Hiring Walt Hopkins Ushers in New Era of NY Liberty Basketball

One week before the ever-extended CBA deadline, the New York Liberty introduced Walt Hopkins on Wednesday as its eighth head coach in franchise history.

Sitting beside General Manager Jonathan Kolb, Hopkins could hardly withhold an enthusiastic grin through his introduction at the Liberty’s new home arena, the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. He comes over from the Minnesota Lynx after three seasons as an assistant, the latest branch plucked loose from the dynastic Cheryl Reeves’ coaching tree.

Hopkins was exceedingly complimentary of both Coach Reeve and Coach James Wade, who also left the Lynx system to become head coach of the Chicago Sky before last season.

“Cheryl’s level of preparation is elite,” Hopkins said, “and James is kind of the same ilk. The main skill I learned from Cheryl is scouting. She has a phrase, ‘You get what you accept.’ That rings true to me.”

That tenacious philosophy should earn him some love from Liberty fans. Hopkins knows, however, that this is a process.

Information courtesy of Across the Timeline.

The Liberty have long been searching for a consistent winner, being typically relegated to something of an also-ran during its 21-year history.

So how can Hopkins get this franchise to be better?

Where New York Stands Ahead of Free Agency

May 9, 2019; New York City, NY, USA; New York Liberty center Tina Charles (31) catches a pass during the preseason WNBA game against the China National Team at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The makeup of the 2020 Liberty is still largely undetermined. As I wrote back in September, only seven players are currently under contract: Kiah Stokes, Han Xu and Amanda Zahui B down low; Rebecca Allen, Britney Boyd, Asia Durr and Kia Nurse toeing the perimeter.

That seven-player roster averages out to just over 24.2 years old, an extremely young core to build around.

According to Across the Timeline, New York had the fourth-youngest team in the league at the end of last season. Their players averaged 25.9 years old. With this current construction, they’d slot above only above the Dallas Wings, whose average player was 24.1 at the conclusion of 2019.

Free agent and franchise cornerstone Tina Charles is expected to return for her 11th season (and seventh in New York). When asked about her, Hopkins was not concerned about fit.

“Tina’s gonna be the least of your worries with how you’re gonna use her. She’s an MVP level talent,” he said.

Charles’ leadership role in 2020 should be familiar to Hopkins, who just witnessed Sylvia Fowles—another world-class veteran center—steady severe roster turnover last year in Minnesota.

Both Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe and flashy French phenom Marine Johannes are restricted free agents, and the Liberty would do well to re-sign both. Hopkins seemed especially excited for the latter, calling her “one of the most underrated players in this league.”

And, of course, New York holds the number one pick in April’s draft, which is widely believed to be Oregon point guard Sabrina Ionescu.

Ionescu is a true floor general and the all-time NCAA leader with 21 triple-doubles (and counting). Thus far this season, she’s almost averaging one, putting up per-game stats of 15.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 8.8 assists.

It helps, then, that Hopkins’ expertise is in player development—a job he held back in 2013 with the Tulsa Shock—especially with such a young roster. It was important to Kolb, who said the Liberty had spoken to more than 20 coaching candidates, including out of the NBA’s G League and the NCAA’s D1. Hopkins’ buoyed his WNBA and NCAA coaching resume with M.A.s from both Harvard and Cal-Berkeley, with focuses on Social Psychology and Sports in Education, respectively.

Work to be Done

New York ranked 10th in offensive rating (95.4) in 2019 and last in defensive rating (103.8), besting only the Atlanta Dream in terms of overall net rating (-8.5).

A bright spot was their pace: Only the Sky (99.50) and Las Vegas Aces (98.80) got up the floor faster than the Liberty (97.68). The flaw in their court speed, however, was the roster’s ball-handling ability. New York turned the ball over on 19.0 percent of their possessions.

Though up from last year’s mark of 12.4 percent, Ionescu’s turning the ball over 16.0 percent of the time thus far this season, according to Her Hoop Stats. She leads the nation in assists per game and is 16th in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.48. Last year’s primary point guards for New York—Brittany Boyd and the newly retired Tanisha Wright—carried high turnover percentages of 19.0 and 17.4, respectively.

Many times under former coach Katie Smith, the offense got stagnant, passing the ball into Tina Charles, who found herself quickly double- and triple-teamed. This often led to difficult looks and easy turnovers.

Finding ways to spread the floor is imperative for offensive success, and luckily, it sounds like Hopkins intends to do just that. (Of course, Ionescu will help actualize this intention immensely.)

Making Adjustments Beyond the Arc

Despite inheriting a team that has struggled to a 17-51 record over the past two seasons, Hopkins believes in the talent on the roster.

“The idea is people getting their kill zones,” he said. “Maximizing the things that they’re good at; minimizing the things that they’re not.”

Hopkins was refreshingly candid in his talk about analytics and, primarily, the importance of the 3-point shot.

“The teams that are the best offensively maximize their set 3-point shots. And, fortunately, we have a lot of great 3-point shooters,” he added.

Unfortunately, team statistics suggest otherwise. New York was average at 3-point shooting last season, making 6.5 (ranked 7th) of 19.6 attempts (ranked 8th) while shooting 33.4 percent (ranked 8th). While this suggests Hopkins has his work cut out for him in adding the long-ball as a “kill zone,” individual players had their share of successes.

Seven players took at least 50 attempts: Nurse, Bria Hartley, Amanda Zahui B, Allen, Johannes, Charles, and Durr. Of those seven, three shot better than 35 percent: Allen (42.6 percent on 68 attempts, good for sixth in the league); Johannes (37.9 percent on 6 attempts); and Nurse (35.3 percent on a staggering 184 attempts).

Nurse was an All-Star in her sophomore season, with her 29.4 minutes per game second only to Tina Charles’ 31.1. Johannes and Allen, however, ranked eighth and ninth in minutes per game, at 18.2 and 17.2, respectively.

For New York to find perimeter success, they will need these two shooters on the floor much more frequently. Based on Hopkins’ comments, one can assume that will indeed be the case.

“We’re gonna shoot a lot more threes,” Hopkins said Wednesday. “It’s not just shooting threes off the bounce, pull-up, things like that. It’s gonna be creating high quality 3-point looks.”

In 2019, the Washington Mystics had the 39th highest 3-point percentage in WNBA history, but they had the most made and attempted ever. They broke the record for each, set just a year before by the Seattle Storm. The 3-point revolution is here, and New York is smart to enlist.

This team has the talent to succeed if they can gel under Hopkins’ leadership and the assumed arrival of Ionescu as a catalyst. Those are both assets and pressures—along with the move to Brooklyn and a hopefully reinvigorated fanbase—for a brand new coach.

It won’t just be the women wearing seafoam with something to prove when they take the court this season. Hopkins must help guide them to heights the franchise has yet to achieve.