After a serious ankle injury in her rookie season and a considerably tentative second 12 months, Sabrina Ionescu has in her third 12 months hit the type of heights everybody anticipated of her, and her Liberty are again within the W.N.B.A. 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 were high. 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. record 26 triple-doubles. She appeared just like the type of participant who might flip a crew round virtually by herself.
In simply her second recreation within 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 in regards to the future.
That future turned bitter shortly when, in her third recreation, she went down with a extreme ankle harm that may preserve 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, but it surely was a gaggle effort led by Betnijah Laney, Natasha Howard (after a return from harm), 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 in need of what may need been anticipated.
Not that she didn’t assist the crew, but it surely was in a extra supporting function: 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 usually the third or fourth scoring choice.
However in her third season, Ionescu has stepped ahead, and he or she was named to her first All-Star crew. She has improved in virtually each class, taking part in 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 outstanding function within the offense, taking pictures about 14 instances a recreation to guide the crew, up from just below 10 instances a recreation final season, main her to attain a team-high 17.4 factors a recreation. Taking part in in all 36 video games helped her make the league’s prime 10 in whole factors, assists and rebounds, the one participant to take action. And her rebounding numbers are especially impressive since she is the Liberty’s essential ballhandler.
Ionescu additionally made historical past in her third season, turning into the primary participant ever to file a triple-double in three quarters and, individually, the primary participant ever to attain at the least 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 probably 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 harm.
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 gained the sport.
The crew has an opportunity to rectify that within the opening spherical of the playoffs this 12 months, which might be better of three as an alternative of single elimination. However even with Laney’s return, the percentages are lengthy. Eight of the 12 W.N.B.A. groups make the playoffs, leaving room for groups that completed underneath .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, might be robust for the Liberty.
The Liberty are one of many eight founding W.N.B.A. franchises and the one one nonetheless in its authentic metropolis that has by no means gained the W.N.B.A. 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 taking part in on the stellar degree she did this 12 months. Or ideally, provided that she continues to be solely 24, to get even higher.