Liberty introduce new coach Walt Hopkins in press conference at Barclays Center

Photo Credit: Mary Altaffer/AP

Nancy Darsch, Richie Adubato, Pat Coyle, Anne Donovan, John Whisenant, Bill Laimbeer and Katie Smith.

The above names were the previous seven head coaches in the 22-year history of the New York Liberty.

After not renewing the contract of previous coach Katie Smith following two years of 17-51 basketball at the Westchester County Center in White Plains, the Liberty embarked on a search for its next coach.

That find concluded at their new home, Barclays Center in Brooklyn, when former Minnesota Lynx assistant was introduced as the individual who will lead New York into its new home court in Kings County.

Hopkins along with Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb attended the presser that was aired live on YES Network.

Kolb had his opening remarks, where he lauded praise on the Joe Tsai-led ownership group for having faith in the team and franchise.

These are people that really believe in the New York Liberty and they believe in what we’re building. It’s not a coincidence that this press conference is taking place at Barclays Center, our new home. It’s the best building in the WNBA and it’s a place and a home that our fans, our players and certainly our coaching staff are very much going to enjoy this coming season.

–Jonathan Kolb, Liberty general manager

He then went on and thanked the reporters that made it to Brooklyn for the presser, a unique event in a town known for the brighter-than-normal press spotlight and pressure Gotham puts on its sports franchises.

What you do is vitally important to not only growing the New York Liberty, but women’s basketball as a whole.

–Jonathan Kolb, Liberty general manager

He then remarked on two aspects of coaching finds that make them difficult – trying to find the right fit for a certain situation and trying to get them right.

Kolb mentioned midway through the presser that the Liberty’s candidate list included more than 20 candidates that had varying experience levels, including in the NCAA as well as in the NBA G-League, but that Reeve’s assistant was the right person at the right time for the job.

I have no doubt that we have that in Walt Hopkins.

–Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb

Teams that conduct coaching searches are receiving renewed scrutiny after the Los Angeles Sparks search from last offseason where Brian Agler was let go and the team put out a statement saying that an extensive search would be conducted.

Derek Fisher eventually became LA’s next head coach, but now former Sparks general manager Penny Toler said at his introductory presser that it was a “list of one.” Toler was later let go after 20 years with the organization on the heels of an explosive report by Ramona Shelburne of ESPNW where Toler reportedly went into an n-word and expletive-laced tirade after Game 2 of the 2019 WNBA semifinals with the Connecticut Sun.

That report also detailed disagreements between Fisher and Candace Parker on strategy and why Fisher may have only played Parker for 11 minutes with the Sparks trailing 2-0 facing elimination in Game 3.

Among the words Kolb used to refer to Hopkins were “genius,” “person of character,” “strong leader,” “elite-level communiucator,” “character builder,” and “relationship builder.”

These are all fundamental characteristics of building a championship-level culture.

–Jonathan Kolb, Liberty general manager

Another element of Kolb that enticed him to Hopkins was his resume with developing players and getting them to recognize the fullness of their potential. Kolb also said Hopkins will be visible in the New York community as the Liberty continues its move into Barclays.

The Liberty’s new coach is another product of the Cheryl Reeve coaching tree in Minnesota. Last offseason, the Chicago Sky spent time around that same tree and tapped James Wade as its coach beginning with 2019. The Sky went 20-14 and were a few seconds shy of advancing to the WNBA semifinals. Wade earned Coach of the Year honors last season.

Hopkins began his remarks by mentioning that everyone in the organization from Kolb to COO Keia Clarke to owner Joe Tsai have been very welcoming. He later said that he has yet to speak with any players, but would begin so the day of the conference.

He said one of his first tasks in his transition to New York will be allow everyone within the organization to perform the best at what they perform well at – from players to coaches to the front office.

The main job of my position is going to be just to make sure that they’re all in a position to succeed.

–Walt Hopkins, New York Liberty coach

Hopkins then thanked Minnesota and said it was “bittersweet” to leave the Lynx, but “exciting” to arrive in New York, an area that he then mentioned he has a history with.

New York in particular is special to me because I have New York roots. My dad, actually he was born in Brooklyn. So, there’s a familiarity to the area and to the people. There’s a pace here, there’s an energy to the way people communicate that’s really familiar to me. It feels like home.

–Walt Hopkins, New York Liberty coach

He then echoed the earlier sentiments of Kolb when mentioning that the Liberty was the right fit for him and that he did not need to leave Minnesota as an assistant to be a head coach.

This opportunity came up and the more that I talked with the people in charge here, the more that I sat down and worked out how I would use this roster, how I could maximize the people that were already here, it was quickly apparent that this was the job, that this was the one place that I really wanted to be.

–Walt Hopkins, New York Liberty coach

While adjusting to his new team, there are attributes all coaches bring with them from their previous coaching stops. Hopkins said he would bring “quite a bit” from his Minnesota days working alongside Reeve and Wade, including Reeve’s ability to prepare, describing it as “elite.”

