Strapped with the youngest team and youngest coach in WNBA history, the New York Liberty’s youth movement turns in full motion.
The 2019 season didn’t go as planned for the New York Liberty. They bottomed out in the league standings with a 10-24 record. Or it all went perfectly as those losses led directly to landing the No. 1 overall pick and drafting a generational talent Sabrina Ionescu.
The 2020 season hasn’t gone as planned for the world and now the WNBA forges ahead with a shortened, 22-game season in the bubble. Even in this transitory state, the Liberty exist as a franchise in a distinctive transition.
While the coronavirus put the move from Westchester to Brooklyn on hold, the youngest team in league history — brimming with seven rookies, including four first-rounders — will be led by rookie head coach, Walt Hopkins.
Hopkins spent three years as an assistant with the Lynx and is a decade younger than every other head coach in the league. In addition to shaping New York’s youth movement, he enters his inaugural campaign at the helm without Asia Durr, Rebecca Allen or Han Xu — all sitting out the season due to pandemic concerns. His focus for the reloaded team centers on growth and cohesion.
“You’ll hear me on a broken record with these conversations. It really is about growth. It’s about seeing individual growth. It’s about celebrating small victories when the team executes things they’ve been working on or tried something, even if they messed it up, out of their comfort zone,” Hopkins said in a recent media availability. “I think those are the types of things we’re looking at because that’s the only time growth occurs. You have to be right on the edge of what you’re capable of doing. That uncomfortable spot is where we’re trying to live this year. And the more uncomfortable we’re willing to be, I think the more growth we’ll see.”
Since the entire team is greener than its oxidized copper jerseys, player progress will be tantamount to success. General manager Jonathan Kolb invested in developing this young core with the goal of seeing “who’s ready to roll with us in Brooklyn next year.”
For Kolb, this season hopefully provides the foundation of greatness, the one the team looks back on and says, “that’s when this all started.”
Like with any rebuild, it might take time before the wins stack up. Only four non-rookies are on the current active roster and that much youth usually comes with growing pains. But the veterans will do their part in instilling guidance and attitude. Boiled down, Amanda Zahui B wants this team to be known by one word: “fearless.”
“We ain’t scared. We’re going to go out 110 percent no matter who we play against,” Zahui B said. “We know it’s going to be a long ride with basically a brand new team, a lot of young players. But we’re gonna go out every day and just play fearless. We have nothing to lose. Nobody really believes in us but ourselves.”
Zahui B just came off her best statistical season as a pro. New York’s incumbent starting center plans on taking all the great pieces from the veterans she had to push the team forward. Kia Nurse, one of the Liberty’s other young veterans — and one of Zahui B’s bubble roommates — also sets the bar high regardless of the team’s collective lack of experience.
What does success look like for the New York Liberty this season?
“Like anybody else, we’re coming in here to win,” Nurse said. “For us, especially in New York and being such a new team with a new coaching staff, we’re coming in to prove people wrong. I think anyone would be lying if they said they were just here to have fun.”
On the other side of that rebuilding coin lies an ocean full of excitement and potential. That excitement is due in large part to Ionescu, the only player in NCAA history — man or woman — to record 2,000 career points, 1,000 rebounds, and 1,000 assists.
The jump from college to the pros comes with an upshift in speed and strength, something even the WNBA’s most highly touted rookie needs to brace for.
“The way I’ve been training and preparing these last three months for this moment has been at a higher level,” Ionescu said. “I’ve been taking care of my body more, really pushing myself, getting in better shape, getting stronger, quicker. I feel comfortable on the floor, I feel healthy, strong and I’m able to move. When we start playing against veteran teams I’ll have a lot of adjusting to do but I think I set myself up to where I’m not too far behind.”
Ionescu’s impact at every level on the court already draws huge comparisons from her coach.
“I think on the men’s side, statistically, with her size, Luka Doncic. It’s hard on the women’s side because I’m trying to think of a big point guard, like a Lindsay Whalen maybe. They’re both fierce competitors and special leaders, but Sabrina shoots the 3,” Hopkins said. “Somebody who rebounds, gets assists, shoots the 3 at a really high level… I’m not trying to make this into some crazy quote, but she really might be one of one.”
First-year players usually hit the rookie wall. But with a longer than normal offseason and a shortened schedule, this brigade may be spared. All seven of them — Ionescu, Megan Walker, Jocelyn Willoughby, Jazmine Jones, Kylee Shook, Leaonna Odom, and Joyner Holmes — drew rave reviews in camp in one way or another. Their youth might even prove to be an advantage since the bubble evokes a collegiate atmosphere.
“They’re literally on campus. They go from the gym to their home to the gym and back. I think the environment should feel very familiar and that should help them along,” Kolb said. “There’s also something to be said for the numbers and they can lean on each other in hard times.”
New York tips off the 2020 slate against the finally healthy Seattle Storm, returning both Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird. Matching up against the class of the league presents a tall challenge for a fledgling group but sets up a perfect barometer for how far the Liberty need to go.
While it remains to be seen if the final standings will match their shared exuberance, the bright future of this budding star cluster should be like staring into the sun.