What Sabrina Ionescu Needs To Take a Big Leap for the Big Apple

In 2020, Sabrina entered the WNBA as one of the hottest collegiate prospects that the WNBA has ever seen. Ionescu is one of the greatest Oregon Duck athletes to ever live, and she is the first NCAA player with a career of 2,000 points, 1,000 assists, and 1,000 rebounds. Even with all those collegiate accolades, Ionescu has struggled to obtain success with the New York Liberty after being plagued by injuries early on in her young career. For Sabrina to get the Libs over the hump, they’ll need more than her pure ability. 

The Wubble season was a disappointing and challenging one for both Ionescu and the entire Liberty organization. Ionescu’s rookie season was cut short by a grade three ankle sprain, which kept her out of all but three games. While she was sidelined, the Liberty stumbled through the season under a newly appointed head coach in Walt Hopkins. The Covid-19 pandemic led key players, such as Rebecca Allen and Asia Durr, to opt out of the 2020 season. This further hurt New York’s already depleted roster, especially because the 2020 Liberty team was remarkably young. Only three of 12 players had four or more years of experience in the league. The team was primarily composed of players, such as Neah Odom, Kylee Shook, and other young athletes, who were heading into their rookie or sophomore seasons. 

In addition to battling injury in her rookie year, the Liberty’s ever-changing personnel hasn’t helped Ionescu. In the mere two years since her arrival, the Liberty have seen over 32 roster transactions, making it hard to find a unit that can gel together. Additionally, Sabrina will see a coaching change after the Liberty cut their ties with Walt Hopkins, who had been there her entire tenure, and hired former Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello. 

Simply put, Sabrina will need stability to flourish to her full potential. She’ll need a solid roster of teammates to build trust and chemistry with plus a coach who understands the basics of what Sabrina brings to the table offensively. 

Brondello’s emphasis on playing great team defense may be the key to maximizing Ionescu’s offensive potential. During her introductory press conference to the team, Brondello addressed her desire to change the team’s philosophy from a slower-paced, half-court offense to a defensive machine that thrives in transition. 

“Eight years in Phoenix and you may not have thought about this: I’m a defensive coach first,” Brondello said during the Zoom call. “I think that’s an area that will be the focus from day one for this Liberty team. That’s what it takes. And it’s a five-player defense. Everyone’s engaged in buying in and playing tough and playing together and building that trust. That’s critical.”

With Brondello at the helm last year, the Phoenix Mercury were a solid defensive unit. The team was able to get stops on defense and either get easy buckets in transition or set up rim runs for Brittney Griner. 

Applying that approach to Liberty basketball will allow Ionescu to thrive in the fast-paced offense she is used to from her time back in college at Oregon. 

In order to get the best out of Ionescu, she’ll also need the right pieces around her. She thrives in the pick-and-roll, which she’s slowly beginning to master. In fact, 40.3 percent of Sabrina’s possessions revolve around her being the primary ball-handler in a pick-and-roll offense. She heavily relies on her teammates for success, only isolating in 4.4 percent of her offensive possessions. In other words, Sabrina is looking to either spot up for a three after a hard pick or dump the ball off to a big who is rolling to the rim. 

With the exception of Natasha Howard, the bigs that were on the New York Liberty’s 2021 roster need improvement. Players like Shook and Odom have to become more adept at finishing around the rim, which is where they were always playing as rollers for Sabrina last year. Additionally, both players drastically need to increase their ability to rebound the ball. Last season, Sabrina averaged more rebounds (5.7) than Shook (4.0) and Odom (1.2) combined. Granted, Odom—who is now waived from the team—experienced limited minutes and may just need a bit more time on the floor to up her rebounding to succeed on her next team.

Waiving both Odom and Jazmine Jones was a tough decision for the Liberty to make. However, the moves were crucial in order to re-sign Allen, who is an incredibly versatile player on both sides of the ball, a knockdown shooter, and a veteran presence on the team.

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With free agency in full swing as of Feb. 1, the Liberty have already signed a frontcourt presence in New York native Stefanie Dolson. The 6’5’’ veteran excels at protecting the rim as a defensive anchor. Additionally, her versatility in the pick-and-roll game will benefit Ionescu as Dolson can roll to the basket or pop out to the perimeter to knock down open shots. The addition of Dolson will not only benefit Sabrina but also allow for Betnijah Laney to see wider driving lanes. This will make it possible for Allen, Sami Whitcomb, and Ionescu to get open three-point shots. 

As for where Ionescu can enhance her own game, she will have to continue improving off the ball as the Liberty heavily rely on the isolation play of WNBA All-Star Laney. Adding that wrinkle to her game will allow her to easily get spot-up jumpers in the flow of the offense rather than having to force the action in the pick-and-roll or in transition.

Additionally, if Ionescu wants to be more successful with the Liberty, she’ll have to be more aggressive offensively. Sabrina nearly always passes from the pick-and-roll, with 54.0 percent of her 6.1 apg during the 2021 season coming from that play. Because she’s such a high-level thinker in the pick-and-roll, Sabrina almost always makes the correct decision with the ball. However, an inconsistent supporting cast around her oftentimes results in missed shots and turnovers. 

While it is great that she is looking to dish to her teammates, Ionescu would benefit from attempting more shots. Her 2021 field goal percentage (37.9) is on the lower end due to having to take tough shots in the paint against bigs much larger than her. If Sabrina isolated more and cut to the basket off the ball, she would be able to attempt more than her 9.9 shots per game last season and increase that average to at least around 14.0, which is approximately the number of attempts Laney averaged per game.

With more aggression on offense, a stable roster, and reliable bigs, Ionescu has the tools to compete at an MVP level. She’s a triple-double waiting to happen on any given night. With her high basketball IQ and elite passing vision, Sabrina has the opportunity to have a game reminiscent of Steve Nash in 2005 for the Phoenix Suns. Although New York has yet to make a major playoff push with Sabrina on the roster, the seafoam tide could change sooner rather than later with improvements to the Liberty.

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