It’s the best I’ve ever seen, the best I’ve ever been around. She works harder than anyone I’ve ever been around. James is kind of of the same ilk.

–Walt Hopkins, New York Liberty coach

Two other strong attributes he praised Reeve for were her scouting ability as well as her ability to be a motivator, mentioning a Reeve phrase where “you get what you accept.” As for Wade, Hopkins praised him on being “fun” as well as someone who cultivates relationships, teaches and develops.

Kolb said that choosing Howard did not have anything to do with trying to improve on the Liberty’s struggles from last season, but specifically finding someone who the organization felt was the best fit for how the team looks currently.

We want to do this together and Walt is all about togetherness and connecting people.

–Jonathan Kolb, Liberty general manager

What would success look like at first? Hopkins believes it begins with him and his staff instilling a winning culture back into a Liberty team that has done its fair share of winning over the years.

I think that it’s really easy to get caught up in performance-based goals, wins, losses, things like that. We’ve got a young team, it’s a really, really talented team and a team that I think (there’s) really, really high hopes for. But the measurables are going to be our effort on a daily basis. They’re going to be our growth, individually. Our reaction to mistakes, our ability to communicate with one another. Selfnessness.

Those attributes may not show up on a stat sheet, but Hopkins believes those are characteristics of championship teams that get overlooked.

Kolb described the ownership and Barclays as “world-class” and mention that there’s an excitement around the move to Brooklyn. Hopkins later elaborated on his family’s history in the New York area – Long Island in particular. He said that his father had a way of connecting to people with the way his spoke and that’s what made him comfortable in New York.

There’s a veneer, there’s an exterior that when you walk past people here where it seems that they’re non-descript and they’re not paying attention to you, but then as soon as you talk to people, how friendly they are and how willing they are to connect. It’s different. It’s not like that everywhere.

–Walt Hopkins, New York Liberty coach

Communication is a key aspect of molding relationships with people, whether those people are random women or men on the street or players. Hopkins believes that communication and tailoring that message to fit who is being spoken to is an important aspect of instilling that championship culture. He also said that those on his staff will exude those similar attributes.

I think it’s been important to the entire ownership group and to Jonathan (Kolb) and to Keia (Clarke) that we get people who kind of echo those same beliefs and feelings … I think the most exciting part to me is having people around that feel the same way I do.

–Walt Hopkins, New York Liberty coach

While there has been little questioning of Hopkins’ qualifications to take the job, it has been much maligned for the fact that another man will be coaching a WNBA team. Eight of the 12 head coaching positions are filled by men and only two of them – Fisher and Wade – are African Americans.

The exceptions to that rule are Reeve, Marianne Stanley (Indiana Fever), Sandy Brondello (Phoenix Mercury) and Nicki Collen (Atlanta Dream).

Kolb said that the Liberty was in search of someone who has experience coaching women as well as someone who has worked with elite-level athletes. The Lynx have had no shortage of elite-level athletes during Hopkins’ time with the team from Maya Moore to Sylvia Fowles to Lindsay Whalen to Seimone Augustus to Rebekkah Brunson to Napheesa Collier.

The more and more we kept looking at that, the more Walt’s name just made sense and we got really excited about him.

–Jonathan Kolb, Liberty general manager

I understand the head coaching position is very public, but there’s ways right now that we can make changes to that. Which is our basketball operations staff. Are women in equipment? Are they in analytics? Are they in management roles? There’s things that we’re looking at to help augment and I’m very excited about and I think we can be at the forefront there.

–Jonathan Kolb, Liberty general manager

What kind of Liberty basketball will we see under Hopkins? Ask many a Lib Loyal and they will tell you they hope to see a team that uses its defense to create offense – a weak point of the Smith years.

Hopkins says that around the WNBA, the teams that are the best offensively shoot more 3-point shots and that the Liberty have a healthy collection of effective 3-point shooters.

It’s not just shooting 3s off the bounce, pull-ups, things like that. It’s going to be creating high-quality 3-point looks. So, I think it’s well-known, it’s accepted knowledge now that the analytics say that you need to shoot 3s, and you need to get layups and you need to get to the free-throw line. And you need to minimize long 2s. And none of that is going to be an exception for this team.

–Walt Hopkins, Liberty general manager

He also fielded a question on what led him to become a women’s basketball coach and if he saw himself at this point when he was a child. Hopkins talked about how he was a pro wrestling fan at that age and saw himself grappling in the ring, but that his path to basketball coaching began when he was a high school coach, including being a junior varsity boys coach while simultaneously as an assistant varsity coach on the girls side.

One of his players at Reed High School in Sparks, Nevada (just outside of Reno) that he coached was Gabby Williams, now one of the Chicago Sky’s primary players. Hopkins says he and Williams still talk to this day. The Reed Raiders won a state championship in the 2011-12 season.

