its all-time leading scorer.

Asia Durr, first season, 5-10 guard: Durr averaged 21.2 points as a Louisville senior and was named the Dawn Staley Award winner as the country’s top guard. The two-time first-team All-American and two-time ACC Player of the Year finished as the No. 2 career scorer in Louisville history after being the No. 1 career scorer for girls and boys at St. Pius X Catholic High in Georgia.

Kia Nurse, second season, 6-0 guard/forward: Nurse looks like she’s capable of producing more offense after averaging 9.1 points as a rookie, including games of 34 points against Indiana, 28 against Phoenix and 25 against Dallas. She topped the Liberty in scoring during the preseason this month, averaging 17.3 points over four games, and she hit 47.4 percent of her threes. She also had eight games with at least two steals last season.

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