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Liberty, Wings and Dream heads talk pre-draft preparations

Walt Hopkins was named head coach of the New York Liberty in January. Mary Altaffer/AP photo.
Walt Hopkins was named head coach of the New York Liberty in January. Mary Altaffer/AP photo.
Walt Hopkins was named head coach of the New York Liberty in January. Mary Altaffer/AP photo.

As a prelude to Friday’s 2020 WNBA draft, representatives of teams with some of the top picks answered questions from the media yesterday.

New York Liberty coach Walt Hopkins discussed the decision-making that is going into making the first-ever No. 1 pick for the franchise. He also talked about Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu, projected to be the first selection.

The Dallas Wings have the second and fifth picks of the first round, which president and CEO Greg Bibb addressed. And in a separate news conference, Atlanta Dream head coach Nicki Collen and president and General Manager Chris Sienko talked about roster moves and their impending fourth pick.

My question for you is looking beyond the No. 1 pick, what are some of the things that you and the Liberty franchise are focused on, either through the draft or other means leading up to or after the draft?

WALT HOPKINS: Yeah, we’ve got a lot on our plate. We’re really trying to feel out any possibility to make our team better in any way. We’re wide open in terms of we don’t have a position that we’re zeroed in on, anything like that. We’re really just looking for high character players with the capacity to fit into our system.

And if I can follow up with that, Coach, you have some players that I don’t think we’ve heard from officially, Tina Charles being one of them. Can you give an update on Tina and other players that you’re awaiting word on?

WALT HOPKINS: Yeah, right now Tina is with the Liberty, and anybody else that you haven’t heard of, the case is the same with them. We’re just kind of keeping our options open and looking in different ways to maximize this group.

My question is for Walt Hopkins. When it comes to the development of your draft picks, how big a resource is the connection to the Brooklyn Nets? Do you see a benefit in younger players having relationships with guys like Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving, given that prospects such as Sabrina Ionescu have trained with NBA players?

WALT HOPKINS: Yeah, anytime that you can bridge the two worlds, I think it’s good for both. I think they learn from one another. I think this is going to be the same type of situation in Brooklyn. Our ownership is really good. They’re really committed to both franchises, and I know from speaking with Sean Marks with the Nets as their GM, he is really big on collaboration. We’ve talked a lot in the off-season about ways that we can best kind of bridge the two groups, so it’s absolutely going to be a consideration for us and something we’d look to maximize.

I’m looking at some third round type players, and I’m curious about two Louisville players, Kylee Shook and Jazmine Jones, and I’m curious what their strengths are and how their skill sets could translate to the pro level.

WALT HOPKINS: Yeah, I can speak to both players. Jaz has some high upside. She’s athletic. She shoots the three at a high clip, doesn’t shoot a ton of them, but really high-character person. Same with Kylee. The research we’ve done, we’ve really been reviewing them as extensively as we can. Both players look like they could be good fits, depending on going into a system that suits their strengths or not, which is obviously the case with anyone that gets drafted in a given year. But Kylee is a high-level defender, shoots the three, and like I said, both players are highly thought of by everyone we’ve talked to, so they both have potential.

This is for Greg. Just kind of obviously a big draft, but just overall, how do you approach it, especially with four picks in the top nine? Obviously I assume you feel like this could be an organization-defining draft for you all?

GREG BIBB: Yeah, good afternoon, and thanks for your interest in coverage, both from you and everyone on the call. It’s greatly appreciated. We have been preparing for Friday for the better part of two years, going way back to our transaction involving Liz Cambage. We certainly picked up two players that we feel like will be a big part of our future in Moriah Jefferson and Isabelle Harrison, but we also prioritized picks in the 2020 draft because at that time I thought the draft had the opportunity to be a good one, and then moving forward to the transaction involving Skylar Diggins-Smith, by that point I was feeling more confident about the quality of the draft, so we really emphasized getting draft picks as assets in return rather than established players that candidly at the time of the transaction I would have felt we weren’t getting the value in return that we were giving. We became somewhat speculators at that point and had hoped that the new collective bargaining agreement may entice some of the juniors to enter early. We have some of those now in the draft, so I think it’s a really solid draft class, and Friday is a very important day for us. If we get it right, it could set the chart for our organization for the next decade and beyond. We certainly have tried to point our organization toward this draft and looking forward to executing that plan on Friday.

