Following a serious ankle damage in her rookie year and a rather tentative second year, Sabrina Ionescu has in her third yr hit the sort of heights every person predicted of her, and her Liberty are again in the W.N.B.A. playoffs.
The No. 7 Liberty will encounter the No. 2 Chicago Sky — the defending champions — on Wednesday for Sport 1 of a very best-of-three collection in the opening spherical.
When the Liberty drafted Ionescu No. 1 in general in 2020, hopes ended up superior. The team experienced been horrible for two seasons, but Ionescu experienced been a transcendent star at Oregon, the place she experienced an N.C.A.A. document 26 triple-doubles. She seemed like the kind of player who could turn a workforce all-around almost by herself.
In just her next match in the W.N.B.A., she fired in 33 points, including 6 3-ideas, included 7 rebounds and 7 helps and experienced supporters thrilled about the long run.
That future turned sour rapidly when, in her 3rd recreation, she went down with a serious ankle harm that would preserve her out for the rest of the time.
With out her, and without their veteran star Tina Charles, who experienced been traded away, the crew was abysmal, finishing 2-20.
The group bounced back again in 2021 and sneaked into the playoffs, but it was a group energy led by Betnijah Laney, Natasha Howard (following a return from personal injury), Sami Whitcomb and Michaela Onyenwere, who was named the rookie of the year, that pushed them there. Despite the fact that Ionescu performed a whole time, her scoring game fell a bit brief of what may well have been anticipated.
Not that she did not support the workforce, but it was in a far more supporting job: Although she was among the league’s aid leaders, she averaged just 11.7 details a sport and dealt with lingering ankle soreness. She was typically the 3rd or fourth scoring possibility.
But in her third season, Ionescu has stepped ahead, and she was named to her 1st All-Star group. She has improved in pretty much each individual class, participating in far more minutes, shooting at a better proportion and raising her rebounding, assists and steals numbers though cutting down her turnovers.
Notably, she has taken a more distinguished function in the offense, shooting about 14 instances a game to lead the workforce, up from just below 10 periods a recreation very last time, primary her to rating a team-high 17.4 details a activity. Playing in all 36 games assisted her make the league’s top 10 in overall details, helps and rebounds, the only player to do so. And her rebounding figures are primarily extraordinary considering that she is the Liberty’s primary ballhandler.
Ionescu also created background in her 3rd season, becoming the very first participant ever to document a triple-double in 3 quarters and, independently, the first player ever to rating at the very least 30 factors as component of a triple-double. Those two triple-doubles brought her into a tie with Chicago’s Candace Parker for the most career triple-doubles, with a few.
Ionescu’s stage forward, as effectively as having Howard accessible the entire year, aided the Liberty return to the playoffs and weather the decline of Laney for a lot of the year with a knee personal injury.
Previous season, the Liberty missing their single-elimination playoff recreation, 83-82, to the Phoenix Mercury. Ionescu had 14 factors and 11 assists, but she missed a 30-foot desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have won the recreation.
The staff has a probability to rectify that in the opening round of the playoffs this yr, which will be best of 3 as an alternative of solitary elimination. But even with Laney’s return, the odds are very long. 8 of the 12 W.N.B.A. groups make the playoffs, leaving area for groups that finished underneath .500, such as the Liberty (16-20).
A matchup from the potent Sky (26-10) with All-Stars these types of as Parker, Kahleah Copper, Courtney Vandersloot and Emma Meesseman, and with the first two games in Chicago, will be hard for the Liberty.
The Liberty are 1 of the eight founding W.N.B.A. franchises and the only one particular however in its authentic town that has never won the W.N.B.A. title. Its past ten years has been primarily fallow, with just a single vacation to the semifinals or convention finals.
Like any workforce, the Liberty will need to purchase talent, draft shrewdly and capture some breaks to move up to championship high-quality. But additional than anything else, they will have to depend on Ionescu to continue playing at the stellar degree she did this 12 months. Or ideally, specified that she is still only 24, to get even improved.