What does Natasha Howard's 4-6 week absence mean for Liberty, Sabrina Ionescu?

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New York Liberty center and three-time WNBA champion Natasha Howard will be out 4-6 weeks with an MCL sprain, the team announced Wednesday. Howard, acquired via trade in the offseason, had recently rejoined the team from her overseas commitments and had looked dangerous with the squad that had already surprised fans with a 5-1 start. 

The good news for the Liberty is they've already shown they can eke out games without Howard. Here's what her absence will mean for the second-place team. 

Howard out with MCL sprain 

Howard injured her knee on Monday night during the fourth quarter of a 88-81 win against the Dallas Wings at Barclays Center. She appeared to get caught and knock knees on a ball screen. 

The Liberty said she underwent an MRI and exam at the Hospital for Special Surgery on Tuesday, which showed the medial collateral ligament sprain. 

Howard, 29, averaged 14.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 22.0 minutes in her two appearances. The 6-foot-3 forward is shooting 55.6 percent and is a strong complement to point guard Sabrina Ionescu in the pick-and-roll, which looked solid even without much practice since Howard missed training camp. 

The veteran and former Defensive Player of the Year's presence is needed more in the paint on both ends. The Liberty's foundation under head coach Walt Hopkins is a 3-point offense and they've had trouble against bigger teams down low, especially if their shots aren't falling — though that has yet to happen. 

At a 4-6 week time frame, Howard would miss eight to 13 games and return around July 9 on the long end. She could return for their two games ahead of the month-long Olympic break before teams return for regular season play on Aug. 15. 

There's also the real possibility the Liberty win the Eastern Conference and play in the Commissioner's Cup.

How does Howard's injury impact Liberty? 

A silver lining is that the Liberty have already practiced and played without Howard and they aren't starting from step 1 without one of their biggest stars. The squad did help Ionescu with her first career triple-double without Howard in town. But they will feel it in rebounding and defensively. 

Kylee Shook, a 6-foot-4 forward, took the four starts without Howard in town. She's averaging 6.7 points and 4.5 rebounds. Kiah Stokes, who leaves in a month for EuroBasket, and Rebecca Allen will also be relied on more heavily. 

And fans could see even more time for rookie Michaela Onyenwere, who is taking an early lead in the Rookie of the Year race. The former UCLA star has started every game and is averaging 9.3 points and 3.0 rebounds per game. 

She's looked nothing like a rookie in her first year, similar to Baylor graduate Didi Richards. Richards has played sparingly, but every time she sees the court is able to push the pace and force things defensively. She has a team-high 1.2 steals per game. 

While second-year player Leaonna Odom is still working her way back from an Achilles injury, the Liberty could use a hardship waiver to sign an additional player to the roster in the meantime. 

Liberty's upcoming schedule

New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) reacts after making the game winning basket against the Indiana Fever during a WNBA basketball game, Friday, May 14, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) reacts after making the game winning basket against the Indiana Fever during a WNBA basketball game, Friday, May 14, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

The Liberty have earned their 5-1 record, but they've had some good breaks along the way. They opened with two games against the 2020 last-place Indiana Fever, faced the a still gelling Minnesota Lynx team without Napheesa Collier and the Chicago Sky without three of their team's five starters. 

After hosting the Atlanta Dream in a Commissioner's Cup game on Saturday, the Liberty face the title-favorite Las Vegas Aces (2-2) twice, the recently defeated Connecticut Sun (5-1) and the Phoenix Mercury (2-2), albeit without Diana Taurasi. 

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