Ahead of the draft, a new era dawns on the New York Liberty

 Leading up to draft day, New York says goodbye to an aesthetic and an icon while readying to welcome in its new era

On Wednesday morning, New York Liberty COO Keia Clarke described the impact of the Liberty’s crest of over 20 years. She loved it and believed it stood for something more. But after a long run, it needed an update to complement the “newness on the horizon.”

“We felt that at this juncture, it was time for a change,” she told High Post Hoops.

Around an hour later, it was time for yet another change. It was time to bid adieu to Tina Charles, a player who made her mark on the franchise, becoming its all-time leading scorer while also providing a substantial impact to her home community off the court. Traded to the Washington Mystics to be reunited with former Coach Mike Thibault and to form a potentially lethal frontcourt, Charles leaves New York with a mission: to win a championship.

Since WNBA free agency exploded in February, Charles and New York began contemplating their future together. Right off the bat, she was cored. But what followed were weeks of uncertainty. And Charles lingered on what she wanted her basketball career to look like. There was interest and initial movement from the Pheonix Mercury, but could Sandy Brondello and Jim Pittman wait? No, they could not.

There was an upside to staying in New York. Her family resides there, and she had built 31 Enterprises, a venture that supports her endeavors as a filmmaker and philanthropist, a company that benefited from the diverse media market of the five boroughs.

But as I have previously written, the seeds that new ownership, General Manager Jonathan Kolb and head coach Walt Hopkins have planted won’t germinate overnight. The tree growing in Brooklyn most likely won’t produce a championship within the next 12 months.

“I think ultimately what it comes down to is a misalignment of timelines,” Kolb told High Post Hoops. “And, and we’re building something here with a fairly young group, a really young group and Tina wants,  just craves and deserves a championship. And her window is a bit different. And so I think at the end of the day, it really wasn’t a long time in the works, but it was more waiting to know what that next step looked like for her.”

Once Kolb and his staff were notified of Charles’ wishes, they got to work. The question they routinely asked was: “What’s the best return for this franchise?” The best yield for the Liberty was to augment via the draft. Kolb wanted the picks to be “locked” before Thursday, avoiding draft trades which according to the GM are a bit “chaotic.” He wanted direction and an ability to be as prepared for Friday as possible.

Looking ahead to Draft day and are more trades ahead?

In trading for Charles, New York acquired three more draft picks in addition to the 1st, 13th and 26th overall.  With the 12th Overall Pick and guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough from the Mystics, the Dallas Wings got in on the fun giving up their No. 9 and 15th overall picks to New York.  In an attempt at a salary dump, the Wings shipped guard Tayler Hill to Brooklyn.

When asked about Walker-Kimbrough’s potential role in Brooklyn and Hill’s chances at making a roster, Kolb didn’t provide many specifics. While he said that “it’s possible” for Hill to make the roster, the complications of COVID-19 have stalled thoughts about training camp. About Walker-Kimbrough however, he did say that the former Washington guard is a “great person” with a “championship-winning pedigree.” Hill appears a good bet to be a buyout candidate, while Walker-Kimbrough will have no shortage of suitors should the Liberty look to deal her.

Without Charles, New York needs to draft a big. A traditional post player or a stretch forward would function in Walt Hopkins’ system, which relies upon the three-ball and high-efficiency twos near the basket or on the block.

“We’ve done our homework and we feel that there are players there that are wing players that offer a lot of versatility both offensively but especially defensively,” Kolb said when asked about the Liberty’s post-trade draft needs. “There are big players here that are traditional bigs that are very skilled in pick and roll, which you know, our guards are going to be very skilled at. And also the fact that there are bigs in this draft that have elite three-point shooting ability, good defensive bigs.”

HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT – JANUARY 27: Megan Walker #3 of the UConn Huskies grabs a rebound in front of Nneka Ogwumike #16 of the United States during USA Women’s National Team Winter Tour 2020 game between the United States and the UConn Huskies at The XL Center on January 27, 2020 in Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Could that wing be Megan Walker? If the Dallas Wings pass on her for a point guard, she might be available at the nine spot. While the Liberty have a copious amount of wings and guards, she might be the best available.

OR are there more trades in-store during or even post-draft? Possibly. Although Kolb mentioned his desire to avoid in-draft trades, if there’s a sense of urgency to reunite the presumed number one pick with her partner in crime in Ruthy Hebard, then maybe New York trades up?

In a Zoom conference on Tuesday, Sabrina Ionescu discussed Hebard at length. It was clear that if it’s a possibility, she’d love to have her former classmate on whatever professional team she’s drafted by.

“I mean I’m trying to pick her up on whatever team I end up on so hopefully she’ll thrive in the atmosphere that we’re at together,” Ionescu said. “I’m so excited to kind of see the growing pains. [Hebard’s] going to go through it and we’re all going to go through it. And just being able to see how much better she comes out on the end, but I’m hoping somehow she’ll end up with me.”

New York values a specific disposition and potential for chemistry when examining prospects. In a league conference call on Monday, Hopkins made it clear that the Liberty are “looking for high-character.”  This franchise has built psychological profiles through Facetime discussions with prospects and with those who know the draftees best. All of the above has been integral in the Liberty’s draft preparations.

“It’s really easy to watch film on a player and say they’re really good at basketball, and say let’s draft them,” Kolb said. “That’s an easy thing to do. But what you have to do is more research on who those players are as people, what motivates them, who brings the best out in them. So, in doing that, it’s what we look for.  Let’s say, player one, and then player two, we very much consider how they’ll play together and how they’ll get along together as we build this culture.”

Kolb mentioned that he and his staff have taken stock of certain facial expressions and how different prospects react to questions and engage with those around them.  For the Liberty GM, that’s really how he and his team can create the most detailed picture of who’s coming to New York.

The Liberty have definitely examined another Oregon Duck besides Ionescu and Hebard. While Minyon Moore has dropped in recent mock drafts, according to Hopkins, she’s a “plus athlete” who specializes in defense and complimented Ionescu as a leader. “I think it’s really realistic somebody is going to take a shot on her and I hope they do because she’s a really, really tough player,” Coach Hopkins said.

The Liberty, a team with the worse defense in 2019, could value a specialist like Moore.

Now back to potential roster trades: Kiah Stokes, who is a traditional big and has a knack for defense, sounds like a match for the Chicago Sky, who need defensive leadership and are looking to contend. Although Kolb mentioned that he and Hopkins are both “high” on the UConn alumna, this move could make sense.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 24: Sabrina Ionescu speaks during The Celebration of Life for Kobe & Gianna Bryant at Staples Center on February 24, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

While New York is losing a native player in Charles, Brooklyn could gain a “Folk hero” in her absence

When Sabrina Ionescu speaks, her words are laced with humility, conviction and care. It’s a not a quiet confidence per se,  but rather it’s her authenticity is on full display when she speaks. She’s straightforward, but she’s not afraid to show herself. There isn’t any arrogance about how she communicates.

Back on day one of free agency, I explained on how Layshia Clarendon passed Jonathan Kolb’s litmus test. Ionescu does as well.

  • Team culture, locker room leadership, and cultural sensitivity

Walk Hopkins sees that blend of conviction and care and how it translates to her leadership style. “She’s really just a phenomenal leader in multiple ways,” he said on Monday’s league-wide call.  “One, she’s not somebody who just stands back and says what to do. She’ll come down on teammates but it’s in a way that’s constructive and you can watch their body language as they take that feedback.”

Holly Rowe mentioned how Sabrina’s status as a first-generation American with Romanian heritage could translate to a New York audience. “I’ve been researching the Romanian population of New York City,” Rowe said.  “About 22,000 Romanians live around there. I think you would see huge support for her and that culture… how people in that population there in New York would come and support Sabrina. She has become quite a folk hero to them.”

