How Liberty coach Walt Hopkins' offensive system has transformed his team

New York Liberty Coach Walt Hopkins speaks to his players during a WNBA basketball game against Chicago Sky Sunday, May 23, 2021, in Chicago. (Eileen T. Meslar/AP)

It’s no secret that the New York Liberty have been the story of the WNBA season so far.

During last year’s “Wubble” they won just two games but have apparently reversed their fortunes, having found their way to a 5-3 record after the first three weeks of this season.

And though most people didn’t have the Liberty on their playoff radar this season, the most shocking part about their success is that they didn’t try to re-invent the wheel with the way they play small ball.

“Having a group of players with the skill sets necessary to fit the system, but, additionally, the buy-in to the system, these players are hungry – they play for one another, there is very little with ego or selfishness,” Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins said in a recent interview.

In 2020, Hopkins was in his first season as a WNBA head coach with a team that was the youngest in the league, riddled with injuries to key players and playing in a bubble. That season, his team finished with a dismal 2-20 record, but Hopkins stayed true to his style of play and kept his system rolling into 2021, despite the poor results the previous season.

Hopkins’ specialty has always been offence, and though the Liberty struggled to produce much in 2020, picking up Betnijah Laney and Sami Whitcomb in the off-season has been key to help unlock Hopkins’ system, adding to the skilled shooting talents of second-year star Sabrina Ionescu.

The Liberty also drafted Michaela Onyenwere sixth overall from UCLA, a move many questioned at the time, but her 18-point debut as a rookie, followed by a career-high 29-point performance six games later, proved she was the perfect fit for Hopkins’ offence.

“It's been really fun, it's just a lot of freedom. I think UCLA set me up to be in this position... there's a lot of freedom where you just read the defenders and play basketball,” said Onyenwere.

The Liberty’s success is partly due to a meticulously crafted set of off-season moves addressing team needs on both sides, but the real key to the Liberty’s success is how Hopkins has continually challenged his team to do one thing well: Shoot the ball.

A concern for the Liberty coming into the season was size. Not having a true centre other than Kiah Stokes, and having to go up against players like Sylvia Fowles, Brittney Griner, and Tina Charles was concerning before the season even began.

“It's a breath of fresh air. When Walt was first introduced, his ideas and his mindset, it made sense. We just didn't have the right pieces at the time,” said Stokes.

So, how did the Liberty overcome their size issue? Their ability to shoot beyond the arc. New York is shooting a whopping 41.4 per cent from the three, while they’ve managed to hold their opponents to just a 30.4 per cent clip.

Under this system Laney has managed to score 20 points or more in all eight of the Liberty’s games this season.

“There’s no question that the three-point line is one of our advantages, it’s one of our advantages on most nights and particularly with a team who is far more paint-focused, and I would be surprised if they didn’t tell you the exact same thing,” said Hopkins.

In addition to shooting prowess, though, Hopkins’ offence is also built around court vision and ball movement where uncontested shots from the perimeter will be opened up.

For the success he’s seen with his more modern approach to the game, Hopkins was awarded named coach of the month for the month of May.

Looking ahead, however, even though three losses don’t seem like a lot, the Liberty know they’re far from a finished product and have identified one key area of improvement: Defending.

No matter how well you shoot the ball and how much you score, if you can’t stop opponents, wins will be harder to come by.

With that said, even though the Liberty will certainly continue to work on their defensive problems, the identity of this Liberty squad lies on the offensive end of the floor, where Hopkins’ specialty lies. The coach stayed true to himself, and New York’s win column has reflected that.

As important as it is to make blocks, get steals and put-on pressure – which many players on the Liberty aren’t afraid to do – being able to shoot from anywhere on the floor makes a big difference when size isn’t an option, and Hopkins’ squad has become one of the most fun to watch – and just plain most successful – for that reason.

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