Inside the New York Liberty’s 2020 Draft preparations
In the middle of a global pandemic, New York Liberty General Manager Jonathan Kolb kept using the same word to describe how he’s feeling right now. With the 2020 WNBA Draft now a mere week away, he said he’s just so excited, and even a bit giddy.
He believes that the unprecedented state of the 2020 [virtual] draft affirms an intrepid statement. In his words, going forward with the draft proves that the WNBA is “not standing still,” but rather is capitalizing on what has been a landmark year for women’s basketball.
With the number one overall pick in the upcoming draft — a first in franchise history —expectations are high. New York is expected to draft the resident triple-double queen in Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu. This is a no-brainer for an organization that has been searching for a reliable and dominant presence at the point.
More from New York Liberty
- Marina Johannes: Put some respect on her name
- Your Day in Women’s Basketball, October 22: UConn settles with women’s basketball coaches
- Your Day in Women’s Basketball, October 12: Sabrina Ionescu is ready to ball
- Your Day in Women’s Basketball, September 28: All-Rookie team announced
- Your Day in Women’s Basketball, September 10: Dream are (mathematically) stayin’ alive
But with all else being equal, what exactly did Kolb and freshman head Coach Walt Hopkins’ first cycle of recruitment look like? While the decision to bring Ionescu to New York has been obvious since September of last year, both made it clear to me that this process has been extensive and “methodical.” The Liberty aren’t one and done in this draft; picks 13 (from the Atlanta Dream) and 26 are theirs. Then again, that could change between now and April 17. Do the Liberty trade up to gain a younger big who can rim protect? They might and probably should.
The road to the war room
For both Hopkins and Kolb, 2020 Draft day preparation presented a new set circumstances. For the coach, this was the first opportunity he would have leading recruitment and scouting practices. And for Kolb, it meant longer than a month to prepare. (He was hired by the Liberty in March of 2019 which followed by an April 10 draft.)
When asked about the differences between the years, Kolb noted that with more time came a more uniform evaluation system. Both confirmed the two-pronged approach. They are seeking players who have skill sets that match Hopkins’ system and personalities that yield a well-defined Brooklyn culture framed around accountability and selflessness.
“So off the court, it really comes down to high integrity and high character for us,” Kolb said. “On the court, we are always looking for athleticism. Players that can shoot the ball at a high-efficiency clip and people that are just workers, that are really going to grind it out and are going to buy into what we’re building.”
Hopkins expanded on what New York is looking for, stressing that protean players as a vital consideration. The goal for the Liberty in 2020 is to impose their “offensive will” while having the ability to defend the two different models for teams in the league.
“The idea of having players who can play multiple positions, guard multiple positions, obviously, is attractive,” Hopkins told High Post Hoops. “Just having as much versatility as you can different lineup combinations, depending on who you’re playing. Because the league has a lot of different styles from team to team. Some teams have, you know, the big bigs, the traditional big bigs that they play through and other teams are going in a completely different direction to try to spread you out and focus on their guard play.”
Excluded from the process, however, was the ability to scout an NCAA tournament. But, Hopkins stressed the importance of conversations with potential prospects, and sharpening “interview techniques.” A pivotal resource throughout the entire journey to April has been newly hired assistant coach Shelley Patterson, who has been involved in drafting professional prospects for close to twenty years.
Kolb describes her as someone who “works with level of joy that is admirable.” She’s a professional in every sense of the word. Hopkins, who has referred to Patterson as “his rock,” values her potent voice and the wide net that her perspective covers.
“If there are ideas that we have that might be a little bit too forward-thinking for her initially, it’s good to hear that opinion of somebody who doesn’t quite see the way that we see things,” he said. “And so it’s good for us to be able to kind of bounce those types of ideas off of her, just to hear how she responds because sometimes she comes up with some really good points, counterpoints. So what we’re trying to do or how someone might guard it, or how we might guard something…we all know that dissenting voice in a group full of people, and she’s not afraid to have that voice.”
The strength of the 2020 Draft class is due to the WNBA’s longevity
Working in the WNBA front office for five years before landing the GM gig with the Liberty, Kolb saw multiple classes of talent enter the league. Observing draft cohorts led by number one picks from Chiney Ogwumike to Breanna Stewart, he found that the prospects didn’t necessarily have an extensive current knowledge of the league. Usually, draftees knew the “legacy players” instead of the “recent ones.”
