When Epiphanny Prince returned from the ACL injury that cost her nearly all of the 2016 WNBA season, Bill Laimbeer could see the potent scorer was not herself.
Prince, who tore the ACL in her right knee in November 2015, made her 2016 debut for the Liberty on Aug. 26. She played six games and averaged only 5.2 points in 13.9 minutes.
“It was very difficult for her,” Laimbeer said. “Overcoming an injury is difficult for anybody, especially when you just came back. You’re unsure of yourself. You’re unsure of your physical condition, so it was a bit trying for her.”
After a full season overseas that has helped her regain trust in the knee, Prince could play a key role for the Liberty in 2017. She scored 11 points and added three rebounds, two assists and two steals in 22 minutes in the team’s season-opening 73-64 win over the San Antonio Stars on Saturday at the Garden.
“I feel good,” said Prince, who averaged 15.0 points and 3.4 assists per game for the Liberty in 2015. “I’m just excited to be back and ready to play.”
Prince was one of five Liberty players to reach double-figures. Tina Charles scored 12 points (shooting 6-for-19 from the field) and Shavonte Zellous, Brittany Boyd and Cierra Burdick each scored 10.
Prince, who did not shy away from contact and converted 7 of 9 free-throw attempts, said the ACL was not her first serious lower-body injury. She said she suffered a Jones fracture — a fracture of the foot’s fifth metatarsal — in 2012. Returning from that injury was not as mentally stressful, though.
“The ACL was harder for me because the Jones fracture, I had a screw in it, and they told me I couldn’t break it,” she said. “But the ACL, you’re just thinking this could happen again. I think just the mental part of it was harder.”
Prince said that concern faded as she played a full 2016-17 season with Russia’s Dynamo Kursk. She averaged 9.0 points, 3.0 assists and 1.7 steals in 24.1 minutes per game as the team won the EuroLeague championship.
“We won, so that’s always a good feeling,” Prince said, “but just to be back out there and be able to contribute and help the team win, it felt really good.”
Dynamo Kursk’s run to the Russian championship kept Prince overseas until early May, so she missed a significant chunk of the Liberty’s training camp. For that reason and because she will return overseas for most of June to compete for Russia in the FIBA EuroBasket tournament, Laimbeer elected to have her begin the season on the bench (Liberty teammate Kia Vaughn also will compete in the tournament for the Czech Republic).
But while Prince is available, the expectation is for her to score. “That’s what we expect from her this year, to put the ball in the hole,” Laimbeer said.
Laimbeer expressed his discontent with the team’s overall performance in the season opener — the Liberty could not pull away from San Antonio, which was without star guards Moriah Jefferson and Kelsey Plum — but noted that Prince’s performance as a positive.
“Piph was the same as she was many years ago and a few years ago,” he said. “I think she’s going to be a quality player for us this year.”