New York Liberty down to three head coaching candidates

New York looks at assistants that are students of legendary league coaches

Multiple league sources tell High Post Hoops that in addition to current Minnesota Lynx assistant coach Walt Hopkins, the New York Liberty are considering Washington Mystics Associate Head Coach Eric Thibault and former Connecticut Sun assistant coach Steve Smith for the Liberty head coaching position.

While Hopkins has learned under Cheryl Reeve – who acknowledged on her own podcast the interest her assistant has been attracting – he is incredibly bookish when it comes to coaching. For Hopkins it’s as much of an art as it is a science. His masters degrees from Harvard and UC Berkeley, which focused on educational psychology, prove he has a dedication to player development and improvement.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN- AUGUST 27: Assistant Coach Walt Hopkins and Head Coach Cheryl Reeve look on during the game against the Chicago Sky on August 27, 2019 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

A testimonial from Hopkins’ LinkedIn page describes the type of team culture that New York could use to succeed.  “Walt has an infectious personality that makes training extremely fun, but he also demands a level of respect – a respect that he reciprocates – which is a trait that I have found is rare in the basketball world.”

The 2019 New York Liberty roster genuinely enjoyed coming to work and had clear social chemistry. I previously reported that amid a “rollercoaster” of a season, infighting among the players wasn’t an issue.   On an Instagram story on Thursday, Tina Charles and Amanda Zahui B. had a reunion in China. Charles captioned the story calling Zahui B. family.

Thibault shouldn’t need an introduction, but I’ll provide one anyway. Just a mere two months ago, he helped lead the Washington Mystics alongside father Mike to the 2019 WNBA championship, a first for the organization.

Like Hopkins, Thibault has a track record in developing guards, especially at the point. Natasha Cloud became a force for the Mystics and was integral in their journey back to the WNBA Finals. The Liberty also saw promise in the point guard, but couldn’t acquire her in 2019.

But a prime advantage for the current Washington Mystics Associate Head Coach is his familiarity with some of the 2019 roster. Bria Hartley, who was traded from Washington in 2017, has experience working with Thibault.  As does Charles, who has a very special relationship and respect for father Mike. While Eric wasn’t officially on the Connecticut Sun coaching staff with his father, he led workouts as a college student.  I imagine Eric could be another “guy to believe in [Charles]” and their partnership could bring New York and Charles their first championship.

UNCASVILLE, CT – JUNE 27: Connecticut Sun forward Chiney Ogwumike (13), assistant coach Steve Smith, head coach Curt Miller and assistant coach Brandi Poole look on during a WNBA game between Indiana Fever and Connecticut Sun on June 27, 2018, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. Connecticut won 101-89. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Steve Smith, (another Smith!), who is currently serving as the athletic director of the Oakwood School in Los Angeles, rounds out the top three. Smith was previously an assistant coach on the Connecticut Sun under Curt Miller from 2016 through 2018. Both he and Miller served under Brian Agler on the Los Angeles Sparks’ bench in 2015.

The quality that makes Smith stand out from Hopkins and Thibault is the scope of his career. His coaching career spans over 25 years and this includes tenures at the high school, college and professional levels. He coached at the helm of the Dominican College men’s basketball team for seven years and has over ten years of experience in the WNBA.

“That’s the first thing that Coach Miller always preaches about which is ‘championships are won in the locker room’,” Smith said in an interview on the Connecticut Sun’s Facebook page in April 2018.

What’s significant about this comment is New York GM Jonathan Kolb has the same exact belief, which he reiterated to me in October. “Winners are built in the locker room,” he said when I inquired about what qualities he’s looking for in a head coach.

A surprising exclusion from this group? Current Sun assistant Brandi Poole.

Who will Kolb choose: a coaching geek, a familiar face or experience and ideology?

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