After a critical ankle harm in her rookie season and a considerably tentative second yr, Sabrina Ionescu has in her third yr hit the type of heights everybody anticipated of her, and her Liberty are again in the W.N.B.A. playoffs.
The No. 7 Liberty will face the No. 2 Chicago Sky — the defending champions — on Wednesday for Game 1 of a best-of-three collection in 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 N.C.A.A. report 26 triple-doubles. She appeared like the type of participant who may flip a crew round nearly by herself.
In simply her second sport in the W.N.B.A., she fired in 33 factors, together with six 3-pointers, added 7 rebounds and seven assists and had followers thrilled about the future.
That future turned bitter shortly when, in her third sport, she went down with a extreme ankle harm that might preserve her out for the remainder of the season.
Without 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, but it surely was a bunch effort led by Betnijah Laney, Natasha Howard (after a return from harm), Sami Whitcomb and Michaela Onyenwere, who was named the rookie of the yr, that pushed them there. Although Ionescu performed a full season, her scoring sport fell a bit wanting what might need been anticipated.
Not that she didn’t assist the crew, but it surely was in a extra supporting position: Though she was amongst the league’s help leaders, she averaged simply 11.7 factors a sport and handled lingering ankle ache. She was usually the third or fourth scoring possibility.
But in her third season, Ionescu has stepped ahead, and she or he was named to her first All-Star crew. She has improved in nearly each class, enjoying extra minutes, capturing at a better proportion and rising her rebounding, assists and steals numbers whereas decreasing her turnovers.
Notably, she has taken a extra distinguished position in the offense, capturing about 14 instances a sport to steer the crew, up from just below 10 instances a sport final season, main her to attain a team-high 17.4 factors a sport. Playing in all 36 video games helped her make the league’s high 10 in whole factors, assists and rebounds, the solely participant to take action. And her rebounding numbers are especially impressive since she is the Liberty’s principal ballhandler.
Ionescu additionally made historical past in her third season, changing into the first participant ever to report a triple-double in three quarters and, individually, the first participant ever to attain at the least 30 factors as a part of a triple-double. Those two triple-doubles introduced her right into a tie with Chicago’s Candace Parker for the most profession triple-doubles, with three.
Ionescu’s step ahead, in addition to having Howard out there the complete season, helped the Liberty return to the playoffs and climate the lack of Laney for a lot of the season with a knee harm.
Last season, the Liberty misplaced their single-elimination playoff sport, 83-82, to the Phoenix Mercury. Ionescu had 14 factors and 11 assists, however she missed a 30-foot desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer that might have received the sport.
The crew has an opportunity to rectify that in the opening spherical of the playoffs this yr, which can be better of three as a substitute of single elimination. But even with Laney’s return, the odds are lengthy. Eight of the 12 W.N.B.A. groups make the playoffs, leaving room for groups that completed below .500, together with the Liberty (16-20).
A matchup in opposition to the robust Sky (26-10) with All-Stars comparable to Parker, Kahleah Copper, Courtney Vandersloot and Emma Meesseman, and with the first two video games in Chicago, can be powerful for the Liberty.
The Liberty are one in all the eight founding W.N.B.A. franchises and the just one nonetheless in its unique metropolis that has by no means received the W.N.B.A. title. Its final decade has been particularly fallow, with only one journey to the semifinals or convention finals.
Like any crew, the Liberty might want to purchase expertise, draft shrewdly and catch some breaks to step as much as championship high quality. But greater than anything, they should depend on Ionescu to proceed enjoying at the stellar stage she did this yr. Or ideally, provided that she continues to be solely 24, to get even higher.