The Liberty’s first overall pick was no surprise, but the rest of their picks reveals their ‘New Era’ system
The first twenty minutes of the 2020 WNBA draft reminded viewers of the events that had shaped the eventual number one overall pick, Sabrina Ionescu. A touching introduction that honored Gigi Bryant, Payton Chester, and Alyssa Altobelli as honorary draft picks will forever connect Ionescu to the young women who were meant to follow in her footsteps.
It might have been difficult for her to watch that introduction and minutes later have to ascend right to the camera for her own A Star is Born moment. But following her widely anticipated number one selection, Liberty General Manager Jonathan Kolb addressed her strength and preternatural resilience.
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
“There isn’t a challenge that I’ve seen Sabrina take on that she hasn’t won, and if that isn’t New York, I don’t know what is,” he said.
Ionescu is anticipating challenges in the most vibrant city in the country. She relayed that to ESPN and the media numerous times during and after the broadcast how she’s just ready to get to work. “I just think being a part of a younger team and just trying to learn from them and seeing where I fit in, what role I’m going to play, is exciting,” she said. “Bringing a competitive spirit that I have. I’m just excited to get there and work with the team and hopefully just continue to use my platform and what I did at Oregon, and bring that to the Liberty.”
Future teammate and veteran point guard Layshia Clarendon addressed the challenges that Ionescu might face during the Liberty’s virtual draft watch party. She mentioned that reading WNBA defenses is a learning curve and that Ionescu will need to find creative ways to use her body to challenge defenders like the Connecticut Sun’s Briann January.
“I think there’s the little details, like you’re talking about a dribble hold when you come off a screen really tight, and using your body even more,” she told Rosalyn Gold-Onwude. “I watch her and sometimes she comes off screens a little wide… It’s a little tweaking the ways where you can use your body, use your physicality, learning to pass with one hand a little more than always picking the ball up with two hands. Little things like that, that I think she’s going to pick up so fast and it’s going to be really fun to play alongside her.
“I’m super excited to see that mutuality of how we can compete with each other and how we can both learn from playing with each other.”
Who else will get to learn from Clarendon? And what do all of the Liberty’s new acquisitions following the Tina Charles era have in common?
These picks have a foundational set of criterion: versatility, familiarity and “high-character.” Head Coach Walt Hopkins described all of the picks sans Sabrina as people who will not only “match her intensity” but will “be good to one another.”
And this includes the players that Kolb and Hopkins were able to retain in trading Shatori Walker-Kimbrough to the Mercury for the 10th overall pick in Jocelyn Willoughby, while also shipping off the 26th overall pick in Erica Ogwumike to the Lynx for sharp-shooting Australian wing Stephanie Talbot.
“We got every single target that we had,” Kolb said. “Every single player that we wanted, we got, and we moved up to get. We wanted to be incredibly versatile and very athletic. We want to be very switchable defensively. We want to spread out defenses with the shooting ability that we added tonight.”
How will these new pieces of the New York puzzle function?
In the 2019-20 college season, all of the Liberty’s draftees shot at least 36 percent from beyond the arc. None of the Liberty’s 2020 picks aside from Ionescu were under six feet tall.
This includes Duke’s Leaonna Odom, New York’s 15th overall pick, who isn’t known necessarily for production from three, but attempted and made three of her eight attempts. That’s not a great sample size, but I’ll return to Odom, because her value remains elsewhere.
Versatility is key.
Megan Walker, the 9th pick and UConn alumna, was a top-five talent according to Kolb. As the best set three-point shooter in this draft class, both he and Hopkins were “surprised” that she was available.
Hopkins told the Liberty’s Facebook live broadcast that he expects Amanda Zahui B. to be a major “cog” in this new look for Liberty basketball. Imagine if there were two of her in Brooklyn. That’s what Hopkins and assistant coach Shelley Patterson have in the 6’4 Kylee Shook. She made a bit under thirty long balls in 32 games played this season for the Louisville Cardinals.
And this group has a variety of skill sets that aren’t limited to just having the ability to stretch and shoot. Another need in this draft that wasn’t as pronounced but equally necessary was defense, and drafting Shook and her teammate Jazmine Jones (at 12th overall) prove that commitment. In their senior seasons, both made the All-ACC defensive team, with Shook being named the ACC defensive player of the year and overtaking Angel McCoughtry for racking up the most blocks in Louisville history.
Speaking of the Cardinals, Jones and Shook will join their old teammate in Asia Durr. According to Shook, Durr was one of the first people to congratulate her and welcome her to the Liberty via direct message on Snapchat. There’s a chemistry between this Cardinal trio, but on draft night, after speaking with both Shook and Jones, their friendship and camaraderie runs incredibly deep.
For starters, Shook didn’t even know she was drafted until her teammates Jones called her to congratulate her which simultaneously broke the news. “Jaz called me and was like congratulations and I’m like wait what happened,” she said in a post-draft phone call. “I thought I was saying it to her [who was picked one spot before Shook]. And she was like ‘no you made it,’ back-to-back. It was amazing.”
The familiarity doesn’t stop there. Walker and All-Star Kia Nurse played together during Nurse’s senior year as a Husky. And why is Stephanie Talbot on this roster now? Our own Derek James explained why Cheryl Reeve wanted Erica Ogwumike, who the Liberty initially drafted at 26. Talbot spent 2019 with both Hopkins and Patterson, and she also knows Rebecca Allen from the Australian Opals national team. For Kolb, Talbot provides the Liberty with another 6’2 shooter comfortable providing set shot threes off the bench. She was a “much better value” for New York than going forward with another guard in the 5’9 Ogwumike.
