NEWARK, N.J. – Quanitra Hollingsworth settles her foot atop of an ice pack and melts into a folding chair at her locker. She’s a little worse for wear tonight. She’s been nursing a sore plantar fascia in her foot and her New York Liberty just dropped a disappointing 68-59 contest at home to the Connecticut Sun, one of their biggest rivals in the Eastern Conference.
Despite a few physical and emotional bumps and bruises, she smiles speaks comfortably. One bad night isn’t going to get her down. In reality, she’s been playing the best ball of her short WNBA career and she knows it. Meanwhile, her new team, the Liberty, has won seven of 10 and is just a game out of first place. It could be worse, and in fact, it has been.
After two nondescript seasons with the Minnesota Lynx, who drafted her with the ninth overall pick in 2009, Hollingsworth was traded to the Liberty in May. As a result, the former VCU wunderkind has seen a radical change in the direction of her career.
This season, Hollingsworth is averaging better than five points and nearly four rebounds per game. If she qualified, her .526 field goal percentage would be among the league leaders. As the season has moved forward, her minutes have increased, a trend indicative of Liberty Coach John Whisenant’s increasing comfort level with the 6-5 center. She’s played 20 minutes or more in five of the Liberty’s last eight contests. The Liberty is 6-2 in those games and Hollingsworth is averaging 7.0 points and 4.5 rebounds. Hollingsworth often plays alongside 6-4 Kia Vaughn to give the Liberty an imposing frontcourt presence.
It’s a sharp departure from her tenure with the Lynx. Hollingsworth appeared in 34 games as a rookie in 2009, averaging 4.8 points and 3.2 rebounds. She hoped to make a greater impact in 2010, but instead found herself buried on the end of the bench. She played in 25 of 34 games, averaging just 7.3 minutes per game.
“The first year, I kind of understood,” Hollingsworth said. “You’re a rookie, you’ve got to work your way in. The second year, I almost lost my mind, to be honest. Because you could go and ask, ‘what’s the problem, why am I not playing? And they would say, ‘We’re trying to get you in.’ If there’s a reason why I’m not on the floor, tell me why. Don’t say I can be on the floor or your want to put me on the floor, but you don’t.”
In the end, the relationship was strained enough that Hollingsworth asked her agent to explore a trade. When Minnesota did deal the former first-round pick, it essentially gave her away, sending her to New York in exchange for the right to swap third round picks in the 2012 draft.
“I was happy [about the trade], and I was bitter at the same time,” Hollingsworth said. “You don’t really want to leave like that. In a way, it seems like you failed, but I guess it’s a part of the business.”
FROM PHENOM TO FORGOTTEN
Hollingworth’s fast track to college was predicated on academics more than athletics. She tested so well that she skipped the fifth and sixth grades. Basketball didn’t enter the picture until she was 11, but Hollingsworth’s tall, sturdy frame and ability to run the floor gave her a decided advantage from the start.
By the time she arrived at VCU at the age of 15, she wasn’t so much a finished basketball product as she was a coach’s dream project. Smart, with the length of a C-130 and the gait of a gazelle, she was raw both physically and emotionally, but her potential was (and still is) unlimited. Her commitment was a recruiting coup for VCU Head Coach Beth Cunningham, whose program was in dire need of a spark.
What Hollingsworth lacked in polish, her athleticism and length more than made up for. She piled up numbers and awards and led a previously underachieving program to its first NCAA appearance in 2009. She graduated as VCU’s career leader in rebounds and ranks second in points.
A professional career was a certainty, but Minnesota raised a few eyebrows when it used the No. 9 pick on Hollingsworth in the 2009 draft. Her game still had flaws – a limited offensive repertoire, specifically – but her athleticism, as well as her age (20), convinced the Lynx that the sky was the limit for the Chesapeake, Va. native. At the very least, Hollingsworth thought she could be a defensive force.
But it didn’t work out that way. In 2010, despite ranking ninth out of 12 teams in points allowed, Hollingsworth barely saw the floor, and she knew the end was near.
“I kind of had an inkling when I was overseas,” Hollingsworth said. “Throughout training camp, something wasn’t sitting right. One day after practice, they called me in and were like, ‘you’re headed to New York. Coach Whis really likes you and has been trying to get you since the draft. You’ll do really well in his system.’”
The Liberty have been displaced from their home at Madison Square Garden for the next three seasons due to summer renovations. In the meantime, they’ll play at the Prudential Center, a sparkling new arena in downtown Newark that also houses and New Jersey Devils and, for now, the New Jersey Nets.
Ask anybody and they’ll tell you, Newark isn’t New York. Sure, you can see the Statue of Liberty from Newark Airport, but that’s about as close as it gets. Newark has been battered by years of economic strife, but a few years ago, the city pushed all in with the Prudential Center, hoping to trigger a rebirth. The progress has been slow, but measurable. In that sense, it’s fitting that Hollingsworth has begun to rebuild her career here, just off bustling Market Street.
For the first time as a professional, Hollingsworth feels at home. Whisenant is in his first season as Liberty coach and general manager, but led the Sacramento Monarchs to the 2005 WNBA Championship. He has more than 30 years of coaching experience and had a clear vision of Hollingsworth’s role.
“I got here and he just told me, ‘I remember you from college, I know what you can do and that’s all I want you to do. Don’t try to do anything else. When you score, it’s a bonus, but really come out here and be a presence and rebound,’” Hollingsworth said.
Whisenant’s system has allowed Hollingsworth to concentrate on the things she does well, especially defend and rebound. Additionally, Hollingsworth’s rare ability for a player her size to get up and down the floor allows New York to push the ball in transition.
As a result, for the first time as a pro, Hollingsworth feels like she belongs.
“It was somewhat of an awakening,” she said. “I think when I first go into the league, I was a little intimidated. It wasn’t even the size factor. It’s just the whole, everyone’s pretty much on the same level and you have to find a way to surpass your competition, and I couldn’t quite figure that out.”