Greg, you touched on it earlier, but just with how big and how deep this draft is and how big it could be for your rebuild, how do you kind of manage that with the somewhat full roster you already have?

GREG BIBB: Well, there certainly is a finite number of spots, and that’s 15 under contract and then obviously 12 when the season begins. If we do our math, we’re a little off that number right now. I’d say a lot off that number. But we’ll do some things between now and then. We have to to get ourselves to the appropriate numbers, but really kind of pulling back and looking at it globally, the idea was to create as much competition as possible in an environment where we’re extraordinarily young, perhaps painfully young, and to give ourselves enough assets to get to where we want to be. So I think along the way, you could see some unconventional moves from us. Certainly there could be some players that are good enough to be on the WNBA roster or perhaps players that have been drafted with a high pick in the past that ultimately don’t end up on a roster, whether it be for equitable value in return or maybe for no value in return because they’re released, but for us it’s really about the destination, not so much the journey, and we’ve aggregated the picks to be able to afford ourselves the most margin of error possible and to arrive at the best 12 players by the time we play.

Walt, I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to look at a lot of tape of D.J. Williams at Coastal Carolina. She had a game where she put up 50 and then followed that up with a triple-double. I just wanted to know if in your estimation she has the skill set to play in the WNBA.

WALT HOPKINS: I actually haven’t spent time watching her. The handful of players that we’ve narrowed down to, she just hasn’t been one of them, unfortunately. I wish I could give you a little bit more.

I just wanted to ask you about Stella Johnson. I know she’s definitely kind of a later round pick, but I just wanted to know what you guys had seen from her that maybe you liked or thought might translate well to the next level.

GREG BIBB: I can answer that because I’m a MAC guy, I’m a Marist College graduate, so I had the opportunity to watch Stella play a couple games against my Red Foxes. I think she’s a WNBA talent. I think she’s an elite scorer. Obviously it’s going to be a step up and an adjustment for her, but she’s got the size. I think she has the right mindset. I think she puts in the effort on the defensive end, so I think it’s all there for her. I think for a player like Stella it may be about the right fit and the right opportunity, but I certainly think she has the ability to play in the WNBA.

My question is for anyone who wants to answer, and this is about Minyon Moore. According to a lot of the draft boards, it looks as if she could go early in the second round or maybe in the third, but she just had such an important role on that Oregon Ducks team, so any of you who are willing to answer on that.

WALT HOPKINS: Yeah, so getting to watch her a lot both at USC and at Oregon, she’s a really tough, really well-rounded player. Obviously, there’s concerns about her ability to consistently stretch the defense with her jump shot, but she was a leader, getting to watch her in practices. She’s really vocal. She’s a fantastic defender. She can get to the rim. She’s a plus athlete. I think it’s really realistic somebody is going to take a shot on her and I hope they do because she’s a really, really tough player.

Coach Hopkins, aside from Sabrina Ionescu, what other players have you looked at, and how do you think a player of her magnitude could immediately impact the team when the season eventually starts?

WALT HOPKINS: Yeah, you know, we had to look at everybody that was in consideration for that top pick, so we’ve looked extensively at Satou Sabally, Lauren Cox, Chennedy Carter, Ty Harris, I mean, we’ve really taken a little bit of time and delved into those players a little bit more. I think that’s probably why we’re unable to speak to some of the later round players quite as much as we might normally be able to. I think any one of those players can be a cornerstone type player, depending on how you use them, and I think that hopefully you have a system in place and players in place you’re able to build around one of those players, and in the case of a Lauren Cox or someone like that, she might be a little bit better attuned to be a piece of a system rather than a cornerstone, but the rest of the group is pretty strong, and you could probably make an argument for any of them.

I’m curious to know for any of the coaches with the NCAA Tournament being canceled due to the pandemic, did you have to sort of undergo or have you been undergoing any kind of creative scouting during this period, either game film and communicating with your staff? And then the second part of the question is with the draft now being on ESPN and being for two hours, could you also comment on the additional exposure that the league will be receiving now that it’s been moved from ESPN2 to ESPN?