What impressed him about the class of 2020 was their more expansive knowledge of the league, comparing their individual game to current WNBA mainstays.
“In conversations with these players, they’re very in tune with the WNBA where it is today,” he said. “And I think that’s a credit to the league. For really pushing forward the game and I think it’s a credit to the incoming draft class, for really paying attention to the players that they’re going to be playing with and playing against.”
Coach Hopkins remarked that this class has many players who have a diverse set of potential professional fits across the league. 2020’s prospects consist of “players who could go in a lot of directions.”
In the 2020 cohort, which includes the presumptive number one pick in Ionescu, there are four prospects from the historic Oregon squad which defeated USA Basketball handily in November. Teammates Satou Sabally (predicted to go number 2), Ruthy Hebard and Minyon Moore (who our Howard Megdal predicted would go to the Liberty in the second round), were a part of what Hopkins referred to as a consistent system. The rookie head coach praised Oregon head coach Kelly Graves and his success in “finding the right people” who bought into his system and vision.
“I think top to bottom this Oregon team was actually… you know I think special is a word we use a lot, but I really do think they were because they grew exponentially and incrementally every single year,” he said. “[They] found ways to counter what defenses we’re trying to take away and you know found ways to hide some of their deficiencies in a given area.”
Fitting all of the pieces of the Brooklyn puzzle together
Now, how do all of these pieces coalesce? How will the 2020 Liberty rookie cohort function and fit within the current roster? What types of roles will veterans new and old to the Liberty have in 2020 and beyond? It’s not all clear yet.
Returning to their two-pronged approach, Hopkins stressed communication as a pillar when reassuring how the roster will work together. Hopkins, Kolb and their staff have focused research on personalities, honing in on players who have a tendency to be team focused rather than self-indulgent individuals.
I inquired about how veteran point guard Layshia Clarendon helps glue the team together. Hopkins broke down what he expects from the seven-year veteran at length.
"She’s a floor general and she’s a leader and you know, people are going to get to their spots, she’s going to know the system. She’s going to know people’s strengths. She’s gonna know time and score and situation and she’s just really a pro’s pro in that way. But off the court, her attention to detail when it comes to the little things when it comes to foam rolling every day, doing her exercises to make sure she does her rehab and prehab before and after practice. It’s the stuff that kind of wears on most people and it’s like, ‘ah, I’m too tired. I’m not going to do that today.’ And Layshia does not have an ‘I’m too tired. I’m not gonna do that today.’ And so to bring that into a team, you know, full of young players and a mix of that, I think it’s just really good to have that as one of your leaders. Somebody who sets that example, not just verbally but more by what they do."
But there are still some questions that swirl around New York’s two 2015 first-round draft picks in guard Brittany Boyd and center Kiah Stokes, who hasn’t worn seafoam since 2018. Boyd’s role is uncertain, with two point guards in Clarendon and presumably Ionescu. And does Stokes function as a pop of defense in the second and fourth quarters? I’ve laid out the trade possibilities for these two, and the benefits of acquiring Ruthy Hebard. High Post Hoops’ final draft board indicates that Hebard could be traded for.
(Three Oregon Ducks in New York? It’s not totally inconceivable.)
As for Tina Charles: it’s worth noting that a year ago, she did wait until the day before training camp to sign her contract. She has been cored, and her name is featured on the official team roster. But with a new CBA in place, a new head coach, and the number one pick, that makes this year different, doesn’t it?
Asked about the uncertainty surrounding Charles and if there’s been preparation in place to move on, before Kolb could answer, a Liberty spokesperson interjected to keep the discussion to draft-related questions, one of two times this happened during the interview.
Finding connection remotely
Kolb, Hopkins and the entire organization are currently at work figuring out creative ways to engage with fans and the draftees. How will they make this special when the festivities are conducted through multiple screens?
“For us it’s really going to be doing everything we can from a virtual standpoint, having communications with that number one pick, making sure that they are in close communication with our ownership group, with the staff, with myself and with maybe some players as well,” Kolb said.
The goal for Kolb, Hopkins and Patterson on draft day will be to display that internal giddiness, something that transcends a screen.
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