2020 is all about adjustments for the New York Liberty

Liberty take flexibility and the willingness to adjust from Brooklyn to Bradenton

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The New York Liberty circles up during one of their first days of training camp at IMG Academy. (Photo courtesy of the New York Liberty’s Instagram page.)

After the first day practicing on the courts at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, New York Liberty Head Coach Walt Hopkins almost lost his voice. He kept having to project while balls were bouncing, shoes were squeaking and other teams were practicing on the other courts within the training facility. He kept having to make adjustments. Everything surrounding the 2020 WNBA season in a nutshell is simply just one adjustment after another.

“If we’ve learned anything in 2020, it’s to be flexible,” Kia Nurse said during the team’s virtual media day.

A global pandemic that has changed the course of sports’ role in our world yielded a myriad of changes to what was expected after Hopkins was introduced in January.

After a virtual draft that solidified a “New Era” for the franchise, many weren’t sure if a 2020 WNBA season would actually happen, including us at The Next. We published a series of season simulations powered by Pivot Analysis. The possibility of no WNBA basketball in 2020 was imminent but wasn’t the case.

“I mean every single time I step on the court that's the thing I think about because you weren't able to play basketball for two months or two or three months,” said 15th overall draft pick Leaonna Odom during a virtual presser. “So every opportunity that I get to step on the court is just like wow we're starting and I'm just so thankful.”

The rise of COVID-19 preempted not only the team’s debut at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn but the arrival of some of the Liberty’s most exciting international young talent. Chinese center Han Xu and French guard Marine Johannès won’t join the Liberty in 2020. And once the plans were finalized to commence in Florida, a state with rampant Coronavirus cases, swing woman Bec Allen decided to stay home in Australia.

In response to Allen’s announcement, the Liberty signed Joyner Holmes, the team’s seventh total rookie. Missing Allen will be an adjustment, but adding Holmes filled part of the void, adding muscle, athleticism, and even more versatility.

“She's really skilled, I mean she really does have guard skills for her size,” Hopkins said about Holmes. “She fits us in that regard that she can play multiple positions, guard multiple positions. She's an eager learner. She's totally been bought in and been really responsive to anything that we've needed.”

A week and a half later, Asia Durr’s fate for 2020 had been reversed. A June COVID diagnosis that was difficult to shake resulted in the guard deciding to sit out the season.

Another New York adjustment had to be made. But according to Hopkins, her shoes won’t be filled immediately. Hopkins and his staff have pondered the final roster spot— notwithstanding the uncertainty regarding when 9th overall pick Megan Walker will play this season— there are “two routes” to take when adding another piece.

Hopkins and the Liberty are between adding a veteran who could “really help to hammer home” the team’s culture or signing *another rookie* that the staff contends they could develop. But with enough cap money, while also considering load management and initial body fatigue, it would be shocking if the Liberty embark on the regular season without a full 12 or 11 piece roster.

“So it's up in the air and I don't think that we landed on one side or the other,” Hopkins told The Next. “I think we're just kind of looking at both sides, trying to figure out what would benefit us most and I think that the deeper we get into training camp once we do start going five on five, we'll have a better idea of what we need. And then we can address it from there.”

Joyner Holmes drives to the hoop against Stanford. (Photo courtesy of University of Texas Athletics)

While Walker is eager to join the team at IMG once she completes two consecutive negative COVID-19 tests, for now, she’s been joining team meetings via Skype. Hopkins expressed that Walker is “hungry” to be in Florida and begin her career, but also she’s a “hooper,” someone whose desire is to be working in the gym as often as possible.

Speaking of hoopers who live and breathe basketball, what was the conversation like with Durr and even Allen about opting out of the season? First and foremost Hopkins iterated that they are both “supported” and a large part of the franchise’s “long term vision.”

“You know we miss them because they're very, very good basketball players and they're good people,” he said. “But we wanted them to know that those concerns are understandable. There’s no negative repercussions. There's nothing like that. There was no pressure. We just wanted them to know that we supported them.”

For both Durr and Allen, watching the team from afar will be an adjustment. But players who made it to Brandenton are faced with adjustments to make of their own. Take four year “young vet” Kiah Stokes for instance.

Hopkins sees this season as a giant opportunity for Stokes to develop her game and expand her skills, going from primarily a rim protector and defensive specialist to someone who can shoot, handle the ball and pass. It might be a bit uncomfortable for Stokes, but Hopkins acknowledged that she has risen to the occasion and taken to the challenge well.

“I know that this is a big adjustment for her…kind of giving her a little bit more freedom probably than she's used to and I think it's uncomfortable for her because she's used to being really good at the things that she's really good at,” he said. “So now she’s being asked to do things that she probably hasn't done very much and that can be hard because she hasn't mastered them quite yet.”

Stokes understands the adjustments she needs to make on the court. Fine tunning her shot is an expectation the coaching staff has for the entire team. Stokes is aware that committing herself to the “New Era System” is the only way the Liberty can have a shot at winning.

“The coaches are telling me you know everyone's a shooter, everyone's got to shoot, that makes the offense work,” she said. “So just you know being confident in my game, shooting when open, creating possession for other people is definitely a thing, but as I also mentioned the coaching staff is super supportive, super positive.”

Another adjustment for Stokes is the leadership piece. She has been reminiscing lately, looking at pictures from the Liberty in 2016 when New York wore shooting shirts in honor of The Dallas 5, which opened a conversation on race in America within the league. It hasn’t necessarily sunk in completely for Stokes that she’s a veteran, which comes with a host of responsibilities.

“I think it'll help push me to become a better player, but a leader, so I'm looking forward to the opportunity,” she said. “But you know it is different being a fifth-year vet and I'm still the third oldest on the team. I think it’s crazy but I’m definitely looking forward to it, and excited for the experience.”

Some adjustments present advantages

Most adjustments are met with a challenge or a struggle, but for New York, the adjustments they made in between the April draft and now have paid off.

Stokes finds that the set up at IMG is very reminiscent of what she’s used to overseas and even during her college years as a Huskie. While she’s a bunch of years removed from Storrs, the Liberty rookies concur that living, practicing, and playing in Bradenton feels very familiar and even similar to what they were used to in college.

Her teammate and former Louisville Cardinal Kylee Shook explained the similarities, as the 22-year-old WNBA rookie is far less removed from her days in college. Usually, a challenge for first-year players in their adjustment to the WNBA is living on their own in a new city, and being thrust into independence and a schedule that gives players more personalized time. But this won’t be the case at IMG. The collegiate set-up is a result of the virus and represents a league commitment to player safety.

“More so just the practice schedule and practice times, and being in the same area like normally you'd have to either drive somewhere or fly somewhere,” Shook said. “But here it's all kind of in one area so that's kind of why it probably feels like college because you just walk to the gym and then walk back to your room and that's that.”

The only difference for Shook so far is that her apartment is much larger than what she was used to in Louisville, which she sees as a positive. Another difference is she lives with her teammate Leaonna Odom who she’s known since high school when they bunked together for the McDonald's All American Games.

But back to Stokes. She even believes that living together and being together a lot of the time will only help with their team chemistry on-and-off the court. Odom contends that this team’s chemistry is already well developed. “Chemistry is already there, it's actually crazy you know the things that we've been able to do and just getting into our plays and all that stuff,” she said during a virtual presser.

So how have the Liberty exactly been able to dive into their plays? How did Hopkins and his staff begin teaching virtually? What would lead Assistant Coach Shelley Patterson to say that day two of training camp actually feels more like week two? And why has Hopkins been saying that “the rookies don’t look like rookies?”

Adjusting to a world without team basketball presented the youngest team in the WNBA with an advantage: time. Hopkins and his staff implemented what he calls a Quarterback club. It’s a system that allows players to learn skills in a traditional setting on an individual call with a coach while also providing them with the opportunity to go ahead and teach those skills to their peers. For Kylee Shook, that repetition helped her grasp the material. Also according to Shook, who is a visual learner, that app that Sabrina Ionescu desperately wanted the passwords to post-draft, has been a benefit as well.

I feel like it helps a lot, not only in the stance of where we’re learning plays but like we're learning each other, so it's players teaching it, so not only does the player who's teaching it has to know the play… she has to teach us it. And everybody's been a quarterback, so everybody has to kind of learn and learn how to teach teammates and learn how our teammates learn. So not only does it help, but it helps on the court so like, I'll be like oh she's visual, so I got to talk her through this.

But the team isn’t just learning offensive actions that will allow this group to run and gun. Defensive strategy is a MUST for an organization that had the worst defense in the league a year ago. Shook values defense, and so much so that she had a twinkle in her eye when she discussed the lesson she taught her teammates, which [SHOCKER] was a defensive action. “So it was kind of like the same so I would just walk them through the steps, see if they needed anything that would be clarified, and then we just do it on the court,” she said. “It's kind of nice how we can do it on the court now.”

Leaonna Odom, Joyner Holmes and Kylee Shook participating in a warm-up drill. (Photo courtesy of the New York Liberty’s Twitter page.)

Flexibility is vital moving forward

A facet of the “New Era” system is how much less it revolves around typical positional conventions of basketball. When some of the “wide-eyed” rookies were asked about their roles and what they were specifically looking to contribute, their consistent answers tell us a few things: 1) they are open and willing to do whatever is asked of them, 2) their roles haven’t necessarily been defined and 3) they are going to give their best with a lot of energy.

According to the newest acquisition Holmes, there hasn’t really been an opportunity to discuss where she’s going to play. The priority so far has been to learn the system and perfect her individual skills. “[Hopkins] wants us to not feel like we're just set in stone at one position,” she said.

When Hopkins discussed Durr’s potential replacement on Sunday, he noted that “flexibility right now is kind of what we want.” And this doesn’t just apply to the roster and its makeup, but rather to specific roles and the mantels that he expects the players to take.

But he also said that they haven’t really gotten there yet. What the first few days of training camp have been mostly about is getting the players’ bodies used to being on the court. They haven’t sprinted, slid, and jumped on a hardwood in months. Once New York begins their contact and five on five work, specific positions and roles may be more defined. But still, this is a team that will be at liberty positionally more than most.

In terms of off-the-court adjustments, for the rookies, they are understanding the magnitude of their platform and how it has shifted amid a global conversation on race and racial injustice. As a rookie new to WNBA player initiatives, Shook is listening and she wants to find ways to support her sisters in this league, one that is 80 percent, Black.

“I know my teammates are all very involved with the movement and so am I,” she said.  “Honestly, I've been trying to educate myself more on that. And by doing that I'm listening to my teammates and what they think about it. And I mean we're all from different areas, so it's kind of nice to see the aspect of every person. So how's this? How do you view this? So I feel like that's more so how I'm learning about it.”

Losing players, gaining players, and losing time but also gaining time. The Liberty have acknowledged the changes and have made the adjustments. The adjustments have their benefits, and so much so that Odom feels like she and her teammates have “playing for years together” rather than a week. “It just flows.”