Rookie-laden Liberty focused on a “foundational season”

No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu, veteran Amanda Zahui B. and Kia Nurse on team media day. Photo courtesy of New York Liberty.
No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu, veteran Amanda Zahui B. and Kia Nurse on team media day. Photo courtesy of New York Liberty.

This season, the New York Liberty are taking the term “rebuilding year” to another level.

One of the WNBA’s founding franchises brings possibly the youngest team in league history to the floor in this compact season. Seven of the 11 on the roster are rookies, and just two –  third-year guard Kia Nurse and fifth-year center/forward Amanda Zahui B – saw action for the Liberty in 2019.

“[F]or us, this is going to be a foundational year,” general manager Jonathan Kolb said. “It’s going to be a year we . . .  look back on, hopefully years down the line and say ‘that’s when this all started.’”

In this unusual season, every one of New York’s numerous draft picks – plus one rookie they traded to get – will be on the bench for Saturday’s game against Seattle. It is safe to say, however, that in a non-COVID-19 year, fewer rookies would have made the final cut.

Not since the founding of the league in 1997, when every player was technically a rookie, has any team had as many first-year players on its squad. This very young roster with an average age of 23 1/2, did not come about entirely by design, though it does reflect a rebuilding plan that emphasizes youth.

This roster mirrors the total reconfiguration of an original WNBA franchise – a process which began in January, 2019 when Joe Tsai, 56, the co-founder of Chinese tech giant Alibaba, purchased the Liberty from Madison Square Garden Company, which had owned the team for its entire 22-year history.

Two months later Tsai hired Kolb, then 34, who had been director of basketball strategy and analytics for the WNBA office for just four years. For six years before that, he had worked for a financial services company and obtained a law degree.

Tsai and Kolb watched the the team under-perform that summer in a small, dark recreation center gym in White Plains, New York, and finish 10-24. That level of futility proved to be unacceptable for a major franchise.

Kolb fired head coach Katie Smith after the season and hired 34-year old Walt Hopkins, now the youngest head coach in WNBA history. Hopkins was an assistant with the Minnesota Lynx for the last three years, but had no prior head coaching experience.

Kolb and Hopkins then chose to shed older veterans and form a new culture while adopting a different style of play.

All-star Tina Charles was no longer happy in New York after six years as the franchise’s star. She was traded to Washington in a three-team deal that brought Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Tayler Hill aboard, plus the 9, 12, and 15 picks in the upcoming draft. (Ultimately, Charles opted out of the season, Hill was cut, and the Liberty traded Walker-Kimbrough for the draft rights to Virginia standout Jocelyn Willoughby.)

Six-year veteran Bria Hartley also left the team and signed with Phoenix.

New York opted to stick with young players rather than bid for experienced free agents, with one exception: seven-year vet Layshia Clarendon. They signed the former All-Star guard in February, and after drafting Oregon standout Sabrina Ionescu with their first pick, it became clear that Clarendon could help the collegiate player of the year’s learning curve.

The original plan was to rely on the draft to supplement a stable of rising young international players already on the roster: 5-10 guard Kia Nurse (Canada, age 23), 5-10 guard Marine Johannes (France, age 25), 6-9 center Han Xu (China, age 20), and 6-2 wing Rebecca Allen (Australia, age 27).

Then came the pandemic, and the plan shifted.

BROOKLYN, NY - JANUARY 8: New York Liberty General Manager Jonathan Kolb speaks alongside new head coach Walt Hopkins during the New York Liberty press conference to announce their new head coach. Mike Lawrence/NBA via Getty Images.
BROOKLYN, NY – JANUARY 8: New York Liberty General Manager Jonathan Kolb speaks alongside new head coach Walt Hopkins during the New York Liberty press conference to announce their new head coach. Mike Lawrence/NBA via Getty Images.

Of the expected international core, only Nurse will play this season, as the others opted out. Another improving prospect, Canadian forward Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, had already opted out to prepare for the Olympics, and did not change her mind when the Games were cancelled.

By the time the WNBA announced that it would play a shortened, one-location season starting Saturday, the Liberty were down to five veterans with a total of 19 seasons in the league. Forwards Zahui B. and Kiah Stokes re-signed. Guard Asia Durr was set to return for her second season, but contracted coronavirus in June and opted out for the year.

Suddenly, New York’s management team was going to have to rely on all their draft picks to complete the team. And they decided that was a good thing.

With the 9, 10, 12, 13 and 15th picks, the Liberty selected wing Megan Walker (Connecticut), 6-0 forward Jocelyn Willoughby (Virginia, via draft day trade), 6-0 guard Jazmine Jones (Louisville), 6-4 forward/center Kylee Shook (Louisville), and 6-2 forward Leaonna Odom (Duke).

In an ordinary season only one, or at most two picks, would be likely to make the roster. But all five, plus Ionescu, are ready to make big contributions this summer. Last week they reached eleven players by signing 6-3 rookie forward Joyner Holmes (drafted at No. 19) after she was cut by the Storm. Walker tested positive for COVID-19, and just arrived in Florida today.

Hopkins said he was amazed, first, by what he characterized as a perfect draft.

“In some ways, it made it easy, because we genuinely wanted all the people that we picked,” he said. “We would have traded those picks if we didn’t.”

“We targeted the exact people that we got. It was kind of a, you know, an amazing thing from the few drafts I’ve been a part of it just normally doesn’t work like that, especially . . . where I have like a million picks . . . . But to be able to nail every single one . . . because we weren’t sure if we were gonna be able to make a draft day trade that we did that was able to net us both Megan (Walker) and Jocelyn (Willoughby).”

Then he and his coaching staff were affirmed by those decisions over the last two weeks, in training camp.

“I’m really thankful, to be honest, because we get to get a full look at all of these players in this unique season, and none of them, none of them has disappointed,” Hopkins said. “They all have moments of absolute brilliance, and we’re excited about every single one of them.”

Hopkins has said his coaching style avoids “creating expectations,” by which he means that he does not set win-loss goals or preach about where to finish in the standings. He and Kolb are realistic and believe that the team, and Liberty fans, will be happy with signs of continued growth.

BRADENTON - JULY 11:  Walt Hopkins of the New York Liberty during practice at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.
BRADENTON – JULY 11: Walt Hopkins of the New York Liberty during practice at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

“That that starts with our player development group and our young core, right? So even our veterans are young,” Kolb said. “And . . . they’re taking that really well. They are leading. They’re being opportunistic, with their voices, and being powerful with their voices. And they’re leading by example.”

“And then you look at our young group, our rookies, and we’re going to have a benchmark here and see where they’re starting, . . . and where they’re going to end up.”

In a never-before-done-this-way WNBA season, New York has committed to an unprecedented reconstruction. It should be a fun experiment to watch.

Zahui B. said she wants the team to be “fearless.” So far, the rookies have repeated that mantra, and suggested that they will try to live up to it. As the Liberty kick off their season against Seattle at noon Eastern in two days, we will have a chance to see how their experiment is working.