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New Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins looks like perfect choice for unconventional times

New New York Liberty WNBA basketball head coach

New New York Liberty WNBA basketball head coach Walt Hopkins is introduced during a press conference at Barclays Center on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

When Walt Hopkins was named the Liberty’s head coach in January, he had an idea of some of the challenges the team might face. It is fair to say that his idea didn’t include sickness, quarantines, trauma, racial injustice and mastering Zoom meetings.

“I definitely did not imagine a revolution and a pandemic during my first head-coaching season,” Hopkins said 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, 34, is a decade younger than any other WNBA head coach. His lack of head- coaching experience, coupled with his unusual and meteoric path to one of the most visible jobs in the WNBA, raised a few eyebrows.

“Walt is a genius,” general manager Jonathan Kolb declared in January when asked why he picked Hopkins over the more than 20 other candidates he interviewed.

Fast-forward six months, and it is entirely possible that this unconventional choice might be a perfect one for these unconventional times.

Hopkins, who earned master’s degrees from Harvard and UC Berkeley before joining Cheryl Reeve’s staff in Minnesota in 2017, is known as a developmental guru. He is someone who has been able to take players to the next level by applying academic theories to the basketball court.

There’s plenty of player development work to be done on the Liberty. Seven of the team’s 12 players are rookies, including No. 1 overall draft choice Sabrina Ionescu. Only four players — Kiah Stokes, Asia Durr, Kia Nurse and Amanda Zahui B — were on the team last year.

When the players arrive in Bradenton, Florida, in early July for training camp, Hopkins will be meeting many of them in person for the first time. Kolb believes they already are developing into a tight-knit group, thanks to some of the virtual exercises Hopkins has them doing.

“We didn’t want it to be a situation where they were dreading another weekly Zoom call,” Kolb said.

Hopkins created what he calls a quarterback club, which consists of a rotating case of three leaders. Coaches meet with leaders to explain, for example, some aspect of the offense. Those leaders then teach that offense to a group of three players underneath them.

He also introduced them to an educational theory called “growth mindset,” which emphasizes learning and growing from mistakes.

Free-agent signee Layshia Clarendon fell in love with the theory when she started working out with Hopkins after her rookie season in Indiana.

“He celebrates the smallest victories with you, like throwing a pass with your left hand or simply trying a new move,” Clarendon said. “Through this style of coaching, he helped me develop as a rim finisher who now loves and seeks out contact.”

Hopkins, who learned to read when he was 2 1⁄2, is that rare breed of personable nerd. He can get all excited explaining an academic paper on motivational theory without making you want to quickly change the subject or run the other way.

“He’s a very cerebral person and very hungry for knowledge,” said Jason Glover, an associate coach at Southern Cal who met Hopkins when he was his AAU coach in Sparks, Nevada. “He’s also a guy who didn’t want to do anything other than coach.”

Glover was an assistant for the Tulsa Shock when Hopkins was at Harvard and got him a job as a player development coach there. Though Hopkins went back to school at Berkeley, he continued to work with players privately. Former Indiana Fever coach Stephanie Light was so impressed with what he had done with Clarendon that she recommended that Reeve hire him in 2017.

In Minnesota, Hopkins worked closely with many players, including Maya Moore and Rebecca Brunson.

Though the Reeve coaching tree is respected, not everyone was thrilled with how quickly Hopkins jumped to the next level. In a league that is dominated by women of color, he is neither. Eight of the 12 current WNBA coaches are male and four are white women.

Reeve, who declined to be interviewed for this story, previously said she pushed Hopkins to apply for the job. She also said she is going to hire only women in the future because she wants to help more get into the head-coaching ranks.

Kolb said the Liberty, who have a new owner in Joe Tsai, are committed to diversity. 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. The marketing, medical staff, ticket sales and public relations departments are all run by women.

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

Hopkins said he has tried to take the lead from his players in the wake of the death of George Floyd. They have held meetings with players to let them share their experiences and they had journalist Jemele Hill speak with them in a players-only meeting.

He said he has learned more than he could ever imagine in the past six months despite the fact that he hasn’t been able to conduct a single practice live.

“We have some amazing women,” Hopkins said. “I can’t wait to all be in the same place.”

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