Charles Primed to Lead Libs

New York Liberty star Tina Charles is a tornado of motion and emotion.

Head bobbing, body pivoting, hands pointing to various areas of the court; Charles addresses each teammate in the huddle, always nodding in the affirmative.

If you didn’t know the scenario, the assumption might be that the Liberty are about to run a last-second play. Charles wants to confirm that each player knows her assignment.

But this is not a late-game situation. The Liberty are about to take the court for a preseason game.

Charles however, is not leaving anything to chance.

In an exclusive sit-down with Lenn Robbins, Tina Charles talks about becoming the Liberty's leader on the court and what winning a title in New York would mean for her, the team and the City.

Entering her eighth WNBA season, Charles has already established herself as one of the best the league has seen. She was the Rookie of the Year in 2010, the MVP in 2012 and a first or second-team All-WNBA selection every year. Last season, she became just the third player ever to lead the league in scoring (21.5) and rebounding (9.9).

There’s not much missing from that resume except the most important achievement a professional athlete can claim – champion.

Charles is keenly aware of that omission. It is why she is adding the role of leader to those of leading scorer and rebounder.

“Tina is a vocal leader now,’’ Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer told MSGNetworks.com. “Last year, it was Swin Cash and Tanisha Wright. They’re now gone. Tina knows this is her time to step forth. She’s been trained well by those two.

“She’s led by example. Now it’s also lead by the words. She’s doing a great job so far.”

In part 1 of Lenn Robbins' exclusive one-on-one interview with Bill Laimbeer, the Liberty head coach gives his thoughts on the strengths of the team, Tina Charles' leadership and this season's expectations.

The job starts in earnest on Saturday (3 p.m.; MSG) when the Liberty opens their 2017 season against the San Antonio Stars at The Garden. Charles has been on a mission all preseason, averaging 13 points in just 16.5 minutes.

But playing great isn’t good enough. Leading the way to greatness, on the other hand, is the six-foot-four, 192-pound center/forward’s personal mandate.

And personal it is.

Charles is one of four ‘City Girls’ on the Liberty along with guard Bria Hartley (North Babylon), guard Epiphanny Prince (Brooklyn) and center Kia Vaughn (Bronx).

They know that a title isn’t just lacking from their resumes. The city hasn’t seen a championship team since 2012. It’s time.

“It would mean everything,’’ Charles said. “Not just for this franchise, but for this city of New York.

“I think the city of New York is longing for any organization of New York City to win a championship. It’s been a long time coming. I hope it’s us that’s able to do it and relieve all the fans of New York City. It’s very personal for us.’’

So is Charles’ place in history. She has a chance to be mentioned in the same breath as the greatest that have ever played the game:

Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Michael Jordan and LeBron James are all great players who emerged as championship caliber leaders.

This is not to say Charles is developing a new personality. She has always led by example: she’s first in the gym for practice; last out. Her work ethic leaves teammates amazed and humbled; coaches too.

“She’s the hardest working player out there and she expects everybody, including the coaches, to work as hard as she does,’’ Laimbeer said. “If we all do that collectively, our talent will take over and we’ll do very well. What does very well mean? We have to go play the games.’’

The last game the Liberty played in 2016 burns like the first bee sting of spring.

New York finished with the best record (21-13) in the Eastern Conference, but was ousted by the Phoenix Mercury, 101-94, in a one-game playoff. This team will have a deeper, more experienced and physical makeup.

In addition to Charles stepping forward as the face and voice of the franchise, the addition of Vaughn gives New York a physical presence in the paint. The Liberty acquired Vaughn and Hartley, who can play lead and off guard, from the Washington Mystics for center Carolyn Swords.

Prince, who played the final six games of the season after returning from a torn ACL in her right knee, is fully recovered and ready for a full season.

The core of Charles, Prince, Vaughn, Shavonte Zellous and Sugar Rodgers is rock solid. But the success or failure of this team might rest in the emergence of the ‘5-3 Club.’

Rebecca Allen, Brittany Boyd, Cierra Burdick, Kiah Stokes and Amanda Zauhi B are all entering their third season in the league. With the retirement of Cash and Wright, their development is crucial.

Boyd staked her claim to the starting top point guard spot. Stokes, who will start alongside Charles, improved her statistics from 6.4 points on 54.7-percent shooting and 5.8 rebounds in 25 minutes as a rookie, to 6.9 points on 64-percent shooting and 7.4 rebounds last season.

Zellous will start at small forward with Rodgers alongside Boyd in the backcourt. Don’t expect the Liberty to go with the same starters also season.

Allen, Burdick, and rookie Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, all 6-2, offer tremendous flexibility on both ends of the court.

The pieces are all in place. And Charles is poised to assume the role of master maneuverer and motivator. As Laimbeer said, it is a role she has been building towards.

“I’ve always been vocal,’’ Charles said. “Maybe not the one yelling and pointing and everything like that, but I have a good relationship with my teammates to be able to go up to them and hold them accountable.

“For me, it is being very vocal. It’s me needing to know all the plays so I can make sure everyone is in the right position. Knowing the defensive schemes. Keying in on what I have to do to do it correctly so I can call others out on what they need to do. For me it’s easy it’s nothing out of the ordinary.’’

Perhaps. But nothing about Charles is ordinary.

Charles is one of the top five players in the world. She’s looking for extraordinary and if it means being the voice and face of the franchise, Charles is willing to be in charge.

“I came in early once and I was riding the bike,’’ Boyd said. “Tina came out of the training room and said to me, ‘Don’t just ride the bike. If you’re here, get some other work in.’

“When Tina Charles tells you something like that, you listen. With everything she’s accomplished, she’s still working to get better and teaching us how to get better. That’s a leader.’’

NOTES: In what he described as a ‘tough’ decision, Laimbeer said the team decided to waive top draft pick Lindsay Allen, the All-American point guard from Notre Dame.

“Tough one, no question about it. She played hard and showed herself but at the end of the day we had to make a business decision and when we sat down as a group, we collectively came to that decision.’’

The addition of Hartley and the fact that the Liberty will lose Prince and Vaughn to the FIBA EuroBasket tournament in June might have influenced the staff out of necessity to keep another forward over a guard.

HAPPY WEEKEND: Hartley might have to pinch herself this weekend. The Long Island native will make her debut in a New York uniform on Saturday. The next day, she’ll celebrate her first Mother’s Day as a mom. Hartley had her son, Bryson, on Jan. 14.