From his introduction to the media and Barclays Center on Wednesday, Walt Hopkins will bring all of the criteria needed to lead the New York Liberty and more
On Wednesday, Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb looked around before answering a question about his team’s new home arena and borough. “I think there’s a vibe here,” the GM said.
In the first official team press conference since falling to the Indiana Fever at home in September, where the awkwardness, uncertainty, was palpable, Wednesday was different. Kolb was right, there was a restored aura in the air. A vibe.
With a feel of a black-box theater and all of the flashing lights of an arena, the Barclays Center and the Liberty weren’t only introducing Hopkins, but a new aesthetic. The press conference curtain emblazoned a revised Liberty logo. The orange fire of the torch and its blue-coated crest were drained of its color as a black and white seal took its place.
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This change is purposefully symbolic and not meant to be of any disservice, but rather an affirmation of the direction of this franchise in 2020 and beyond.
In October, COO Keia Clarke foreshadowed such changes, stating her desire to “remain true to the traditions of this team” while making some changes. In other words, a revival instead of an overhaul is what’s in store for New York.
And that’s also exactly what the Liberty achieve in hiring Hopkins. In his first address to the New York media on Wednesday, those are his goals and beliefs as well: maintain the skill that the Liberty are known for while implementing changes that reflect not only the direction of the franchise but the status of the league in 2020.
“I think for me, one of the main things, one of the main focuses is going to be settling in and giving everyone agency to do what they do best,” Hopkins said Wednesday. “Be that players, staff, operations, everybody. I think everybody here is going to be really really talented already. So the main job of my position is going to be that they are in a position to succeed.”
Culture and Connection Focused, “Walt is about togetherness and connecting people”
When Kolb first introduced Hopkins, he called him a “genius” who won’t admit it. And as the Liberty GM praised his new head coach, Hopkins immediately looked away with humble confidence, rolled his eyes while smiling and shaking his head.
After a two-month search, Kolb communicated the main criteria in his choice. Basketball IQ. Check. An excellent communicator. Check. An ambassador of exemplary character. Check. “He sets standards and holds people accountable while leading with positivity, and these are all fundamental characteristics of building a championship level culture,” Kolb said.
In addition to instilling the famous Reeve-ism “you get what you accept” in the 2020 roster, Hopkins explained exactly the type of culture he aims to achieve in Brooklyn. He outlined what he believes are the “under-addressed” characteristics of great teams in the league.
“To focus on things that are controllable. I think it’s really easy to get caught up in performance-based goals, wins losses and things like that… but the measurables are going to be our effort on a daily basis,” he said. “They are going to be our growth individually, our reaction to mistakes, our ability to communicate with one another. Selflessness. Things like this go a longer way in developing the type of championship mentality and roster that we are all seeking in the league.”
Another indicator worth consideration is the cultural sensitivity that’s required to manage and support a roster diverse enough for the United Nations. While Hopkins’ experience and studies will only help him succeed in supporting his players from around the world, Kolb reminded me that in his observation of the 2019 squad, they were “pretty tight,” reaffirming the ideology that “basketball is an international language.”
Kolb is correct. It was clear that the team had a chemistry and respect for one another. Infighting was a non-issue for the 2019 squad. New York played hard for Katie Smith in 2019, but there was a disconnect in the locker room and not a clear team identity. Problems that plagued the team all season, including turnovers and lethargic three-ball defense, were issues that weren’t resolved.
A consequence of the Smith era despite the losing, was familiarity. Into that comes a new coach: the only ties Hopkins has to this roster are possibly the Cal alumnae, for whom he served as the academic tutor for all student-athletes at Berkley from 2014-2016.
His vision includes “an idea of people getting to their kill zones”
Hopkins, a coaching geek, learned from who he called an elite scouter in Cheryl Reeve and diligent worker James Wade.
“Her level of preparation is elite. It’s the best I’ve ever seen, the best I’ve ever been around,” he said on Reeve. “She works harder than everyone else that I’ve ever been around. [Wade] is kind of the same elk. [He’s] is a really fun person to be around, a really really good coach and a good relationship builder.”
Brought through a Lynx system heavily based on scouting and statistics, Hopkins began to map out the on-the-court identity that he sees for the Liberty. It begins with maximizing the roster’s strengths along with leaning toward the shots that aggregate the most points. The best offensive teams in the league fire set three-point shots, create layups and get to the line. In other words, in 2020 the Liberty will take more three balls and fewer long twos.
