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Rookies Nia Coffey, Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe Enjoy Solid WNBA Debuts

The big news in the Big Apple this weekend, besides New York Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer laying down the law in the post-game press conference and the Knicks’ Zen Master Melo-drama, was that San Antonio Stars No. 1 overall pick Kelsey Plum’s injured ankle kept her sidelined for the 2017 regular season opener. However, both the Stars and Liberty still got a nice glimpse of the future in Nia Coffey and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe. 

Nia, San Antonio’s No. 5 overall pick in the 2017 Draft from Northwestern University, finished with three points (1-5 FG, 0-1 3Pt, 1-2 FT) and five rebounds in just over 16 minutes of action. Her first field goal came on a beautiful baseline drive along the left baseline – which she kissed off the glass while side-stepping a help defender at the rim. Believe it or not, Coffey was actually the only Star to post a positive on-court Plus-Minus (+3) on the day. Sure, San Antonio had the worst record in the league last year, but once Plum and Moriah Jefferson (knee soreness) heal up, the Stars won’t be an easy win to look forward to anymore.

For the home squad, Nayo was the lone rookie to survive training camp and earn a contract. Raincock-Ekunwe turns 26 in late August, and with several years of experience playing overseas in Switzerland, Germany, Australia, and France, she’s no stranger to professional basketball. When Raincock-Ekunwe made a recent podcast appearance on At Liberty To Speak, she talked about the difficult road for young Canadian hoopers, and expressed gratitude for receiving a chance to make the team. “I didn’t really think I would have this opportunity…I’m excited to be here, excited to work hard, get better, and push my teammates…WNBA coaches look at certain leagues and see who’s kinda doing well and I guess I stood out and the Liberty got in contact with my agent, so yeah it’s pretty darn cool to come out of a Canadian school and be here I’ve definitely had to prove myself to be here.”

Nayo’s journey to the WNBA is a rather interesting one, and her career should be one to follow. She beat out both of New York’s draft picks (Lindsay Allen, Kai James) for a spot on the roster, but let’s take a step back for a second. Raincock-Ekunwe went to Simon Fraser University (SFU), the first Canadian school to join the NCAA. SFU reached the Sweet 16 of the Division II tournament in her senior year of eligibility, this after winning just two games during year one in the Grand North Athletic Conference (GNAC). Since then, she has won a gold medal in the Pan-Am games playing for her homeland, competed in the Olympics, won basically every individual award that exists in Switzerland, won a DBBL title in Germany, and like many other WNBA players, will head back to Europe (specifically, to France) for more once the season is finished here in the U.S.

Prior to the game, I asked coach Laimbeer what we can expect from Raincock-Ekunwe this year.

“A fine athlete, learning her way. She’s a 4 right now, we’re going to try to transition her to a 3, and it will be a working process for a while but I think she’s gonna see some quality time this year,” Laimbeer said.

Laimbeer graciously granted me a follow-up question regarding the challenges of making that switch from the 4 to the 3.

“Understanding guarding perimeter players, understanding how to drive with the ball at times. She’ll get it, it’ll just take a while.”

Just from watching some of this tape or Nayo’s regular season debut, you’ll find it fairly obvious that Raincock-Ekunwe can defend in the paint as well as along the perimeter. On the other end, she is much more comfortable in the post than she is away from the basket though. It’s rare that Nayo sets up on the perimeter and sinks a jumper or makes a dribble drive past a defender.

Here’s how Raincock-Ekunwe humbly described herself on At Liberty To Speak:

“I consider myself a pretty dynamic, athletic player. I love to run, I love to get out and hustle, every loose ball it’s my goal to be on it – just an aggressive, hard game. I’m undersized for this league in terms of weight at my position [power forward], but I think what I might lack in force I make up for in quickness, so I use that to my advantage when I’m playing against bigger players.”

Laimbeer stated in the post-game press conference that he hopes to rest Tina Charles more this season than in the past. That could open up some minutes for Raincock-Ekunwe down low. Laimbeer was mad for most of the post-game session. Still, his optimism regarding Raincock-Ekunwe’s debut was on full display.

“I thought Nayo, you know, got her feet wet. I’m trying to force-feed her the 3 position, but I put her at the 4 today so she was a little bit confused at times, but her energy is second to none on our basketball team. It’s gonna take her a while to understand the league, but we like her.”

The presence of sharpshooter Sugar Rodgers and rangy power forward Tina Charles – makes Nayo occupying the 3 feasible. But in my opinion, I’m a tad concerned that this an Aaron Gordon situation where the coach may be trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Raincock-Ekunwe finished with one rebound, two turnovers, and three personal fouls in about seven minutes of playing time, but she did what Liberty legend and San Antonio Stars first-year head coach Vickie Johnson was famous for: making winning plays that don’t always show up in the box score.

As Julianne Viani said on the NBATV broadcast: “You’re gonna see her length all over the floor, she’s a Bill Laimbeer type player, just a hustler, she’ll be diving for loose balls.”

This was right after one of Nayo’s game-high number of dives to the hardwood.

If you’ve made it this far and still want more, here are the rest of my game notes on Raincock-Ekunwe’s debut and a call to all to get out and experience the WNBA up-close and in-person.

***

Nayo checks in at end of first quarter, first possession sits down in a great stance, switches on a screen, boxes out a shooter at the top of the key, beats everybody down the floor, seals a defender, and the Liberty get a highlight-reel fast-break finish out of it.

Matched up on Coffey to start the second quarter, Raincock-Ekunwe kept the fellow rookie out of the paint with excellent off-ball positioning. Nayo does a spectacular job of using her body on defense.

The next possession she set a strong (but potentially uncalled moving) screen that freed Epipihany Prince for a wide-open shot.

Another area that Nayo reminds me of Laimbeer is her vision. Her first turnover was a forced pass into the paint, but she sprinted back on defense and came up with a deflection before being called for a loose-ball foul. More on her passing in a minute.

Less than two minutes after Viani praised Raincock-Ekunwe’s effort and referred to her as a Laimbeer-type player, Nayo came crashing in for an amazingly athletic offensive rebound and wound up on the floor after basically being tackled.

Her second turnover came on a miscommunication, but it may have been a sweet dime had Rodgers finished her backdoor cut.

Later in the fourth quarter, Nayo was partly responsible for creating two second-chance opportunities, one of which I’m pretty sure she should’ve received credit for. In case the statistician reads this, I think she’s owed a second board. Just saying.

Director of Franchise Development and WNBA Liberty legend Teresa Weatherspoon referred me to Laimbeer when I asked her about Nayo – but she also raved about Raincock-Ekunwe’s incredible athleticism pre-game – this after warmly greeting me (a nobody) with a smile and a handshake like she had known me for decades. This was the first time that I attended a WNBA game, but it most certainly won’t be my last – even if I’m not extended a credential again. My hope is that soon the attendance (8,207) doubles, extending to the upper decks. There really isn’t a bad seat at The Garden, and these phenomenal athletes deserve the support of the entire state. There are more and more nights that won’t feature an NBA game in the coming weeks and months. Now is the time to start tuning into the WNBA. Cal Ramsey, John Starks, Larry Johnson, Latrell Sprewell, and Chasson Randle were in the house. Rob Base was blasting throwbacks at halftime. And the main event is an improving and impressive product. As a math teacher from Brooklyn named Gene told me before tipoff: “I thought I would notice a difference. All I see is the ball.”

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