Victories of growth don’t count in the WNBA playoff picture. Otherwise, Walt Hopkins and the New York Liberty might be coming off a playoff berth.
The New York Liberty were more or less the “My Plans vs. 2020” meme personified, channeling the social media phenomenon where pop culture clips of peril lampoon the effects this crazy year has had on our best-laid designs.
A year of stability went off the rails. Since head coach Walt Hopkins Jr. took over the team in January, the team has traded their all-time leading scorer and franchise face, been indefinitely uprooted from their Brooklyn residency, saw five regular contributors opt-out due to the ongoing health crisis and lost the most-talked-about WNBA draft pick in years to an injury in just her third game.
Of course, Hopkins knew about the grind of a WNBA season, having spent the prior three seasons in an apprenticeship under Cheryl Reeve in Minnesota. There’s no case of buyer’s remorse, as Hopkins knew what he was getting into right from the get-go. But the cruel realities of 2020 provided not so much a greeting to the head coaching family in the WNBA, but rather an onslaught in the form of calamities that some franchises never have to deal with through their entire existence, never mind the crammed confines of circa six months.
“We’re missing some pretty big pieces in how we build this thing up, (but) the people we’ve brought in, we’re excited about. (We’ll) focus on growth, focus on collusion, getting good at a handful of things,” Hopkins said going into the season. “It’s about growth, individual growth. It’s about small victories, celebrating when the players get out of their comfort zone…the more uncomfortable we’re willing to be, I think the more growth we’ll see.”
Despite his longing, Hopkins might get a little bit more discomfort than he or anyone else in New York was bargaining for.
As one of the few charter franchises left in the WNBA, the Liberty have won nearly everything the Association has had to offer…including the Draft Lottery for the first time, with that game of luck netting them Sabrina Ionescu. A championship has proven elusive but the Liberty have nonetheless maintained consistency over their nearly three-decade tenure. The end of the decade was a bit harsh to the Liberty, granting them only 17 wins and a rebuild that eventually had to bid Tina Charles farewell. Such a trade was part of a veteran exodus from New York that also saw them let Bria Hartley and Brittany Boyd walk.
Even as Hopkins faced a tall task ahead of him, consolation would come in the form of the top draft pick won through the lottery. Hopkins’ introductory press conference was held at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, a penthouse compared to the two years of de facto exile in Westchester County’s cramped arena in White Plains. There were strong tools to work with WNBA experience on their sneakers, namely deep shooters like Rebecca Allen and Marine Johannes, to go along with the onslaught of rookies stemming from picks in the Charles deal.
But, much like those concerts and plane trips you were planning to take, 2020 emerged with endless rounds of setbacks, such as the seclusion in Bradenton and the departure of Ionescu. Lost veterans (including Allen, Johannes, and 2019’s No. 2 overall pick Asia Durr) meant playing with as many as seven rookies in the lineup at times.
The perils of the Liberty, and, heck, every other professional American sports team, pale in comparison to what’s going on in the rest of the world. After all, they were able to maintain some semblance of normalcy by partaking in a shortened season in the first place. Even so, the bubble had a way of toying with the minds of players, especially players on a team laden with youth. Kia Nurse mentioned that the necessary seals of precaution in the Bradenton enclosure took a toll on mental health, leading to a battle she fought through meditation.
It was hard to miss those frustrating feelings on the court. The Liberty finished a bubble-worst 2-20, with all but six of those defeats coming by double-figures. Thus, the team had to find wins in places other than the scoreboard.
Had those victories counted, the Liberty might’ve gone into this offseason relishing a WNBA playoff berth.
Ionescu flashed her potential before her season was cut short, primarily through a jaw-dropping 33-point performance in just her second career output. Her injury, while distressing to both New Yorkers and basketball in general, allowed others to rise. Systemic and practical issues, several of which brought upon by the aforementioned pandemic, will likely limit the WNBA’s ability to expand their rosters or membership for the foreseeable future. But several New Yorkers were able to take advantage of unusual situations In perhaps any other WNBA situation, players like Leaonna Oodm, Joyner Holmes, and Paris Kea would be training camp bodies with no true future in the Association. Instead, these players and more have a year of WNBA experience under their belts and film to place on the desks of general managers and scouts both domestically and abroad.
Hopkins worked his way through the 2020 season through a de facto trial and error approach, encouraging players to not shy away from open looks, emphasizing an outside game that made the prescience of Allen, Durr, and Johannes all the more missed. It made for some ugly ledgers in terms of numbers…and final score margins.
But Hopkins encouraged players to keep shooting. He inspired players to leave their comfort zones, evidenced by the transition of Jazmine Jones to a point guard after the Ionescu injury threatened to render the season null and void. Jones rewarded the Hopkins confidence with an appearance on the WNBA’s All-Rookie team. Kea was grateful for the confidence that Hopkins entrusted in her and remarked that resilience displayed by the New Yorkers was one of the biggest takeaways she had from the bubble experience.
Perhaps the biggest win of all? The players bought into the system and blueprint that Hopkins has laid out.
When a head coach opts, and almost admits, that his focus is on the future through current endeavors…it could be viewed as arrogance from a first-year boss…it could cause strife with the current group that may not even be around to reap in the benefits.
“He is very big on communication, whether it’s on the court or off the court,” said veteran Amanda Zahui B, a rare veteran still clad in Liberty seafoam. “A lot of coaches don’t understand the value of know their players off the court…he knows how to pick me up.”
Predictably, Hopkins’ approach has gained its share of detractors, with some calling for the coach’s premature firing, demands that have kept Hopkins and constituents off social media. This is, after all, New York, where calling for the coach’s firing is as much of a pastime as a visit to the Empire State Building.
But Hopkins has appeared to have won his group over. How many will be sticking around for the period of potential prosperity remains to be seen. Those that do, however, are ready to believe.
“It’s a testament to him and what he believes in,” an observing Ionescu said from her home in Walnut Creek at the end of the season. “We’re missing Asia Durr, Kia wasn’t necessarily healthy, we’re missing Becca Allen…it’s a testament to him and his system. He didn’t tell those players to stop shooting.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags