Sabrina Ionescu would have made her New York Liberty debut Saturday in primetime against the 2019 runner-up and dangerously reloaded Connecticut Sun. Then late on Sunday afternoon, the superstar would open a new era for the Liberty at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
There’s little doubt fans would have filled the lower bowl, glistening in fresh seafoam-green jerseys as part of the brand refresh. Most of those would have No. 20 on the back for Ionescu, who would surely make the back page for a second time in as many months — a rare feat.
Those milestones are now on hold as the 2020 season is postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 crisis. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert avoided any premature decision and waited as long as she could to delay training camps, which should have started the last week of April. There is no word on a potential start date, just as there have not been concrete plans for the NBA’s return or MLB’s postponed opening day.
The entire league and all of women’s sports were projected to have a big year trending off of increased viewership and attention with the Liberty, one of the eight original WNBA franchises, particularly well positioned for a renaissance of sorts. It starts with Ionescu, one of the most popular and celebrated draft picks in the past two decades. And there’s no doubt it starts with a bang.
“I don’t know that I’ve seen a player recently that recognizes and meets moments like Sabrina,” Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb told YES Network’s Chris Shearn.
Now, we’re left to anticipate when the league will back and what we can expect from the triple-double queen.
Liberty are building around Ionescu
There was one month between the draft and the scheduled season opener. Every day past that is extra time Ionescu has to study first-year head coach Walt Hopkins’ system and the tendencies of her new teammates. The first thing she did after getting drafted, Hopkins told YES Network, is ask for the password to the online interactive playbook.
She was already familiar with it.
“She was like, ‘Coach, is there some kind of a mistake? This is a lot of stuff we ran in college,’ ” said Hopkins, who served as a Minnesota Lynx assistant coach under Cheryl Reeve from 2017-19. “And I’m like, no Sabrina, that’s not a mistake. That’s intentional.”
The Liberty loaded up on guards in the draft and plan to spread out the offense, making everyone a potential shooter and developing a pick-and-roll system for Ionescu. It’s what she starred in at Oregon with Ruthy Hebard, who now has Chicago Sky assist magician Courtney Vandersloot.
“You can’t take anything away from Sabrina without giving her something,” Hopkins said. “Because she’s capable of capitalizing on whatever you give her.”
That’s apparent in her Oregon career. She had collegiate career highs in rebounds (8.6) and assists (9.1) per game her senior year while her scoring output declined (17.5 versus 19.9 as a junior).
In that sense, we can expect Ionescu to dazzle as if she were still in Duck green. And the early schedule, which featured seven of 10 games at home, would provide a measuring stick. Two against the Sun would establish how far there is to go and two against the Atlanta Dream would not only provide a fun Ionescu versus Chennedy Carter comparison, but also an analysis of where each bottom-of-the-standings franchise stood. Plus Ionescu and Hebard would meet for the first time on May 26 when the Sky came to Brooklyn.
It won’t be smooth sailing
But it isn’t going to be easy. Fans shouldn’t expect the same out of the Liberty version of Ionescu at first. It’s a leap from the collegiate ranks to the 140 best players in the world. There will be adjustments.
Though Ionescu nearly put up a 50/40/90 senior campaign (51.8% FG, 39.2% 3PG, 92.1% FT), don’t expect her to join Elena Delle Donne in the esteemed club anytime soon. Her record 26 triple-doubles are nearly three times the nine through all of WNBA history.
Not one No. 1 draft pick in the past decade has averaged more in their rookie year than their senior campaign. All but three experienced a scoring decline of at least 38 percent and that drop off can be sharper for point guards.
“When you’re the No. 1 pick, there’s pressure to go out there and score,” Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird said on the NBC Sports’ Runnin’ Plays podcast with Kerith Burke and Logan Murdock. “No matter what position you are [if] you’re the No. 1 pick, you should be out there dropping 20 every night ... But what’s unique from a point guard standpoint is that’s probably not going to be your career.”
Bird, drafted in 2002 out of Connecticut, averaged 14.4 points as a senior and as a rookie. That was a third of a point off her WNBA career high over the next 18 years, yet she still won three championships.
Las Vegas Aces point guard Kelsey Plum experienced a 73.2 percent decline in production in 2017 — albeit, her 31.7 points per game at Washington is off the charts.
14.7 (Notre Dame)
22.6 (South Carolina)
18.6 (Notre Dame)
As for dropping 20 a game, it’s difficult even as an established veteran. Retired Houston Comets star Cynthia Cooper averaged 20.98 in her career. Delle Donne is the only active player to average at least 20 (20.28) with Breanna Stewart (19.99) and Diana Taurasi (19.62) close. And last season, only Phoenix Mercury’s Brittney Griner eclipsed the mark (20.7).
“The point is, it’s not easy to average 20 points in this league. But that’s the expectation of the No. 1 pick,” Bird said. “So it’s hard and she’ll be judged early on something like that. Which isn’t fair to a point guard. She’s going to impact the game in all these other ways that people won’t even understand. So I think early on there will be some judgment.”
Griner’s experience is a good expectation model for Liberty fans. She experienced a 47 percent drop in production from Baylor to Phoenix but has now had three consecutive seasons averaging 20 points. What’s exciting about Ionescu is she’s not about to fold and a particularly bad game will fuel a stellar one next time out.
“She’s going to go through some lumps, as every rookie does,” Kolb said. “But there’s zero doubt in my mind that she’ll do everything possible to overcome.”
Will we eventually see a ‘Last Dance’ treatment?
Ionescu is already compared to Taurasi — who it should be noted actually scored 4.9 percent more her rookie year in Phoenix than her senior year with Connecticut — and the late Kobe Bryant. Now with “The Last Dance” in everyone’s heads, Hopkins called her edge “Michael [Jordan]-like.”
“She’s got a real focus on the things that she needs to do and on the things her teammates need to do and she doesn’t really care how it happens, it just needs to happen,” Hopkins told YES Network. “And to see that drive behind somebody, you can see it in her eyes, you can see it in her actions, you can see it in the way that she approaches every game. ... She really is thinking and adjusting on the fly as well as anybody I’ve seen and everything is informed by her desire to win. And she just does whatever’s necessary to win.”
Hence why this weekend was going to be so exciting. There’s a renewed vigor in New York as if it’s on the precipice of an historic era with the game’s premier talent ready to build a legacy.
Ionescu’s debut will happen eventually. Just as we’ll get to see Delle Donne and the Washington Mystics celebrate their title with a parade and go for another one. The Mercury trio will take the league by storm, Stewart will be back in Seattle after an Achilles injury and the Sun will push for an elusive title. That’s not to mention the dozens of other rookies who could make rosters when training camps do come around.
As with every other party, it’s simply on pause.
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