GREG BIBB: So in terms of preparation, obviously the logistics, someone spoke to this a little bit already, maybe it was Sandy, we’re still sorting through that, but in terms of preparing, those conversations haven’t changed much from any previous year. It’s just now instead of doing it in person, we’re doing them over videoconference. In terms of losing the NCAA Tournament and the Final Four, that was unfortunate, but I’m sure like everyone else on the call, our preparation for the draft started long ago. Many of these players we were even watching for multiple years, but certainly starting in November with the start of the women’s collegiate season, we hit the road, and knowing we were going to have more picks than a normal year, we doubled down on that, so I think I watched more live basketball this college season than any previous season. In terms of the opportunity for the league, I think it’s a silver lining. Obviously what we’re dealing with as a society in general is awful, and we all hope to be back sooner rather than later as soon as everyone is safe and we can all figure out a way to do that, but I think if there’s any kind of silver lining in this situation, it is the fact that we have an opportunity to kind of own the sports landscape on Friday night, and I think our partners at ESPN are doing a great job in leading the way on that front and adding additional elements for the draft and the coverage and additional content around the league on that day. So very thankful for their partnership, and really excited to see the chatter about and around all of the teams’ work on draft night and then thereafter all the conversation around the picks.

Walt, beyond what Sabrina Ionescu brings on the court, the Liberty sent quite a good number of personnel to Eugene over the course of the season. Can you speak to some of the things that the organization gathered on her away from what she brings to the basketball court in terms of her skill?

WALT HOPKINS: Yeah, I mean, I can speak for what I’ve seen. She’s really just a phenomenal leader in multiple ways. One, she’s not somebody who just stands back and says what to do. She’ll come down on teammates but it’s in a way that’s constructive and you can watch their body language as they take that feedback. It’s not easy to be that type of a leader because you have to be doing everything you’re saying in order to have the credibility to lead the way that she did, and I think to see the poise with which she’s handled all the things that have happened in the past couple months — obviously we’ve all been through some things, but I think Sabrina in particular has been through a lot, with her proximity to Kobe (Bryant), speaking at his service and then flying and going and playing in a game where she didn’t even warm up, all these things speak to a person who really is pretty special, and I think you need to look no further than the way that she’s handled herself in times of crisis to know what type of a leader she is and what type of leader she could be at the next level.

Greg, if you could assess, if you don’t mind, the three Baylor prospects in the draft, particularly the first two with Lauren Cox and Te’a Cooper and in particular how Te’a helped herself with the season that she had.

GREG BIBB: Sure. I mean, I think that Lauren Cox obviously is an elite-level talent. I think the thing I might like the most about her is her leadership ability. I’ve watched her lead at Baylor from early on in her college career, and I’ve watched her teammates respond to her favorably, I think like Walt spoke of Sabrina, I feel that same kind of leadership by example kind of trait in Lauren, and obviously, I think she’s a great defender. I don’t personally have the concern over the medical stuff that others may. I think she’s going to be a fantastic pro and have a long career. And I think Te’a (Cooper) helped herself tremendously. Coach (Kim) Mulkey has definitely figured out a formula in terms of plugging in a point guard and having success. Much like Chloe Jackson before Te’a being more of a combo guard, came in and had an opportunity to showcase herself at the point, did really well. I think she’s got the pro body. I think she has the ability to hit her shot from almost everywhere. Obviously, the more minutes she gets at the point guard point the more comfortable she’ll feel there, but I think she is for sure also WNBA talent. Juicy (Landrum) I think is an elite shooter. I think she’s probably a later selection, maybe end of second round, somewhere in the third round. I think for her it’s probably more situational, where does she go, what does that roster look like, is there an opportunity for her to make a roster first as a specialist and then develop into more than that on a WNBA roster. But I think all three certainly have an opportunity to be a part of the draft and get a shot in the WNBA.

I just wanted – I was curious about your evaluation of Chennedy Carter, obviously a terrific shot maker and able to create her own shot, but how her game and how she’ll be able to fit at the next level.

