After a serious ankle injury in her rookie season and a somewhat tentative sophomore year, Sabrina Ionescu has lived up to everyone’s expectations in her third year and her freedom has returned to the WNBA game.
No. 7 Liberty will face the defending champion against the No. 2 Chicago Sky on Wednesday for Game 1 of the best-of-three series in the opening round.
When Liberty drafted Ionescu No. 1 overall in 2020, expectations were high. The team was terrible for two seasons, but Ionescu was the most outstanding star in Oregon, with an NCAA record 26 triple doubles. She almost seems like a player who can go around a team all by herself.
In her second game in the WNBA, she scored 33 points, including 6 3-pointers, added 7 rebounds and 7 assists, and fans are excited about her future.
Her future quickly faded when she suffered a serious ankle injury in her third game that kept her out for the rest of the season.
Without her and veteran star Tina Charles, who was traded away, the team finished 2-20.
The group He sneaked back into the playoffs in 2021, but it was a team effort by Bethany Laney, Natasha Howard (back from injury), Sammy Whitcomb and Michael Gaetare, who was awarded Rookie of the Year. Put them there. Although Ionescu played the entire season, her scoring performance fell short of expectations.
Not that she didn’t help the team, but more of a supporting role: Although she was among the league’s assist leaders, she averaged just 11.7 points per game and dealt with a sore ankle. She was often the third or fourth point options.
But in the third season, Ionescu went forward, and for the first time she was named to the star team. She has improved in nearly every category, playing more minutes, shooting at a higher percentage and increasing her rebounding, while decreasing her assist and control work.
In particular, she excelled on the offensive end last season, averaging a team-high 17.4 points per game, shooting just under 10 times per game to lead the team 14 times. Playing in all 36 games helped her become the only player in the league’s top 10 in total points, assists and goals. And her rebounding numbers are impressive given that she’s the Liberty’s primary ball handler.
Ionescu also made history in her third season, becoming the first player to record a triple-double in three quarters and, more notably, the first player to score at least 30 points as part of a triple-double. Those two triple-doubles moved her into a triple-double tie with Chicago’s Candace Parker for career triple-doubles.
Ionescu’s step forward, as well as Howard getting the full season back, helped him get his freestyle back into the game and the loss of Laney for most of the season with a knee injury.
Last season, the Liberty’s only win came in an 83-82 loss to the Phoenix Mercury. Ionescu had 14 points and 11 assists but missed a 30-foot desperation 3-pointer that could have won the game.
The team has a chance to make amends in this year’s playoffs, going best of three rather than losing a single. But even a Lanny return is a long shot. Eight of the 12 WNBA teams will make the playoffs, including the Liberty (16-20), leaving room for teams that finish below .500.
A matchup against the mighty Sky (26-10) with all-stars like Parker, Kahleh Copper, Courtney Vandersloot and Emma Messeman and the first two games in Chicago will be tough for Liberty.
The Liberty are one of eight founding WNBA franchises and the only one that has yet to win a WNBA title in the capital. The final decade was particularly poor with only one trip to the semifinals or conference finals.
Like any team, the Liberty will need to find talent, draft smartly, and get some breaks to transition to championship quality. But more than anything, they’ll have to rely on Ionescu to continue playing at the stellar level she’s done this year. Or rather, she is still only given 24, to get even better.