New York Liberty Part Ways with Walt Hopkins

On Monday, December 6, 2021, the New York Liberty parted ways with head coach, Walt Hopkins. 

 

In his two seasons at the helm, Hopkins compiled a 14-40 record. This was his first head coaching position; previously,  Hopkins had been a player development coach with the Tulsa Shock back in 2013 before becoming an assistant for the Minnesota Lynx under Cheryl Reeve in 2017.

The Hopkins/Liberty era got off to a rocky start in 2020. The team—fresh off landing the #1 pick and prepared to debut the Barclays Center as the team’s new home arena—traded away Tina Charles, the team leader and fan favorite, ahead of the draft. That 2020 draft class, headlined by Sabrina Ionescu, would comprise nearly half the roster after the coronavirus prevented key pieces from competing that year. Ionescu herself would play just two-and-a-half games before suffering an ankle injury that would cost her the rest of her rookie campaign. The young group—despite the leadership of young vets like Kia Nurse, Amanda Zahui B., and Layshia Clarendon—would win just two of its 22 contests.

All the rookie contracts meant New York had money to spend last offseason, and they hit the offseason hard in what Hopkins and general manager Jonathan Kolb coined their “hybrid rebuild,” where established talent would come in to create an identity, while the rookies and sophomores would still have a chance to develop. The vision came into focus, with the acquisitions of Betnijah Laney (who would earn her first All-Star nomination in 2021), Natasha Howard, and Sami Whitcomb. A strong draft netted them a pair of rotation players in Michaela Onyenwere (the Rookie of the Year) and DiDi Richards, with both being named to the All-Rookie team. This young Liberty squad, with flashes of the talent Ionescu showed in college, earned a playoff spot for the first time since 2017. They lost a single-elimination thriller to the Phoenix Mercury, who would make their way all the way to the Finals before ending their own season.

New York’s 12-20 record, while a 10-win improvement over the prior season, offered glimpses of the identity the team was attempting to build. Hopkins’ five-out offense encouraged the players to shoot from long-range and cut without the ball. In 2021, the Liberty set the W’s all-time mark for made threes in a season, with 321.

 

See Also

Table Courtesy of Across the Timeline

 

The players all expressed excitement with the free-flowing sets, though they shot themselves out of games just as often as they shot their way into them. Time and time again, Hopkins talked about how you had to absorb some disadvantages to gain advantages of your own, which often left the athletic Liberty undersized against some of the W’s larger teams. Something clicked in the last few games—a must-win victory against the Washington Mystics to back into the playoffs, and the playoff loss to Phoenix—in terms of using that athleticism to slow down opposing bigs. With Hopkins’ blueprint, the next head coach could decide to either build on the existing philosophies or change it up. The timing of this decision potentially means that a replacement could be hired ahead of free agency at the start of February.

As of this writing, Hopkins has not released a statement of his own.

This article will be updated with any additional information.

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