The 2020 WNBA season has already been one filled with many firsts for former Minnesota Lynx assistant coach and current New York Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins.
For starters, Hopkins is in his first season at the helm of the Liberty, a position he took this offseason after spending three seasons in Minnesota on Cheryl Reeve’s assistant coaching staff.
Becoming the eighth head coach in New York’s franchise history prior to the start of the year, the 34-year-old Hopkins has been tasked with leading a young Liberty squad within the bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. during the 2020 campaign.
Another first will take place on Wednesday night for Hopkins, as he and New York will face off against his former team in Minnesota in the fifth game of the regular season for both squads. Hopkins and the Liberty will face off against Reeve and the Lynx at 6 p.m. CT on Wednesday on CBS Sports Network and Fox Sports North Plus.
“I see the (Lynx) team colors and the jerseys, it’s still weird. I see it and that was what I identified with. That was my team,” Hopkins told Zone Coverage on Tuesday. “From a coaching perspective, I have to be thinking about our team and what I can do for them. I have to think of it as any other game because if I think of it in any other way, that will get in the way of what I’m trying to do as a coach.”
There are a few other ties between New York and Minnesota that will appear on both benches Wednesday as well, outside of Hopkins. Longtime Lynx assistant coach Shelley Patterson, who spent nine seasons in Minnesota, is a current assistant on Hopkins’ staff. On the other bench, Minnesota assistant and former player Katie Smith served as the head coach of the Liberty from 2018-19 before Hopkins took over.
“I have not watched a whole lot of New York,” Reeve admitted on Monday. “I can tell you that Shelley Patterson worked for us for a decade and I’m appreciative for all that she gave the franchise and who she was for us. She was steady and loyal to everyone and worked her butt off for us. I hope the change is going well for her.”
Although it will be business as usual for both teams as soon as the ball tips off Wednesday night, there are plenty of ties between the Lynx and Liberty as they square off against each other for the first time this year.
“We definitely just want to go in there and show them what we’re about, of course. There are no hard feelings,” Lynx center Sylvia Fowles said. “We just want to make sure we do Lynx-like things and win our game.”
VALUABLE LESSONS LEARNED WITH LYNX
Hopkins spent a total of three seasons as an assistant with the Lynx, joining the organization prior to the 2017 season before leaving for New York this offseason. In his most recent year in Minnesota in 2019, Hopkins made the move to the front of the bench as a full-time assistant on Reeve’s staff, primarily focusing on game planning and developing responsibilities.
Now that he is taking on yet another new role with the Liberty in 2020, Hopkins credits his time with the Lynx and specifically under Reeve in allowing him to continue to take another step in his coaching career.
“I wouldn’t be here in this position had I not spent the time in Minnesota learning from Cheryl. There’s no way,” Hopkins told Zone Coverage. “It’s a testament to what she’s accomplished, what she knows and the people she produces in her system. Everything from game management to little things she’s said that pop up in my head in a practice or a situation. I hear the things she’s said a lot as I go through creating practice plans or making adjustments.
“From all the places that I’ve gotten to coach and learn, you can make it work as long as it’s authentic and consistent. Cheryl is both of those things in everything she does. It’s a big part of her success in her tenure there. … The influence is palpable when I am making decisions. Having those experiences to lean on is very helpful.”
Those valuable experiences with Reeve and Minnesota made the decision to leave the organization for New York this offseason a tough one for Hopkins, but it was a move he felt he was ready to take on. When Hopkins first told Reeve he would be taking the Liberty head coaching position, Reeve responded in her typical competitive yet joking way many have become familiar with over the years.
“It was a classic Cheryl comment of ‘congratulations, we’ll circle the calendar.’ But it was light-hearted,” Hopkins recalled. “She gave me a few pointers on personnel and ideas of the roster that I inherited. Just mainly some ideas, but that was about it.”
FIRST-TIME HEAD COACH DEALING WITH A YOUNG TEAM
As a first-time head coach in New York, Hopkins has dealt with trying to navigate through an unusual season with a very young roster.
With a total of seven rookies on the 12-player roster highlighted by 2020 No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu, the oldest player on New York is seven-year veteran Layshia Clarendon. Going into Wednesday night’s contest against the Lynx, the Liberty have struggled to begin the year with a winless record of 0-4 overall.
“I’ve been through this before and kind of knew what would happen early. Consistency is something young teams struggle with,” Hopkins said. “Even me as a head coach, I’m going to struggle with being the same every day when I show up. All of us who are learning to be in a new position or skill, consistency is what we are striving for. That’s been the challenge.
“With veterans, you can change coverages and schemes and throw in tricky things from game to game and they can handle that. With a younger group, you have to scale it back and get good at one thing before moving onto the next thing.”
Even with the early-season struggles, Hopkins has leaned on his relationship with Patterson and the rest of his coaching staff while he begins to work through and continues to learn in the first year at the helm in New York. Although the on-court production hasn’t risen just yet, Hopkins is enjoying his new role with a new team.
“It’s been a lot of fun. Every day is a learning experience,” he said. “It’s fun because it constantly keeps you on your toes and constantly requires that you’re on. That in conjunction with this bubble situation, that’s why I say it could get interesting because you can get worn down. You’re the person that addresses everything that pops up and make the final call on. Those things have been fun and to learn while making those decisions.”
FOND MEMORIES MADE IN MINNESOTA
Whether it’s the valuable lessons he learned while on the Lynx coaching staff, the people he met during his three-year tenure or the amount of success — including being part of the 2017 WNBA Championship team — he was a part of in Minnesota, Hopkins holds many memories from his time with the Lynx.
“Just everything I learned and all the people I met there. I’m still in contact with a lot of people who I met both in work and outside of work,” Hopkins said of his time in Minnesota. “I have friends there I definitely still talk to today.”
Those relationships he established and the success he was able to enjoy during his time with the Lynx are still special moments Hopkins carries with him now in the Big Apple. Those memories won’t leave him either, which will make things a little odd for Hopkins when his new team takes on his former squad for the first time on Wednesday.
“There were many fond memories in Minnesota. It was a lot of hard work and we were in the trenches all the time,” he said. “It is something I look back on and know it was formative for me. Like any other stop that I have made, Minnesota was a formative part of my journey.”