Commentary

Liberty off to promising start

Originally Published: June 6, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

After this opening weekend of the WNBA season, I think we can all say, definitively, that … um …

Well, we can say Seattle appears to be very good. Except we could have stated that with confidence before the season even started. Barring a key injury, there's nothing to suggest the Storm won't be in the thick of the postseason a few months from now.

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Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty ImagesPlenette Pierson scored 25 points and had 10 rebounds in New York's overtime victory at defending Eastern Conference champion Atlanta on Sunday.

Of course, injuries are the boogeyman in all sports, and especially those of the knee variety in women's basketball. There was a scary moment in the Storm's 79-71 season-opening victory Saturday against Phoenix in which forward Camille Little suffered a knee injury, but it was diagnosed as a sprain and she should be OK.

Point guard Sue Bird also fell on her right (shooting) hand during the game, but she shook that off. Still, it reminds me of this billboard for a nearby hospital that shows a little kid covered in bubble wrap. The message is, "You wish you could protect them all the time. But when injuries happen, come to us."

Even if you could put kids in 24/7 bubble wrap, they'd still find a way to break bones and need stitches. You just can't totally shield them. And you sure as heck can't stop injuries on the basketball court. So that, as always, remains an x factor in the WNBA season.

But what else really noteworthy did we see on opening weekend besides Seattle picking up where it left off in 2010? We witnessed the difference between the Lynx losing 82-74 at Los Angeles on Friday and turning around two days later to beat the Sparks 86-69 in Minnesota.

The entire Lynx team looked markedly better at home, and Minnesota finally beat the Sparks after losing the previous eight meetings with L.A. Lynx top draft pick Maya Moore looked very good in both games, not that anyone expected anything less.

Speaking of which, it was great to see Candace Parker back in action for the Sparks. But Sunday, she simply did not get the ball enough (10 shots). L.A. can't allow that to happen.

Now how about the Eastern Conference, and specifically New York opening with a 94-88 overtime victory at Atlanta?

I received an email from a livid Liberty fan the other day wondering how on earth I could have picked them to finish last in the Eastern Conference. And my first thought was, "Hmmm … did I pick them to finish last?" Because that's about how much those "picks" mean to me: They're essentially fading from my brain as soon as I hit the send button.

Then it came back to me: Yes, I had essentially flipped a coin, mentally, between Chicago and New York for last place. Well, it was more "scientific" than that. Kind of. I decided the Sky might come up with the right formula under new coach Pokey Chatman to really maximize the height they have inside, led by Sylvia Fowles. At the same time, I wondered if the Liberty's inside game would be up to snuff, with ageless wonder Taj McWilliams-Franklin now in Minnesota and former No. 1 draft pick Janel McCarville not playing in the league this season.

But those things make it seem as if I'm just taking for granted that the East basement definitely will be between Chicago and New York, which might not be the case at all. The East really seems loaded with question marks this season.

A lot will be expected of [Plenette] Pierson now with the Liberty, and in terms of mode of play, [coach John] Whisenant's system could fit her very well. She will be needed to work the boards hard every game, as will the enigmatic post Kia Vaughn.

The Liberty made the East finals last season, losing to Atlanta. Coach Anne Donovan left for Seton Hall, original Liberty general manager Carol Blazejowski was escorted from the premises, so to speak, and John Whisenant came on to take over both roles.

Whiz deserves credit for getting the Sacramento Monarchs pointed in the right direction and winning the 2005 WNBA title with them. But it was under his watch that Sacramento's talent level dropped, contributing largely to a 12-22 record in 2009.

That ended up being the Monarchs' final season, although their demise as a franchise had nothing to do with that losing record. It had everything to do with the financial status of the Maloof family that owned the Monarchs and continues to try to use the city's love of the Kings to get Sacramento to build a new arena. That saga remains ongoing.

But anyway, Whisenant is known for his defense-first mentality, although that is not what you'd think of when you see a 94-88 score. Other numbers that really stood out Sunday were Plenette Pierson's 25 points and 10 rebounds as a Liberty starter.

Pierson, entering her ninth season in the WNBA, really made her reputation as a super-sub in Detroit. Then she enjoyed her brief time with the relocated Shock in Tulsa last summer about as much as bored, hungry, claustrophobic passengers enjoy being trapped for hours in their plane on the tarmac when their flight's delayed.

Pierson was sprung from the Shock via trade to the Liberty, for whom she came off the bench and averaged 9.0 points.

We all know Pierson picked up a rep for being a hothead over the years, but that actually distorted what kind of player she really is. She likes structure in which she fits in. She wants to run plays precisely, to be sure of what's expected of her, and feel confident she and her teammates know where the others should be on court. That is part of why she was going bonkers with the more free-flow style in Tulsa.

A lot will be expected of Pierson now with the Liberty, and in terms of mode of play, Whisenant's system could fit her very well. She will be needed to work the boards hard every game, as will the enigmatic post Kia Vaughn.

"Enigmatic" is one of those adjectives used to say, "Who the heck knows what you'll get?" in regard to a certain player. While at Rutgers, Vaughn had games in which she was fantastic and others in which she was nearly invisible. Her two-year pro career has been more of the latter, but she's still quite young and has all kinds of talent in a powerful 6-foot-4 frame.

If Vaughn really needs to feel needed to perform more consistently, she should certainly feel that way with the Liberty. Youngsters such as rookie Jessica Breland and Quanitra Hollingsworth (who is in her third season in the WNBA but is actually nine months younger than Breland) could be contributing factors in the Liberty's interior attack. But it's probably not wise to expect them to carry much of a load.

Then there is Nicole Powell, who struggled with consistency last season after coming to New York in the dispersal draft from Sacramento. Powell had her best season statistically as a pro in 2009, and one of the big areas that decreased last year was her ability to get to the line.

Admittedly, when you become teammates with a penetrator the likes of Cappie Pondexter, your numbers in that regard are likely going to fall. But Powell went from an amazing 94-of-96 performance from the line in 2009 to 26-of-31 in 2010. She's still one of the league's most accurate free throw shooters, but she wasn't able to capitalize on going to the stripe enough last year.

And she had some stretches in which she really struggled shooting from the field, too. But Powell is a classic shooter, and those things are going to happen. If she is more like her 2009 self this season, that makes a big difference for New York.

Then, obviously, there is Pondexter, who became the face of the franchise when she went to New York from Phoenix last season. She has been such an extraordinary scorer as a pro that not as much focus goes on her defense. But she can be an excellent player there, too, and the Liberty need her in top form on both ends.

The absence of McCarville, who never came to training camp, elicits the standard consensus opinion from Liberty backers: that everybody else is dead wrong about her, while they are 100 percent right.

Meaning those Lib loyalists who think she was a valuable cog, especially with her passing skills as a big woman, are convinced the Liberty will really miss her. Others are sure J-Mac was overrated and that she underperformed, and essentially couldn't care less that she has not reported to duty in Lib's temporary home in Newark, N.J.

Both opposing viewpoints are absolutely correct, of course. Seriously, who can successfully argue with New Yorkers other than fellow New Yorkers?

At any rate, the early part of the season at least could give a decent gauge on the Liberty's status in the East, as they play Atlanta two more times and Indiana twice in the first two weeks. WNBA seasons aren't made in June, but it could be a time in which the Liberty set a tone that they are not dropping off from 2010.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.