First-year New York Liberty coach Walt Hopkins spoke with ESNY about the 2020 WNBA Draft and unity in an unusual offseason.
As New York sports fans navigate through these trying times, their teams are filtering good news, auras of positivity throughout the landscape.
The New York Liberty are no exception to the trend. For example, team owner Joe Tsai came through for the city with a sizable donation of over two million masks and other medical equipment. Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, the team was doing its part off the court, with All-Star guard Kia Nurse donating to the Australian wildfire relief in her own unique way.
The team is next set to come through for fans looking for sports action, a distraction among the distancing. New York holds the first pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft next Friday night (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu is slated to be the star attraction, with other talent rolling in the form of Baylor forward Lauren Cox, Texas A&M guard Chennedy Carter, and Ionescu’s Eugene sisters Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard.
First-year Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins recently took a break from draft preparation to speak to ESNY about the upcoming proceedings, all well as navigating a most unusual offseason with his new team…
Q: How are you and Liberty management navigating this unusual draft process?
A: Obviously, it’s a bit different because we’re not meeting in person, getting everyone together, sitting in a room, getting everybody together, putting things on a board. We’ve been navigating it by setting up something like a Google Doc. We’ve got an area that everybody can access all the time. We’ll conference call, we’ll look at the different things that we’ve set up, different scenarios, possibilities, mock drafts.
Anything that we think could happen, we’re trying to be ready for. But outside of the in-person vs. virtual, it’s been pretty similar to other drafts that I’ve gone through.
Q: What’s the biggest difference in preparing for a draft as a head coach compared to an assistant?
A: I think one of the main things that is fun for me is that I get to do more in terms of moving the types of questions we ask, the types of players we’re looking at based on some of the things both on-court, off-the-court, personality-wise, that fit into the system. Obviously, when it’s your vision alongside (Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb), we have a very clear vision on how we want to do things, it helps to be the one to direct the conversation, it helps to dive into the things that are really important to me, that may not have been as important to another head coach.
I can frame conversations personally in ways that are much more direct with the prospects. As I call them, I can ask them really direct questions and not feel or wonder if my head coach would want me to ask that, or if I’m being too direct with a player, saying “x, y, or z” wouldn’t be a great thing for us, do you feel comfortable coming into a situation where this is expected, this isn’t tolerated. this is something that we want. I think these things are really great questions to ask a prospect when they know it’s coming from a place of no pressure. There’s no wrong answer, there’s no judgment.
These are honest questions where you can find out a lot from these players. But it was stuff that I really wasn’t sure if I should or could say. I was always really respectful of dynamic. It’s been fun and informative. It really allows us to get a complete picture of everybody we’re looking at.
Q: How does the freedom of having the top pick affect your approach?
A: Having the number one pick is amazing because at least you can slot in. You know you can get whichever player you want. That’s the only time where you can be sure. Otherwise, you can never be sure. Other teams might say they want somebody. You might’ve heard a lot of things. Something crazy always happens on draft day. Some pick always comes out of left field. So if you’re picking at, say, eight or nine, there are so many dominoes that have to fall to have an idea of where you’re going to be.
(Having the top pick) gives you a sense of agency in terms of how you’re going to plan when you know you can whichever player you want at number one.
Q: How can any of the top picks immediately change the Liberty, as well as the long-term culture of New York basketball?
A: I think all of the potential top picks have different strengths. They all have different things that they can bring to your team. There are certain people where you have to consider what those strengths and weaknesses are, but I think you can go into each of them ad nauseam.
Primarily, what you’re looking is that you’re going to get a top-tier prospect no matter who you pick. Who’s going to help you? It all comes down to what attributes you covet. That kind of determines which way you would go with that pick.
Q: What are the type of attributes you covet as a coach?
A: There’s a lot! We’re talking a lot about character with all athletes. A really important piece of our culture is developed and maintained not only by our staff and front office, but obviously it also falls on the players. A lot of the calls, the background research, the talking to coaches and strength trainers and things like that, it’s all to glean a really clear picture of what (a prospect) is like as a person.
