The New York Liberty opened the first day of training camp of the 2013 season at 9:00 AM. It was the first of two sessions for the day. For those of you who don't know me, my name is Ros Gold-Onwude. I sit in on practices as an analyst and reporter for the Liberty and this is the start of my second year with the team. With this season's training camp being one of the most highly anticipated in franchise history, I've decided to keep a diary of my observations from training camp. You can trust this diary to be informative, opinionated and honest.
Last season was the first WNBA training camp I'd ever witnessed. This is my second. After just one day of this season's camp I am not exaggerating when I say the energy is completely different. The intensity is heightened; the focus is visible in everyone's face. I expected some rigidness from rookies, but there was a nervousness I sensed even in the faces of returners and seasoned veterans. During warm ups before the start of practice some vets laughed quietly, tentatively. Every single available player was on the court before practice shooting, dribbling and preparing mentally. There wasn't much talking; this was the first day of business. I walked by returning star forward Plenette Pierson and asked how she was feeling. She replied with a smile, "I'm just getting my mind right. There's a new vibe. Can you feel it?"
Folks, don't get me wrong, what I'm describing isn't a bad energy in the gym. It is the opposite- the air was thick with concentrated anticipation, excitement, and curiousity, even. This is what the eve of high-level competition should feel like! 15 women, 11 spots, no givens! New staff, new system, and thus, many unknowns. Even the assistant coaching staff looked pensive. They walked from one to another whispering, going over plans, looking for the correct answer for how to set the tone for the season.
The staff is composed of former WNBA stars, varying levels of coaching experience and BIG personalities. Head coach and general manager Bill Laimbeer selected Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Barbara Farris as his full-time (full season) assistant coaches and added Teresa Weatherspoon and Tamika Whitmore as training-camp-only associate assistant coaches. Those five coaching personalities alone could have a preseason blog of their own, however, their biggest task is to smush all of their personal and professional storylines together for three fast paced weeks in the attempt to lay the foundations of a winning team.
The most relaxed person in the gym was the only male in the gym. Bill Laimbeer. Let me tell you about Bill
This guy kiiiiinda intimidates me. Upon walking into the gym he gives me a warm hello followed by a warning. "Great to see you Ros, just make sure your phone doesn't make any noise during practice or else you'll be paying for it."
"Coach, you're going to fine me? I don't make enough money to pay any fines!" I laughed.
"Well make sure its on silent, because either you pay up or you don't come back, " Bill responded.
"I'll just turn the phone off, coach, " I said with a meager laugh.
He laughed. I laughed. I knew he was serious. I put everything I owned on silent mode. My phone, my iPhone, I even turned my computer on, put the thing on mute, turned it off again, just to be sure.
You know, I already like that Bill. He's no nonsense with a pinch of humor. He makes you want to bring your A-game. I'm not even on the team but when I walk into the gym I come correct, ready to go.
The Liberty and Knicks share the same practice facility in Tarrytown, New York, about an hour outside of the city. With the Knicks in playoffs, the Liberty practice schedule is determined by the Knicks' schedule. Because the Knicks were practicing during the early afternoon, coach Laimbeer decided to start with a two-a-day format on the first day of training camp. Assistant coach Taj McWilliams-Franklin shared the goals for the day, "This first practice is about getting everyone on the same page with what we're running. We'll be putting in the offense. The second practice will be longer, full pace, contact, drills and games using those plays."
Practice started with a long dynamic warm-up and stretch, followed by a pass-and-layup warm-up drill with the ball. About 30 minutes into the first practice the team began to do offensive breakdowns. The players weren't learning to memorize plays, rather, Bill began his instruction by teaching how to execute pieces of plays. Coach Laimbeer took his time with the players. He demonstrated and talked through not only what players should do but also what they should be thinking. He took the next step by explaining, why this option in the offense might happen. For example, first he showed the players how he would like them to get open for the ball. Then he demonstrated how a lazy defender could be posted up and how an overzealous defense could be exposed with a back door. Laimbeer put value on power and speed, but laced every explanation with tales of precision, poise, and purpose. He said, "Post her up!" "Blow by her!" "Set that pick!" But he put the most emphasis on "Hold the screen!" "Finish your cut!" "There is no hurry!" and "Do it right!"
The players were also split into groups of guards and posts. The post players worked with coaches Taj, Barbara, Tamika, and Bill. The guards worked on the other end with Teresa Weatherspoon. The drills were basic footwork and position work drills. Each player executed each rep as though it might be her last move with a basketball. Every person in the gym, from player to coach to quietly-typing-reporter, was concentrating and trying to impress.
Everyone on the training camp roster was present on the first day except for Cappie Pondexter, Leilani Mitchell and Kara Braxton. One thing you immediately notice about the players at camp is that they are BIG. They Liberty are huge. Every player on the roster is listed at 5'9 and over except for Leilani Mitchell. I imagine Leilani will have a lot to prove as height is a benefit for Laimbeer's preference for players who can play more than one position. Now Liberty fans, I know you love you some Lei, and I do too, so, here is a list of deliverables for Ms. Mitchell. She must come in and show improvement on defense, strength, and toughness that makes up for height (think Nate Robinson). She has the ability to create and must continue to be the best three-point shooter on the team.
The rookies have a lot on their plate as they are learning not only the WNBA level of play but also are being thrust into a unique situation. Because a fresh system is being implemented and because there are so many new faces, they don't have the luxury of players familiar with the offense and defense to help them along. I was most impressed by Kelsey Bone (she is going to play, my friends!) and Shenneika Smith. I think Smith will surprise coach Laimbeer with her versatile skill set and length on offense and defense. Age and experience aside, training camp in general is exhausting both physically and mentally for all players. I asked the rookies how they were planning to use their time off in between practices and they answered in unison, "sleeping and eating!"
That's it for now, Liberty and WNBA fans! I'll be back with more diary entries of my observations from New York Liberty 2013 training camp. Stay tuned!