December 6, 2021
Walt Hopkins out as New York Liberty head coach
As search begins, unanswered questions remain
On Monday afternoon, the New York Liberty announced on their Twitter account that they have begun a search for a new head coach. After two years, Walt Hopkins is no longer the head coach of the team.
The decision comes after the Liberty finished the 2021 season with a 12-20 record, making the playoffs for the first time since 2017. Hopkins was hired in January 2020 to bring a new style of basketball to New York, one that reflected the modern direction of the game and that took advantage of the Liberty’s guard-heavy roster. He came from the Minnesota Lynx, where head coach Cheryl Reeve had hired him to work with players on expanding their games.
Hopkins began his WNBA coaching career in 2013 as a player development coach for the Tulsa Shock. Following one season with the Shock, Hopkins served as an assistant coach at Utah Valley University from the Fall of 2013 through the spring of 2014. In August he returned to school to complete his second master’s, following his first at Harvard’s school of education, at UC Berkley in Cultural Studies of Sport in Education. There he met Liberty forward Reshanda Gray and served as an Academic Coach where he tutored UC Berkeley players.
After his second masters, Hopkins developed his own development business, where he provided lessons to young people and even pros. He was introduced to Layshia Clarendon and the two worked together for years in the WNBA offseasons. Weeks after Hopkins was hired, Clarendon signed a two-year protected contract at $120,000 a year in the free agency period before the global pandemic and the 2020 Wubble season. They started 19 games and averaged 11.5 points and under four rebounds per contest for Hopkins’ first season with the Liberty.
In 2021, Clarendon played a total of three minutes in three games before they were waived during the first week of the regular season. Ten days later, Clarendon was picked up by the Lynx and finished the 2021 season playing for Reeve.
The announcement of Hopkins’ departure from New York comes the same day as franchise player Sabrina Ionescu’s 24th birthday, one of the main cogs of the group of young players General Manager Jonathan Kolb brought into the franchise in both the 2020 and 2021 drafts. The Liberty’s braintrust from 2020-2021 brought other young players to New York after they traded former franchise player Tina Charles. In that two draft span, New York also added Jocelyn Willoughby, 2020 All-Rookie team selection Jazmine Jones, Kylee Shook, Neah Odom, 2021 Rookie of the year Michaela Onyenwere and 2021 All-Rookie team selection DiDi Richards.
In the winter of 2021, Kolb signed three veteran players in MIP and WNBA All-Star Betnijah Laney, DPOY Natasha Howard and two-time WNBA champion Sami Whitcomb. All three embraced the opportunity to be the focus of a team with mostly young players.
The still-unanswered questions abound. Why was the decision made to move on from Hopkins now? What happens to the rest of Hopkins’ coaching staff in Shelley Patterson, Dustin Gray and Jacki Gemelos, all who have played a role in developing and improving the abilities of their young core? What direction will Kolb want to take for the Liberty, having come off their first playoff appearance in four seasons? Do they start over once again or continue to build with the group they have without the coach who brought them all together? Does the on-court vision stay the same? And what intangibles are needed this time around?
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.