On a stage overlooking the main entrance to the Barclays Center, the Liberty’s new home, the team officially announced the hiring of head coach Walt Hopkins on Wednesday.
The Liberty now have acquired a new owner, new general manager, a new arena and now a new coach — all in the past 12 months. However, their biggest addition — the one that could establish the Liberty as a premier team for the next decade — is yet to come.
Thanks to their 10-24 record last season and some luck in the lottery, the Liberty have the No. 1 pick in April’s draft. And, though Hopkins and general manager Jonathan Kolb went to great pains Wednesday to say they are scouring the planet for the best possible pick, it would be a major upset and disappointment if they didn’t take Oregon point guard Sabrina Ionescu.
How much of a game changer is Ionescu? Think Patrick Ewing to the Knicks in 1985.
Ionescu would have likely been the WNBA’s No. 1 pick if she had elected to come out at the end of last season. She is college basketball’s leader — both men and women’s — in career triple-doubles with 21, despite not having yet played four full seasons like the men’s leader, Kyle Collinsworth, who holds that record with 12.
Ionescu is the game's next great point guard and likely will be a mainstay on the U.S. National team for years to come. In November, she helped send a message to the current national team when she scored 30 points to lead the Ducks to an exhibition win over them. Oregon became just the second college team, and the first since Tennessee in 1999, to beat the national team.
A media savvy player who announced her decision to stay at Oregon this season in a letter on the Player’s Tribune website, Ionescu has the potential to revive the Liberty franchise, which is struggling to find its footing after playing the past two seasons in the tiny Westchester County Center while the team tried to finalize its sale. She also has the potential to bring some new interest to the WNBA, which could only benefit from having a competitive team in its biggest media market.
Kolb worked five years in the WNBA league office before Joe Tsai, the Nets owner who bought the Liberty last January, tabbed him to be the team’s new general manager in April. Kolb believes it will help all of women’s basketball if there is a strong team in New York.
“It’s vital,” he said. “I think we can be the forefront of the league. The hope is not only to be immediately successful, but we want to be sustainable. If we can emulate what Minnesota has in terms of constantly being a contender, that’s what we need.”
Ah yes, Minnesota. That is where Hopkins comes in.
Though only 34 years old with no head coaching experience above the high school level, Hopkins spent the last three years as an assistant in Minnesota under general manager and coach Cheryl Reeve and is known for his work with point guards. The Lynx went to the playoffs in each of those years, winning the WNBA championship in 2017.
Hopkins, who also was an assistant for a year with the Tulsa Shock in 2013 before the team moved to Dallas, holds masters degrees from Harvard and UC Berkeley, where his studies focused primarily on applying findings from social, developmental and educational psychology to coaching.
“Walt’s skill set as a developer, especially with guards, is a major pull for us,” said Kolb, who also referred to Hopkins as a genius in his introductory news conference.
More than two decades into its existence, the WNBA is at a bit of a crossroads. The WNBA has dealt with some unique challenges over the course of its 23 seasons, including sexism, homophobia and racism. Legacy sports media — particularly television, radio and print — haven’t paid much attention to women’s sports beyond high school.
Bringing an exciting star and brand of basketball to New York could only help as the league re-brands and attempts to appeal to younger viewers.