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Liberty coach Walt Hopkins: He didn’t start the fire but he’s learning how to manage it

New York Liberty Head Coach Announcement Press Conference Photo by Mike Lawrence/WNBA via Getty Images

The Liberty’s new head coach, Walt Hopkins, is seen as a 34-year-old hoops wunderkind but like seven of his 12 players, he’s a rookie. And as Barbara Barker of Newsday notes in a feature on Hopkins, he’s not just a rookie, he’s a decade younger than any of the WNBA’s 11 other head coaches. And even that’s not the only thing that sets him apart.

In the Liberty’s rebuild, Hopkins will face a number of challenges. The WNBA team will have seven rookies on its 12-woman roster. Then, there’s the challenge of playing a shortened, 22-game season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

“I definitely did not imagine a revolution and a pandemic during my first head-coaching season,” Hopkins told Barker in a phone interview last week, “but you just do your best to support everyone around you. You get new cards, you play the hand you are dealt and you roll with that.”

Hopkins is notable, maybe even unique, for more than just his youth. He has masters’ degrees from Harvard and UC Berkeley and is a white man in a league that’s emphasizing women ... and women of color.

Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve has said he recommended Hopkins, a “development guru” as Barker puts it, but quickly replaced him with a woman, Katie Smith who the Liberty didn’t renew as head coach. Moreover, she also said she’s going to hire only women assistants in the future because she wants to help more get into the head-coaching ranks. Now, of the 12 WNBA teams, only four are coached by women.

“I understand that Walt as a head coach is a white male,’’ said Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb, “but we are all about empowering everyone here, and no one has been a bigger champion of that than Walt.”

Among other things, he told Barker, he’s tried to take the lead from his players in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, where he worked for the past three seasons. The Liberty have arranged to have players share experiences related to the issue. Moreover, they’ve had journalist Jemele Hill of The Atlantic speak in a players-only meeting. (The Nets, by the way, have done the same, with Clara Wu Tsai, co-owner of both teams in the lead.)

The Liberty, even more so than the Nets, have a great deal of diversity in their front office. As Barker recounts, two of Hopkins’ three assistants are women, including Shelley Patterson, who is a woman of color. Ohemaa Nyanin, a woman of color, is head of basketball operations. So is Keia Clarke, the chief operating officer and the Liberty’s top official. The marketing, medical staff, ticket sales and public relations departments are all run by women, according to Newsday.

Hopkins will have his work cut out for him with seven rookies and a second year player who spent much of last year on the injured list. Because of the pandemic, he’s met only a few of his players, instead communicating by ZOOM.

Hopkins also created what he calls a “quarterback club” among Liberty players. The club, consists of a rotating case of three leaders. Coaches meet with leaders to explain, for example, some aspect of the offense, Barker reported. Those leaders then teach that offense to a group of three players underneath them.

He is blessed by having one of the game’s most electrifying players —and personalities— on his roster in rookie point guard Sabrina Ionescu, the overall No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft. Overall, he has players taken at Nos. 1, 9, 10, 12, 13, 15 and 19 in this year’s Draft and the No. 2 pick in the 2019 Draft, Asia Durr, as well as one of the league’s rising stars, 6’5” center Amanda Zahui B.

Development will be tough considering that 1) he’ll only have three weeks to pull them all together in training camp, then only 22 (instead of 34) games in the regular season. Of course, this was always expected to be a rebuilding year.

“He celebrates the smallest victories with you, like throwing a pass with your left hand or simply trying a new move,” said veteran point guard Layshia Clarendon who knows Hopkins through work they did when he was a free lance development coach early in her career. “Through this style of coaching, he helped me develop as a rim finisher who now loves and seeks out contact.”

There’s no set schedule for when WNBA games will begin or even when the Liberty and other teams head to Bradenton but for a lot of reasons, Hopkins will be getting a lot of attention.