Arguably the greatest Oregon women's basketball player in history, Sabrina Ionescu is beginning to reach the heights that many thought should be coming out of college in 2020. In her first full season of WNBA basketball, Ionescu averaged just 11.7 points per game along with 6.1 assists as the Liberty sneaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed before losing to the Mercury by just one point in the first round. In her first contest of the 2022 season, Ionescu scored an astounding 25 points on 55.5% shooting from the field to lead New York to a win over possibly the deepest team in the WNBA, the Connecticut Sun.
With plenty of season left to lead this upstart Liberty team to a possible run in the postseason for the first time since 2017 when Bill Laimbeer was at the helm. Ionescu is a gifted playmaker that gets shot the ball from virtually anywhere on the court and no doubt has the skills to one day be a league MVP. Watching Ionescu lace them up for New York fully healthy in the first few games of the season just reminds everyone just how lethal of a player she can be when health is not a concern.
Following that remarkable first win, Ionescu spoke on the future of the franchise, stating, "It’s been a whole new environment and culture around this new era of having a new coaching staff and kind of a new identity as a team so it’s been really exciting and I’m just eager and excited to learn from her...We know what we accomplished last year and we know that that’s not enough and we want to continue to grow and get better as an organization and as a team and so with those expectations that we put on ourselves of wanting to be the absolute best and wanting to succeed, we’re just excited to see how to take game-by-game, continue to get better and see where that leads."
The first contest under the new coaching staff against the Sun was Ionescu at her best, but against the defending champions, she looked like a shell of herself. Following her sensational opening night game, the Liberty was humbled with a 33-points beatdown by the Chicago Sky. Ionescu failed to make a field goal the entire game as she only played 27 minutes due to the discrepancies on the scoreboard. Seeing a highly touted player coming out of college net just two points in what would have been a statement game following a win over the best team in the league, record-wise last season.
Ionescu's defense was extremely poor as she let her mark drive past her with relative ease at a consistent rate. She looked hesitant with the ball in her hands and lacked the confidence that was on full display against Connecticut. The third-year guard lacked physicality on the defensive end of the floor and gave players a free path to the basket. Finding a way to rebound from a performance the entire team and Ioncesu wanted to forget was going to be incredibly difficult.
For New York to take that next step into the contention conversation, its point guard has to make plays on top of scoring at a high level. Against the Indiana Fever, Ionescu not only showed why she is a superstar in this league, but she also gave the Liberty fans a reason to believe that this season could be a different outcome from the last. She responded with a 31-point performance to go along with seven assists and an astounding four steals. Ionescu demonstrated her shiftiness on the offensive end along with her ability to find her teammate rolling to the basket in tight spaces. Seeing her fully healthy after 2021 when she struggled with ankle problems shows what the WNBA is going to have to deal with for the foreseeable future.
Right now, New York sits last in the Eastern Conference, but it is still only May. Adjusting to a whole new coaching staff, and players coming off of injuries like Natasha Howard, it may take some time for this time to find their stride in the regular season. She has spent the entire offseason rehabbing and getting stronger from an ankle sprain that hampered her from giving her team 100% since going No. 1 overall back in 2020. Her numbers during her first and second seasons were not a demonstration of what this superstar can do. 2022 is a career reset for Ionescu as she hopes to lead the Liberty into a future that many view as extremely bright. Physically during those opening years, she was a shell of herself, and while some games stand out, the consistency was not there.
Watching Ioncesu against the Chicago Sky just puts into perspective how much work she still has to do. Brondello is going to ask a lot of the player that was a triple-double just waiting to happen in college. During her first two seasons as a pro, she has learned a lot about herself and her body. Giving 100% instead of what you have at the moment in time is most important. Ionescu was clearly not in the physical shape to perform at the level she was used to, and now that she is, the Liberty are reaping the benefits.
Before the season began, Ionescu gave her perspective on her past seasons in the league, stating, "I didn’t play, really, that first year, I learned a lot of lessons last year, learned what I should and shouldn’t do, and took an entire offseason to get healthy and be able to give my all to the team...And I think that’s really important. And it’s also unselfish. It’s not fair to the team if I’m not playing at 100% and able to give them everything that I have...I’m able to do that now and I’m excited to just get to work and continue to get better every day."
The contest against the Sun and the Fever announced to the league that she had landed. From steals on the defensive end to making hustle plays that result in baskets, it is clear Ionescu is not holding back one bit. A game-tying three with the second winding down against the Fever, and the creativity she has on the offensive end to be able to knock down a pull-up jumper whenever she wants tells the league once again, that she is back in full form. What makes her so special is that she is not just a scorer, and while her first seasons hide that, her offensive abilities are now on full display. Having two players like Stephanie Dolson, and Howard in the paint to execute a pick and roll or find inside make the job that much easier for Ionescu.
Despite three straight losses for New York, the idea that Ionescu is back and playing to her full potential is exactly what they need. The results will come with time, and with the Liberty's top pick in 2022, Nyra Sabally out for the entire season, next season could see New York finally break through the ceiling. While the Liberty may find inconsistent success, the future of the team has arrived. A coach with a championship pedigree along with a player on a mission to prove to the world that when healthy she is one of the best, New York is moving in the right direction despite the results.
Ionescu's pro career may have gotten off to a start she would most likely forget, those years did not go to waste. She learned what it means to be a professional, and that playing through injuries is not always the right thing, giving it everything is not something that can be done. From flashy passes to acrobatic three-pointers, Ionescu has everything and then some in her bag of tricks. Brondello does not change her scenery to New York if she does not see the potential of a winner. Watching a player like Ionescu flourish back on the floor giving everything she has on both ends informs the Liberty that they need to appreciate the work ethic that she demonstrated to put herself back into this position.