Hopkins cited his family background as well for why he prefers coaching women’s basketball.

My dad was raised by his mother, primarily and then I have two older sisters … It just felt like a strong female influence in my life. And the relational aspects of coaching women, I really enjoy. I think that the emotional intelligence and the ability to and willingness to listen and collaborate, it’s just been different in my experience. Not to say men can’t do those things, but it’s been something that’s been more enjoyable for me, I think.

–Walt Hopkins, New York Liberty coach

(Video Credit: 1495 Sports)

Kolb mentioned that New York wanted someone with experience working with elite-level talent. The Liberty have that from Kia Nurse, Asia Durr, Amanda Zahui B., and of course, Tina Charles.

Hopkins believes working with the seasoned New York veteran (and all-time leading Liberty scorer) will be no issue given her talents and resume and that the goal for her as well will be to maximize her strengths and minimizing her weaknesses.

She can score, she can rebound. It’s a matter of using her in a way … that maximizes what she’s good at. I think last year, we saw a big drop in efficiency from her because she was settling for certain types of shots that maybe aren’t her bread and butter.

–Walt Hopkins, New York Liberty coach

As Liberty fans know, those higher-percentage shots for Charles are typically attempts from 10 feet near the basket as opposed to those that are about 20 feet shy of the rim. Kolb then was asked about another element to Charles – her impending free agency.

The WNBA and the WNBPA extended its current collective bargaining agreement to Jan. 15 with free agency expected to begin on time on Feb. 1 tantamount to the two sides agreeing on a new CBA.

Kolb would not speak on the free agency matters or on comparing the Tsai group to James Dolan and MSG, but did speak on the ownership group that he called the best in the W.

At every turn, they’ve had the opportunity to not do something and have chosen to do the right thing every single time.

–Jonathan Kolb, Liberty general manager

That ownership group has given the Liberty a second wind after a tumultuous two-year period where the franchise’s future in New York was very much in doubt. With the move from Westchester to Brooklyn, the County Center to Barclays, the sale from MSG to Tsai complete and the No. 1 overall pick (likely Ionescu), the Liberty are poised for brighter outcomes.

Hopkins did acknowledge that all of those things were factors in his decision to go for the head coach opening, but also remarked that he would have taken the opportunity even if the team was still stuck in White Plains.

Any sense of security that you can get in a business that has a lot of turnover – obviously it really helps those decisions.

–Walt Hopkins, New York Liberty coach

Had this team been in Westchester with this ownership and things like that, I would still have jumped at it. I think that those are … kind of icing on the cake. They’re things that are really nice, but I didn’t need them to help make the decision. It was more about the people.

–Walt Hopkins, New York Liberty coach

Two players that may not get as much attention but are still on New York’s roster are Han Xu and Marine Johannes. Han Xu in particular has drawn Yao Ming comparisons and Johannes, late in the season posted a career-high 22 points against the Washington Mystics.

According to Hopkins, the Libs plan going forward does include both and he hopes to use his player development background to help them work on areas of their game that they excel in, but have yet to place much emphasis on.

I think it’s hard to shake your roots as a coach and my roots are in development. They’re in player development. And there are players around the league who you look at and you’re like, ‘Man if I could get my hands on that player for three months, they could really be good.’ Those are two of them.

–Walt Hopkins, New York Liberty coach

As far as that No. 1 overall pick that has the Liberty on the clock, Kolb said that there are players “that people know about” (such as Ionescu and Lauren Cox), but that the goal will be to “get it right” as the organization believes it did with the hire of Hopkins. He said he and Hopkins will be heading out to scout potential draftees.

No one’s going to outwork us.

–Jonathan Kolb, Liberty general manager

Hopkins harkened back to his Lynx days and talked about the emphasis Reeve put on scouting for the draft. The Lynx hit paydirt in last year’s draft with the selection of Napheesa Collier, the 2019 Rookie of the Year. He said he’s already been scouting potential draftees that would be available for both Minnesota and New York.

Hopkins closed by mentioning the Liberty’s community service initiatives. As sports fans know, the Liberty is one of the most community-oriented organizations in all of sports, not only the WNBA. The Liberty have its annual Unity Game every year and have taken part in New York’s Pride Parade. Also, there’s the philanthropic work Charles does with Hopey’s Heart Foundation.

Hopkins remarked that some coaches see the idea of engaging in community work as a burden, but that sees it as a benefit of the job.

It’s really exciting that I get to do those things and I get to actually initiate some of those conversations that I can be willing when I’m asked to do these types of things.

–Walt Hopkins, New York Liberty coach

We have a lot of work to do to grow this game, and I think that the more on-the-ground, face-to-face interaction that we can have, the better.

–Walt Hopkins, New York Liberty coach