After a serious ankle injury in her rookie season and a somewhat tentative second 12 months, Sabrina Ionescu has in her third 12 months hit the form of heights everyone expected of her, and her Liberty are back within 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 series within the opening round.
When the Liberty drafted Ionescu No. 1 overall in 2020, hopes were high. The team had been terrible for 2 seasons, but Ionescu had been a transcendent star at Oregon, where she had an N.C.A.A. record 26 triple-doubles. She appeared like the form of player who could turn a team around almost by herself.
In only her second game within the W.N.B.A., she fired in 33 points, including six 3-pointers, added 7 rebounds and seven assists and had fans thrilled concerning the future.
That future turned sour quickly when, in her third game, she went down with a severe ankle injury that might keep her out for the remaining of the season.
Without her, and without their veteran star Tina Charles, who had been traded away, the team was abysmal, ending 2-20.
The team bounced back in 2021 and sneaked into the playoffs, however it was a bunch effort led by Betnijah Laney, Natasha Howard (after a return from injury), Sami Whitcomb and Michaela Onyenwere, who was named the rookie of the 12 months, that pushed them there. Although Ionescu played a full season, her scoring game fell a bit wanting what might need been expected.
Not that she didn’t help the team, however it was in a more supporting role: Though she was among the many league’s assist leaders, she averaged just 11.7 points a game and handled lingering ankle pain. She was often the third or fourth scoring option.
But in her third season, Ionescu has improved, and he or she was named to her first All-Star team. She has improved in almost every category, playing more minutes, shooting at the next percentage and increasing her rebounding, assists and steals numbers while reducing her turnovers.
Notably, she has taken a more distinguished role within the offense, shooting about 14 times a game to steer the team, up from slightly below 10 times a game last season, leading her to attain a team-high 17.4 points a game. Playing in all 36 games helped her make the league’s top 10 in total points, assists and rebounds, the one player to achieve this. And her rebounding numbers are especially impressive since she is the Liberty’s primary ballhandler.
Ionescu also made history in her third season, becoming the primary player ever to record a triple-double in three quarters and, individually, the primary player ever to attain not less than 30 points as a part of a triple-double. Those two triple-doubles brought her right into a tie with Chicago’s Candace Parker for probably the most profession triple-doubles, with three.
Ionescu’s step forward, in addition to having Howard available the entire season, helped the Liberty return to the playoffs and weather the lack of Laney for much of the season with a knee injury.
Last season, the Liberty lost their single-elimination playoff game, 83-82, to the Phoenix Mercury. Ionescu had 14 points and 11 assists, but she missed a 30-foot desperation 3-pointer on the buzzer that might have won the sport.
The team has a likelihood to rectify that within the opening round of the playoffs this 12 months, which will likely be better of three as a substitute of single elimination. But even with Laney’s return, the percentages are long. Eight of the 12 W.N.B.A. teams make the playoffs, leaving room for teams that finished under .500, including the Liberty (16-20).
A matchup against the strong Sky (26-10) with All-Stars akin to Parker, Kahleah Copper, Courtney Vandersloot and Emma Meesseman, and with the primary two games in Chicago, will likely be tough for the Liberty.
The Liberty are certainly one of the eight founding W.N.B.A. franchises and the just one still in its original city that has never won the W.N.B.A. title. Its last decade has been especially fallow, with only one trip to the semifinals or conference finals.
Like every team, the Liberty will need to accumulate talent, draft shrewdly and catch some breaks to step as much as championship quality. But greater than the rest, they may need to depend on Ionescu to proceed playing on the stellar level she did this 12 months. Or preferably, provided that she remains to be only 24, to get even higher.