GREG BIBB: You know, Chennedy grew up down the road from College Park Center, our home arena, and when I say that, I don’t mean it figuratively, I mean it literally, down the road from the arena. So, obviously, a player we’ve known about for a long, long time. I think she’s an elite scorer. I think she’s very dynamic on the offensive end. I think that she can translate, if necessary, depending on the roster, to the point guard position better than maybe some people want to give her the credit for. I think when she has WNBA talent around her, you’ll see a little bit more out of that ability. You know, I think obviously commitment at the defensive end, like any prospect, is something that she’ll probably have to work on and be more consistent in that regard, but in terms of going and getting a shot when you need a shot and being the kind of player that has the makeup to want to take that shot when it matters the most, it’s hard to beat her in this draft class, so I think she’s going to be an exciting professional to watch for a long, long time.

Nicki Collen enters her third season as the Atlanta Dream’s head coach this year. Photo courtesy of Atlanta Dream.

On the Dream’s offseason moves and the team’s biggest needs ahead of the Draft:

NICKI COLLEN: I think two things are obvious needs for us – a point guard and a small forward are the most logical players, [and] we certainly have room for depth in the post. As far as what we did in free agency, getting Kalani [Brown] in the trade and signing Glory [Johnson], I think we feel pretty good about our four-post rotation in terms of Elizabeth [Williams], Kalani, Monique [Billings] and Glory. We certainly could add depth there, but if you look at kind of what our roster looks like and a little bit where it could be strengthened, I would say depth at the point in terms of playmaking ability, like someone who can create [scoring opportunities] for teammates. I feel really good about [Shekinna] Stricklen and her ability to play the small forward, but if we were going to get younger, getting a small forward with some size, as opposed to there’s lots of ways we can go with three-guard lineups, but to add size to our roster from a depth perspective.

On using the fourth overall pick to select a player based on need or based on best available:

NICKI COLLEN: I think it’s a little of both, and I think it’s determining what that looks like. When you have a lottery pick, you feel like you can get a player that can impact you, so I think from that perspective you’re not just basing your pick on depth – we need someone that can impact us. You should be able to get a player at four that impacts you. So it’s a little of both, when you talk about who those options are at the top of the Draft, we can assume Sabrina [Ionescu] is off the board, but when you look at those other guys – Satou Sabally can fit the small forward, Chennedy Carter obviously a guard that can play off the bounce, even Megan Walker has size and shooting ability and can be a small forward. Bella Alaire’s a little bit of a unicorn, so probably a four right now, but ultimately could be a little four-three-ish in the right system. Those are some of the name’s we’re obviously talking about. And then when you talk about best available, could it be Lauren Cox at four in terms of someone who maybe is not exactly what we need, but is just too good to pass up on.

On how the uncertainty about the start of the season is affecting the team’s decisions for third round picks:

NICKI COLLEN: I think you do two things. For us, we’ve never been afraid to take an international player that we know isn’t ready to come over just because they’re 20 years old. The goal this year is to draft the first player from Antarctica that nobody has heard of. The reality is that you can only have 15 in training camp at once, and look at the rosters around the league and how many players teams currently have under contract. There have been years where teams like the Sparks have signed up to 19 players because they have so many players late coming from overseas. You’re going to see teams either start to waive players before camp that they’ve already signed so that they can bring in draft picks, or they’re going to be waiving draft picks before camp starts. It’s going to be a really difficult year for second and third round picks to make a team.

On getting a guard in the draft and how they fit in with Courtney Williams on the court:

NICKI COLLEN: Courtney Williams is established at this point in what she’s capable of. She’s done it game in and game out at the highest level in the biggest games. Chennedy [Carter] obviously had a huge game against USA Basketball and I think proved that she could play with and against the best in the world. I do think that Chennedy is more of a point guard than Courtney is. Not that I would be afraid to put Courtney on the floor at the point in a pinch, but you want to get the ball to Courtney on the move typically, off of pin down, off some kind of floppy action. Get her on the move it’s hard to stay between her and the basket. So I foresee them playing together with one at the one and one at the two. Whether they’re on the court with Tiffany Hayes, whether they’re on the court with Shekinna Stricklen, I would have no problems playing them together. I think that Chennedy Carter is an underrated passer, I think she played in a system where she was expected to score and was needed to score, they played a lot of half-court basketball, but I don’t think she’s incapable of playing the point as she did as a freshman, it’s just been so long since we really saw her in that role. But if you see her in so many other late-game situations and so many other half-court sets, she’s playing off the horns action, so she’s used to having the ball in her hands. I think what she would have to understand at this level is that her effectiveness is going to be in her ability to get on the court – if it’s with the Dream, is to be able to be both a scorer but also a facilitator and understand who her teammates are.

