After a critical ankle damage in her rookie season and a considerably tentative second 12 months, Sabrina Ionescu has in her third 12 months hit the form of heights everybody anticipated of her, and her Liberty are again within the WNBA playoffs.
the no 7 Liberty will face the No. 2 Chicago Sky — the defending champions — on Wednesday for Recreation 1 of a best-of-three sequence within the opening spherical.
When the Liberty drafted Ionescu No. 1 total in 2020, hopes have been excessive. The crew had been horrible for 2 seasons, however Ionescu had been a transcendent star at Oregon, the place she had an NCAA report 26 triple-doubles. She appeared just like the form of participant who might flip a crew round virtually by herself.
In simply her second recreation within the WNBA, she fired in 33 factors, together with six 3-pointers, added 7 rebounds and seven assists and had followers thrilled concerning the future.
That future turned bitter rapidly when, in her third recreation, she went down with a extreme ankle damage that may hold her out for the remainder of the season.
With out her, and with out their veteran star Tina Charles, who had been traded away, the crew was abysmal, ending 2-20.
The crew bounced again in 2021 and sneaked into the playoffs, however it was a gaggle effort led by Betnijah Laney, Natasha Howard (after a return from damage), Sami Whitcomb and Michaela Onyenwere, who was named the rookie of the 12 months, that pushed them there. Though Ionescu performed a full season, her scoring recreation fell a bit wanting what may need been anticipated.
Not that she did not assist the crew, however it was in a extra supporting position: Although she was among the many league’s help leaders, she averaged simply 11.7 factors a recreation and handled lingering ankle ache. She was typically the third or fourth scoring choice.
However in her third season, Ionescu has stepped ahead, and she or he was named to her first All-Star crew. She has improved in virtually each class, enjoying extra minutes, taking pictures at the next proportion and growing her rebounding, assists and steals numbers whereas lowering her turnovers.
Notably, she has taken a extra distinguished position within the offense, taking pictures about 14 occasions a recreation to guide the crew, up from just below 10 occasions a recreation final season, main her to attain a team-high 17.4 factors a recreation. Enjoying in all 36 video games helped her make the league’s high 10 in whole factors, assists and rebounds, the one participant to take action. And her rebounding numbers are particularly spectacular since she is the Liberty’s predominant ballhandler.
Ionescu additionally made historical past in her third season, changing into the primary participant ever to report a triple-double in three quarters and, individually, the primary participant ever to attain not less than 30 factors as a part of a triple-double. These two triple-doubles introduced her right into a tie with Chicago’s Candace Parker for essentially the most profession triple-doubles, with three.
Ionescu’s step ahead, in addition to having Howard out there the entire season, helped the Liberty return to the playoffs and climate the lack of Laney for a lot of the season with a knee damage.
Final season, the Liberty misplaced their single-elimination playoff recreation, 83-82, to the Phoenix Mercury. Ionescu had 14 factors and 11 assists, however she missed a 30-foot desperation 3-pointer on the buzzer that may have received the sport.
The crew has an opportunity to rectify that within the opening spherical of the playoffs this 12 months, which will likely be better of three as an alternative of single elimination. However even with Laney’s return, the percentages are lengthy. Eight of the 12 WNBA groups make the playoffs, leaving room for groups that completed below .500, together with the Liberty (16-20).
A matchup towards the robust Sky (26-10) with All-Stars reminiscent of Parker, Kahleah Copper, Courtney Vandersloot and Emma Meesseman, and with the primary two video games in Chicago, will likely be robust for the Liberty.
The Liberty are one of many eight founding WNBA franchises and the one one nonetheless in its unique metropolis that has by no means received the WNBA title. Its final decade has been particularly fallow, with only one journey to the semifinals or convention finals.
Like all crew, the Liberty might want to purchase expertise, draft shrewdly and catch some breaks to step as much as championship high quality. However greater than anything, they must depend on Ionescu to proceed enjoying on the stellar stage they did this 12 months. Or ideally, on condition that she continues to be solely 24, to get even higher.