  • Familiarity

Ionescu was asked what type of vision she heard from Hopkins when he called. She described it as “bright” while also explaining how she and Asia Durr know one another, having played on the same USA Basketball squads for three years.

But not only is Ionescu familiar with a player or two on the roster, she’s also familiar with where the New York Liberty organization is right now. She knows what a rebuild looks like and feels like.

“And so, you know, being a part of a program that started from nothing and now is where it’s at, I think I kind of have the experience on both sides of the spectrum,” she said.  “And so I’m able to give my insight on, what I think not only for myself, but for their team and if I’m able to be a part of it.”

From her experience in Euguene with Kelly Graves, she knows what has to be done to change a culture, trust its foundation and in turn “ride” all of the “ups and downs from there.”

  • On the court needs

The New York Liberty haven’t had a reliable point guard since before the Charles era began with Cappie Pondexter, and even she was more of a combo guard. New York’s two main ball handlers in 2019, Tanisha Wright and Brittany Boyd,  had the two highest turnover rates of anyone in the league.

Ionescu knows what she brings and what the Liberty need. “I would be a piece of the puzzle that wouldn’t make them go,” she said. “They have great pieces. They have good guards and they have good players potentially coming in. And so I think just being a key factor and in that in what’s going to make that team go obviously.  They’re not where they need to be and that’s a learning and growing process.”

  • A New York State of Mind

Ionescu is someone who understands her platform and has a great desire in learning how to use it wisely. Look no further than the masters she’s completing at Oregon in Advertising and Brand Responsibility. 

“I’m just trying to use my platform and my voice to stand up for something that I believe in and so obviously that comes with negativity and a lot of hate from people online,” she said.  “But really just taking a stand and finding myself and what I’m really passionate about has helped me through this Master’s program.”

In New York, she’ll have many an opportunity to take a stand in high-pressure situations on and off the court. That’s why Liberty legend and ESPN Women’s Basketball analyst Rebecca Lobo views her fit in New York like a glove. Ionescu “craves high-pressure moments” and New York is a place where they are a part of the culture.

“I think you need to look no further than the way that she’s handled herself in times of crisis to know what type of a leader she is and what type of leader she could be at the next level,” Hopkins said of Ionescu.

Charles will always be what the city of New York represents

While Charles begins a chapter in DC, another city where she can make her mark on and off the court, Jonathan Kolb stands by what he said back in January. Charles is a symbol for New York basketball. “She’ll always have her mark on the Liberty.”

For both the general manager and Charles’ former teammates, they understand that the sisterhood of the W comes first. Once the news broke, Amanda Zahui B. jumped on Twitter to pay her respects to her mentor.

Speaking of Zahui B., according to Kolb, the Swedish center is ready to pass the torch (pretty much literally at this point) to the next generation, becoming a mentor herself.

In fact, I was talking with [Zahui B.] this morning. And on her own she said hey, you know, once the draft is over, send me the contact information for them. I want to welcome them to the Liberty. So to your point she’s,  just almost an ambassador for the New York Liberty and is always willing to reach out to people and you know her. I mean, she’s, she’s such a wonderful person, and she always wants to make everyone feel welcome. So I think that’s definitely a player that our younger players or incoming players will be looking to lean on.

It’s certainly bittersweet. In six years with the Liberty, Tina Charles became not only the all-time leading scorer, but blossomed into a Tribeca Filmmaker, and a public health and social justice ambassador.

“You know, this is a tough day,” Kolb said. “This is a really hard day in terms of, you know, an icon, going to a different location. But I think Friday will be a great day and we are looking forward to it.”

But how will fans react to this magnitude of change? That’s a definite consideration of Keia Clarke’s. Similar to the rebrand, Friday’s draft will bring an energy to the entire organization. But with any change there’s anxiety, nerves about if it will all land, as Clarke explained.

“There’s always that biting your nails, to see if the fans are gonna like it.”

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