On the possibility of part of the season being played without fans in attendance:

NICKI COLLEN: It’s hard to prepare for that. I don’t know what that looks like, I don’t know what that feels like… I think it’ll be tough, let’s face it. Ironically, I’ll use Elizabeth [Williams] as an example – Fenerbahce was dominating the Turkish League, and they played one game before they shut the league down in a closed arena, and they lost a game that you would never expect them to lose. Fenerbahce has some of the most excited and wild fans on the planet, so there’s a difference. There’s a difference in motivating yourself when there aren’t 5,000 people or 10,000 people screaming for you or against you, and don’t underestimate how important that is, it’s going to feel like a closed scrimmage. We’ll all be in that same environment together, but I think it will be a challenge for everybody in this league to compete at the highest level they can under the circumstances. Knowing that we’re closed and there’s no fans, that probably means that it’s on TV or being streamed somehow some way, so people are watching us, and it’s another stage for our players to show just how good they are and not to take it lightly.

On how much communication needs to happen before the Draft:

CHRIS SIENKO: We talk to all teams quite often, quite honestly, and this has been going on for quite some time. There have been some conversations, even when free agency started or before – and obviously that was pushed a little bit because of the CBA – so we have conversations, and with such limited time we kind of want to know going into Friday what we’re going to do or what potential options may be. As we go through the Draft and if there’s any potential opportunity to switch things around or make a shift in where we stand and what we acquire, we kind of have a good feel for that ahead of time. The interesting part is that if we’re in different locations, there’s a lot of time that’s lost in that communication. If Nicki [Collen] and I are fortunate enough to be in the same location, we’re talking, I’m talking to another team, they maybe have a counter, I have to get back to Nicki, then we come back, then we still have to call into the league. So it’s going to be interesting for sure for all teams. So we’re better off being as prepared as possible before Friday, that doesn’t mean that things couldn’t come up suddenly that we weren’t expecting. That’s ultimately the objective, to be really prepared, and we’ve had a lot of conversations with many teams.

On teams that have a lot of Draft picks, like Dallas, and how that affects the Dream’s decision making:

CHRIS SIENKO: We could look at it two different ways – we can hope that they draft people and maybe they’ll cut some others and that helps us. And quite honestly, with so many picks, you have to think that they’re going to make some moves somewhere with somebody, because there’s only so many people that they can bring into camp, they can’t even stash that many players, there’s a limitation on what they can really hold on to year to year or players that won’t sign a contract for camp. Obviously we talked to Dallas but we’ve really talked to all teams to see what’s going on. I don’t think there’s anything set in stone, but we would be foolish not to do our due diligence in any situation.

Thoughts on the new CBA vs. those of coaches around the league:

CHRIS SIENKO: I think they’re all similar, quite honestly. Nicki and I spend an inordinate amount of time together talking about these things and going through it, and we’re kind of in this together as far as what we’re trying to do with the team. I think there’s obviously challenges, the [salary] cap is the biggest thing – it’s trying to look down the road as opposed to getting everything now and holding onto it, because there’s going to be monumental changes based upon the structure of your team, and the cap, and then when people come on board based upon how good that player is, they’re going to demand a lot more money than they have in the past. Then it’s managing the marketing dollars, it’s managing the things you do to keep your athletes in camp, so it’s really more of a financial concern now. I think when you had a smaller cap it was easier to manage, now that there’s a discrepancy between someone like a Tiffany Hayes and someone you can bring in now at a much higher number – well Tiffany Hayes and Elizabeth Williams will be coming off of their contracts soon, and now you have to start making enough room for them two years down the road. So it’s really just managing the dollars that has been the biggest challenge. I’m very happy about it, I think that the things that they have put in place for mothers or for expectant mothers or women with children, I think that’s very important for our league. I think there’s a lot of things that are very good about it. We’re kind of finding things out and we’re finding little loopholes as we’re going through that we are certainly going to ask a few questions about, but they’ll all get sorted out. I think that it came together and it’s very important for this league to have that happen and I’m really happy about it.

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