Now back to Jones for a moment. Kolb referred to her as “energy personified” and on her post-draft media phone call that was apparent. When I asked her about if she’s looking forward to engaging in the diverse Brooklyn community, her enthusiasm translated in her voice.
“I’m a real big person on community service,” she said. “I’ll put everybody else before myself no matter what. Just being out in the community, I think I would thrive in that. I’m that type of person. I love being around people. I love being a people person and putting a smile on other people’s faces.”
While I don’t have a crystal ball, let me put this out there and say that it sounds like she and Zahui B. will become fast friends.
Now the qualitative factor for Kolb, Hopkins and Patterson rested on who these young women are as people, a vital component to setting a team culture. When Hopkins got off the phone with 10th overall pick Jocelyn Willoughby, who has been deemed the “steal of draft” by both the coach and GM, he knew that he had to draft her and do whatever he could to land her in Brooklyn.
"Her frame, her strength and the way she moves at six feet and the way she’s developed and look at her arms and how strong she can navigate both defensively and offensively. She shoots it 42.5 percent from three, she gets you almost 8 rebounds a game. But then you add in the fact that when we called her that she was an absolutely delightful ,brilliant and focused eloquent woman. And to get to add somebody of that level of character to go with what we think is probably the most underrated skillset in the draft."
Another valuable asset of Willoughby’s game is how she can see openings on the court. She takes advantage of a mismatch whenever she spots one.
Willoughby, who has a degree in Global Development studies and was a fellow of the University of Virginia’s Meriwether Lewis Institute for Citizen Leadership, doesn’t only check the exemplary character box, but she also exudes a level of global and cultural competency which I’ve determined is only an asset when playing for the Liberty.
But the New Jersey native also felt a sense of comfort and chemistry in her discussions with Hopkins.
“I think obviously the coaching staff is new and just the culture that they’re trying to build in Brooklyn is one that I’m excited about, having players who are let’s say very passionate and committed players, and I think that’s something I really resonate with, being a hard worker and passionate player myself,” Willoughby said to the media after the trade from the Mercury to New York. “I think to have players around me, coaches, I think we’ll be young, but young teams are, I think, often exciting to watch and have a lot of growth and just potential.”
Uncertainties following the first draft of the Hopkins era
Walt Hopkins and Jonathan Kolb have been slowly revealing this coveted system that landed the freshman head coach in Brooklyn. At his introductory press conference back in January, Hopkins spoke about the maximization of individual strengths and introduced the idea that an already guard-heavy team could and should be taking more threes.
But after a draft where the Liberty selected and added a guard, four wings (including Talbot) and two potential post players, there were questions about how all of this would work. How could all of these wings that were already on the roster work together alongside the rookies?
“Ideally and the way that you’ve built this thing, you are going to need guards who can rebound,” Hopkins said in a post-draft presser. “Jaz[mine Jones], Kia [Nurse] , Lay[shia Clarendon] and Sab[rina Ionescu] are all people who can rebound from the guard spot.”
But also, how do the Liberty compete against the Mystics (now with Charles), the Mercury, and the Aces who all have a certain amount of muscle in the front-court?
Just like former presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren would, Hopkins replied, “We’ve got plans for that.” So, what is that plan?
New York now has many threes that can stretch to fours (i.e. Allen, Jones, Willoughby), and they also have guards like Nurse, Marine Johannés and Durr who can all stretch to the small forward position as well. The Hopkins and Patterson method is to force teams to guard every single position so that the paint isn’t clogged and the opposition can’t “help off somebody.”
“We have shooters everywhere so when a team helps, we kick it out and they knock down a three,” the New York head coach said. “That’s the vision of what we are looking to do. So I know it looks like there’s a glut of guards, but we see them as wings. We see them as very interchangeable and it was very intentional that we got the versatility with all of these picks.
“What you see is that the four players have a lot more trouble, the traditional fours, coming all the way out on the perimeter, guarding shooters. And when they do get close to [the shooters], they are so quick, they go right past [the traditional fours].”
Okay, so how are wings like Rebecca Allen going to feel comfortable on defense?
This is when Hopkins created some suspense. He mentioned that they will “do some creative things defensively” which includes not allowing for a power forward like Bec to guard a traditional four akin to Charles one-on-one in the post. He’ll rely on his younger defensively-minded rookies to assist, stating the reason for targeting these picks so specifically.
Is that where Kiah Stokes fits in? Maybe she’s the defensive veteran that the rookies will need?
Speaking of rim protection. Ionescu’s former pick and roll partner and friend for life Ruthy Hebard was chosen in the eight spot right before Walker. Many thought the Liberty would either trade up to land her or just choose her at ninth. While Ruthy’s efficient game on the block fits what I initially thought was part of the Hopkins system, maybe I was wrong?
Leaonna Odom’s game allows her to stretch and function as a small forward but also someone able to fit into New York’s post rotation. Kolb expects for her to play the pick and roll with Ionescu and Clarendon. Think Courtney Williams, but in the form of 6’2 forward. What stands out about Odom is her 27.5 foot vertical jump and her really quick feet. So, she fits New York’s already established pace of play. While Hebard did rack up 146 blocks to Odom’s 114, the former Duke Blue Devil did accumulate more steals with 176 compared to the former with 169.
With a lot of pieces, it will take time for chemistry to build and for the ideology of the culture and the on-court system to function. I implore fans to be excited but not to set expectations too high.
But someone not worried about chemistry and adjustment is 9th overall pick Walker. With a confidence that led her to the W as a college junior, she has no concerns.
“Well, you know, [Ionescu] likes to pass,” she said in a post draft phone call. “That’s not a secret. And I like to score, so I mean, I think we’ll have a great chemistry on the court, and it’ll work out just fine.”
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