What will that mean in practice? Hopkins can utilize the sharp-shooting Australian Rebecca Allen and continue to develop international favorites Han Xu and Marine Johannès, referring to the twenty-year-old as “part of the plan” and the french native (or the 21 Century Statue of Liberty) as “one of the most underrated and talented players in this league.” Also, remember Amanda Zahui B.’s 37 point performance? More Amanda Zahui threes should be in store for 2020.
Now what about Tina Charles? At the moment, she isn’t even signed for this season. Hopkins is cognizant of exactly how Charles will fit into the offense. The franchise leading scorer is an “MVP level talent” according to Hopkins and legendary according to the Liberty GM.
“Tina’s a legend in New York and I told Tina this a year ago when I was hired was that: Tina Charles is New York basketball men or women,” Kolb said.
And if she returns, which Kolb said he expects, she will still be a major focus. Just not the only focus. Hopkins understands the mystery behind her less-efficient but still All-Star 2019 season. In attempting to carry New York as she grew accustomed to, Charles settled for shots that weren’t her “bread and butter” on the block.
“The need to develop her from three isn’t going to be as important as putting the right people around her in the system that allows her to sort of do what she’s great at and lets them do what they’re great at,” he said. “It’s to take away the contested off-balanced shots that are late in the shot clock because we didn’t do a great job at creating a better look for her before that.”
In addition to solving the Charles mystery, Hopkins also has a plan to quell the Liberty’s 2019 defensive woes.
"“One of my main focuses is going to be to play the percentages against teams. So we’re going to work out butts off scouting and we’re really going to prepare for kind of the anti-Liberty offense So if we’re offensively trying to seek the shots that we’re best at, that are the highest yield shots for us, defensively, we want to create the most low yield shots for the other team. And I think talking about a defensive identity, that’s where we’re going to live. It’s not so much gonna be we’re going to get up and force turnovers, take a ton of chances and give up layups. It’s going to be more we’re going to force as many long-contested twos that we don’t want to take offensively.”"
I’m sure he also has a scheme for limiting turnovers which was mostly a function of the instability at the point and lackluster pass selection. While both Kolb and Hopkins were mum on the specifics of the upcoming number one overall pick in the draft, the pair won’t be outworked. They are going on the road to see other prospects in addition to Sabrina Ionescu.
While Brooklyn technically doesn’t have a Mayor, Hopkins might be more visible than de Blasio
While Hopkins was raised in Nevada, his father was born in Brooklyn. And apparently Walter Sr.’s mannerisms and way of existing are very BK, as are his son’s.
“This is somebody who is going to get out in our community,” Kolb said. “He is going to shake hands with our neighbors, he’s going to let them know who the New York Liberty are and what we are about as we make this transition to Brooklyn.”
Hopkins is looking forward to the community and civic engagement responsibilities that come with representing the Liberty. He wants to be a part of difficult conversations and learn as much as he can.
“I want to be in market as much as I possibly can to those things,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do to grow this game. And I think the more and more on the ground, face to face interaction that we can have, the better.”
The community around the borough is diverse, which is nothing new for the Liberty’s most devoted fans. Diversity has long been a staple for the organization. It will be both Kolb and Hopkins’ responsibility to consider the systemic issues that plague the WNBA when selecting Hopkins’ coaching staff.
“In terms of women in sports, I think this is an exciting time,” Kolb said when asked about the looming lack of diversity at coaching positions within the league. “I understand the head-coaching position is very public, but there are ways right now we can make changes to that. Which is our basketball operations staff. Are there women in equipment, are they in analytics, are they in management roles? There are things that we’re looking at to help augment, and I think we can be at the forefront there.”
Hopkins mentioned that he wants his pool of candidates for his bench to be diverse, but he also will look for a common ideology and quality people.
“It’s just not easy to find that mix: somebody who’s really really good and also a really good person,” Hopkins said.
Rather than delegate coaching duties by position (guards and bigs), the goal will be to have a three-pronged system of specialists. Ideally, an offensive coordinator, a defensive coordinator and someone who can “focus on the pulse of the team.”
On the oculus outside the main entrance of Barclays Center, the digital banner welcoming coach Hopkins flashed the familiar Brooklyn black and white alongside a splash of seafoam green. Clarke kept her promise. It’s going nowhere.
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