From the courts at IMG Academy, New York Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins and two of his proteges spoke after the first day of workouts.
Most New Yorkers abscond to Florida to relax, maybe even retire. The New York Liberty are doing the exact opposite.
Two weeks from Saturday, the WNBA will commence its 24th season of operation at IMG Academy in Bradenton. By the end of this weekend, each of the league’s dozen teams will have made the trip south and the Liberty officially got things rolling with their first organized workouts.
Hopkins spoke with the media afterward, enthused by the first on-court happenings. Counting Hopkins himself, the Liberty feature seven rookies on their roster, not counting ninth overall pick Megan Walker (who has not reported to Florida after testing positive for COVID-19). That group is headlined by top overall selection and queen of the NCAA triple-double Sabrina Ionescu. If videos shared by the Liberty’s official accounts are any indication, it appears that Ionescu is already forming a rapport with All-Star teammate Kia Nurse.
“It was a really good first day,” Hopkins remarked in a Zoom teleconference. “Having young legs, having people who aren’t used to what the WNBA normally looks like, this is an experience for them no matter where we’re playing or what the conditions are. It’s been nice. The energy has just been so positive and the older players on the team have really been good in terms of bringing them along and really being supportive. We have a great group.”
Hopkins takes over the Liberty duties after three seasons as an assistant with the Minnesota Lynx (ironically, former Liberty head coach and Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer Katie Smith took Hopkins’ seat on the Lynx bench). He hails from Brooklyn, where the Liberty were set to christen Barclays Center as their new home arena before the pandemic forced the league to form the bubble at IMG.
Save for losing his voice in crowded surroundings, as the Liberty’s competition is likewise preparing, Hopkins is pleased with what he’s seen in the so-called “Wubble”.
“It could be a consequence of having more than half the team be rookies, but they don’t look like rookies,” Hopkins said. “They don’t like scared or have the blank look on their face when you’re trying to explain an action or they don’t understand terminology. I think (thanks to) the lead-up that we had, discussions with our quarterback club and Zoom meetings, and things like that, the familiarity with what we’re doing has been really high. We’ve been able to dive right in.”
The feeling was mutual amongst Hopkins’ freshest newcomer, Joyner Holmes. A Texas alumna, Holmes was added to the team after reserve forward Rebecca Allen opted out of the 2020 proceedings.
Holmes explained that Hopkins and his rapid approach to the game was one of the biggest things that attracted her to New York. She was originally chosen in the second round of April’s draft by Seattle (19th overall) but was let go in the first series of roster cuts to ensure players would receive their full salaries.
“The coaching staff, for me, was a really big plus,” Holmes said. “I like Walt a lot. He’s really free-range and willing to let us do whatever, try to follow his system. That was a really big target for me.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised by Joyner’s skillset because she got to show it off a bit at Texas,” Hopkins added. “She’s really skilled. She really does have guard skills for her size (6’3), she can play multiple positions, guard multiple positions. She’s an eager learner, has totally bought in and responded to anything we’ve needed. We’re really excited about her.”
Along for the ride is a select handful of veterans, including center/forward Kiah Stokes. Things are just a little bit different since Stokes last wore the Liberty’s brand of seafoam green. Stokes is returning to WNBA action after taking a year off from New York exploits for personal reasons. Having last donned the Liberty colors in 2018, Stokes will be joined by only two comrades from that squad. She’s particularly close to both, as she’ll be reuniting with Nurse, a fellow champion from the University of Connecticut. Stokes will also be manning the interior with center/forward Amanda Zahui B.
The all-time leading blocker in WNBA history only turned 27 in March but is the second-oldest member of the modern Liberty behind free agent addition Layshia Clarendon (29). Stokes said she will be embracing her role as a new team leader.
“I’m looking forward to it. Me, Zahui, and Kia kind of joke about it, we’re the vets now, though we’re pretty young,” Stokes said with a smile. “It’s crazy to think how much our team has changed already. But I’m really looking forward to it. I think it will help push me to become a better player, a better leader.”
Along with Clarendon, Stokes is also a rare member of the Liberty who has experienced the joy of the WNBA Playoffs. In her rookie campaign of 2015, Stokes was the heroine of an Eastern semifinal, win-or-go-home matchup with Washington, sinking the layup that put the Liberty ahead for good and blocking the Mystics’ attempt at tying the game on their final possession.
“I think this is going to be a fresh start. When I came into the league, we were pretty good and then we kind of had a falling off. But I think this is just a brand new start. We have the opportunity to make a statement. Such a young team can grow together, build together and I think that if we all just buy in and work really hard, we can become something really, really special.”
The WNBA season is scheduled to open on July 25.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags