How 2 WNBA teams have adapted to the strangest offseason ever

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At first, it was a preseason as planned for the New York Liberty. Even before the COVID-19 crisis forced the 2020 season to be indefinitely postponed, the team was in a unique position. They had six rookies plus five international players on their 15-woman roster and a first-year head coach in Walt Hopkins. It was going to take some ingenuity to prepare.

Everyone had software to access scouting reports, the playbook, quizzes and flashcards. It had No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu calling game film her new Netflix. There were text conversations, phone conversations, team Zoom chats that turned into smaller group chats when efficiency became an issue. Both veterans and rookies led teaching sessions.

Now, the Liberty are in not-as-planned territory. Many players still have limited access to the gym or weight rooms and are scattered around the world. Hopkins has been riding out quarantine in Arizona, where he initially meant to stay only for a weekend in March. The roster was cut to 12 without the benefit of camp, and the season was supposed to be three weeks gone by now. 

For teams like the Liberty, which kept all six rookies for the regular-season roster, and the Atlanta Dream, which relied on an active free agency, a postponed season has come with added challenges. But for these coaches, it’s better to look at the upsides. 

Finding unique ways to handle unprecedented situation 

Atlanta head coach Nicki Collen would rather be on the court, but instead is finding ways to best prepare her team when that times come. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The delay of the season hits the Dream and Liberty particularly hard. These are two teams starting anew beyond roster development.

After years of being banished to Westchester, a long trip away from their hub of fans, the Liberty moved to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn under new owner Joseph Tsai. They then made their first logo change since the league’s inaugural season in 1997.

The Dream are in the same scenario, announcing in October they were moving to the new, easily reachable Gateway Center Arena @ College Park. They also have a new brand and logo, the first since their inception, that holds historical significance for the area. 

“It was kind of the whole idea of ‘Let’s jumpstart this all at the same time,’ ” Dream head coach Nicki Collen told Yahoo Sports. “And then, you know. And then [coronavirus] came. Life happens.”

Unfortunately, those arena debuts are unlikely to happen this year. The WNBA is reportedly leaning toward playing a 22-game season at one site in Florida, and it would almost certainly do it without fans. As coaches continue with virtual preparations, they’re also thinking to the next set of difficulties.

“There are going to be unique challenges when the dust settles on all of this and so [we need to] kind of have a plan, whether it’s the way we communicate or how we do things,” Collen said. “It’s going to all, I think, be important because in a shortened time frame and all of us coming from different places and spaces and players being in different kinds of shape. Like how do you manage that? I’m going to have to be a great manager of bodies as much as the mental side.”

Some of that has been incorporated into her current plans — Dr. Kensa Gunter has conducted players-only sports psychologist sessions — but right now the focus is on becoming a team.

Dream: Active free agency hopefully leads to success

Collen, in her third year as head coach, went through a process when the coronavirus put a pause on the season. Atlanta was active in free agency, building a 12-woman roster that has only four returners from a league-worst 8-26 campaign. She was itching to get started, but now there are no dates in front of her any more.  

“I think the hardest part for me in this was the when, where, what’s it going to look like?” Collen said. “And trying to be innovative but at the same time trying to have that little bit of OCD coach in me going ‘OK, I just want to be out on the court.’ I want to control more, and I think this has been [where] you’ve had to sit back.”

The month of May was mostly about getting to know each other, made easier since they added two players she coached while a Connecticut Sun assistant. She has materials ready to send out for a wine-and-sip team painting night to further build camaraderie. The biggest concern for Collen is what she can’t control. 

“We can start to build the off-court chemistry, but getting players to understand where teammates like the ball that really only comes from play,” Collen said. “It comes from two hours at a time in training camp and then you build that game to game and you see why some of the best offensive teams in our league are teams that have been together for multiple years. 

“That’s the part that you can’t predict. You just hope that you build as much as you can up to that point and you learn as much as you can on the fly.” 

Georgia eased lockdown restrictions at the end of April and though a handful of players live in the area, Collen said she hasn’t — and won’t — ask them to get together until they feel comfortable with it or the league gives the go-ahead. She did bring in coaches the first week of June for a retreat assuming there would only be about two weeks of training camp before a season.

The advantage for her squad, and true of nearly every group in the WNBA, is that veterans got a break from year-round basketball. And though early cuts were difficult, there’s a positive there, too.  

“I look at it as the advantage to this is for the players who have played overseas and really have been needing a break, like that physical break, I think this is really good for them,” said Collen, whose team averages four years of WNBA experience. “I think it also gives the rookies a chance to not feel like they’re thrown in the fire. And in this unique situation, now that they know they’ve made the team, when we step out ultimately on the training camp court, we’re already one team.” 

Three Dream players elected to forgo the 2020 season, including No. 25 draft pick Mikayla Pivec, and will be able to compete for a spot next training camp. They’re encouraged to keep in touch with coaches, use Dream resources and further develop their games overseas. 

Liberty: 6 rookies to develop with new coach

New York Liberty first-year head coach Walt Hopkins is excited to have six rookies on the 12-player roster. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Back in New York’s virtual training plans, Hopkins isn’t worrying about so many young talents in a preseason like no other.

“To me, having six rookies is actually a benefit,” said Hopkins, who took over a 10-24 squad. “Because you have a group of players who you can kind of mold to really maximize their talents and you can put them in a position to succeed both on the court and also with how they perceive the game, how they perceive work, and teamwork and things like that.”

The most veteran player is also new. Layshia Clarendon, 29, is a seventh-year free agent from the Sun and the oldest on a team that averages 24 years old.

“It really is a hungry group, and that really is one of the most fun things about having a young team is that they really — for half of our team literally this is brand new,” Hopkins said. “They don’t know what to expect. So they’re coming in with the understanding that they have to do everything possible to prepare themselves.” 

In a normal year, these six rookies would have only one month from the draft to regular season tipoff. But now, with the gift of time, Hopkins is viewing it as an opportunity to go more in depth with the speedy, versatile and efficient system he’s implementing. 

“In some ways, this is allowing us more time to do things even though it’s not on the court,” Hopkins said. “We’re getting to dive into some of the nuances that you don’t always have time to. All in all, we’ve tried to make lemonade out of it.”

Everyone would rather be playing games right now. Or at least be practicing. But if there’s a “net-positive” to be had in one of the most difficult moments of our lifetime, Hopkins said, it’s that preparation is extended and that will benefit this young Liberty group beyond 2020.

“It’s absolutely been a little bit of a positive spin,” Hopkins said. “[It’s] giving us positive energy that we get to at least use this time constructively in any way that we can because at the end of the day we still do get paid to do these jobs.”

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