Obviously, there are on-court attributes that are important, like a combination of skill and athleticism, versatility. Those are all highly covered in the type of offense we want to run. But, at the end of the day, if they’re not good people, if they’re not going to care and put their teammates first, be unselfish, then it’s going to be a really tough fit and it’s probably not going to work out. So those are the people we’re trying to make sure that we get a really good look at. It’s the character, either way.
Q: How do you prepare for a season whose status is up in the air? Have you been able to speak with your team?
A: Yeah, I speak with them frequently. We’ve all had really good conversations. Everybody’s safe and doing well. It’s challenging for all of us. I’m sure everyone can relate to what a crazy time this has been. I’ve been in isolation for 27 days now.
It’s definitely challenging. But in terms of the way we approach the season, the only way you can go about it is planning for the unknown. That means you’ve got to go about it by planning for a season that starts on time. You have to plan for a season that’s a couple of weeks later. Plan for a season that starts even later. Plan for anything that can happen. With overseas players, there are so many considerations.
We’re constantly trying to stay ahead of that stuff. There’s no way to know how this is all going to turn out. The things happening with COVID-19, it changes and evolves every single day, our understanding of what it’s going to mean for the world, what it’s going to mean for sports on a much smaller scale. Right now, we’re planning for all those eventualities the best we can.
Q: What has it been like to have a familiar face in (assistant coach and fellow Minnesota Lynx transfer) Shelly Patterson by your side in this process?
A: She’s just a really, really special person and a really, really good coach. Shelly has a strong voice and absolutely unmatched experience. She’s been coaching for so long around so many great coaches. She’s coached so many great players, some of the all-time greats. So her perspective after having gone through decades of drafts, just in this process, is invaluable.
In addition, she’s just a fun, good person to have on a staff call. She brings a levity to every situation while also being professional and prepared. We couldn’t be luckier to have her.
Q: If and when we do get underway, what can fans expect from the Liberty in this exciting new era?
A: I think what we’re going to see is excitement. I think a team that really enjoys playing with one another and a team that is going to play with a lot of pace and intensity, and a team that is having fun is one of the biggest goals.
We’re going to be focused highly on growth, on the process and development, on the process of creating chemistry and having a team that really looks out for one another. That’s going to be everyone in the organization. It’s been that way with ownership throughout COVID-19 and everything that’s going on. They have been tremendously supportive and prepared. I think that it trickles down. It’s the same type of people that we have in leadership with the staff and with the players. We’re hoping to have that reverberate throughout the entire organization.
Q: Do you think you’ve seen that growth in your players’ overseas exploits this offseason?
A: Yes. We haven’t really gotten to come in and put our fingerprints on it yet, which is going to be really exciting because myself and Shelly, we’ve got a really strong background in development. It was particularly exciting to be around Shelly as she worked with people in Minnesota. Obviously, that’s kind of how I got my start. It’s something I really hold my hat on, developing players both mentally and physically.
Rebecca Allen, for example, just won Turkish league MVP. She’s really, really excited to let it fly a little bit this season. She’s got a tremendous skill set and she’s got a rare mix of characteristics in that she’s about 6’2 and she’s really long and she’s deceptively athletic to go with her ability to put the ball on the floor and get fouled and shoot the three at such a high level. That’s really the type of player we absolutely need for this system to work and we’ve got one built-in already. On top of that, she’s a phenomenal person.
But you get to see what she does overseas when she’s got a little more leeway and freedom. That’s what’s fun about watching all of our players overseas. Most times, they’re the star of their team. They are relied upon to do a lot more. In our dense, highly competitive league, fewer players get to be that way. But when they go overseas, it’s really fun to watch. Bec is going to be really fun to watch this year.
Q: What’s your message to Liberty fans and New York in general in these trying times?
A: Please stay safe, please stay inside. Take all necessary precautions. Know that we are doing everything we can, everything in our power to make everything go the best it possibly can for this franchise. But for the people of New York, on a much larger scale, we really just want everyone to stay safe, take this very seriously.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags