One of the most heralded rookies in recent WNBA history is set to make her debut Saturday when No. 1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu leads six rookie teammates and the New York Liberty into their season opener versus the veteran-laden Seattle Storm.
Few players have entered the WNBA with as much fanfare as Ionescu, who arguably could have been the No. 1 overall pick last year as well should she have chosen to leave Oregon early. She averaged 17.5 points, 9.1 assists, 8.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals her senior season while also hitting 39.2 percent of her 3-point shots and 51.8 percent overall.
Ionescu set a pair of impressive NCAA player records while with the Ducks, racking up 26 triple-doubles and becoming the first player to amass 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 1,000 assists. She will be the linchpin of New York's rebuild as the Liberty have won just 17 games combined in Katie Smith's first two seasons.
The phrase "generational talent" is often linked with Ionescu, who spent the past three months learning the offense via virtual learning before applying those lessons in the Orlando bubble.
"I really took that kind of as a blessing in disguise that time that we've had to learn the offense, learn the players, kind of watch film on their college careers and other WNBA crews, and just see where they can fit into the offense and if I'm running it, I'm able to set people up for shots," Ionescu told the New York Daily News. "I think it's gone really well and during the short amount of time that we've had to practice, I think we've done a great job and still have some time to practice."
Ionescu will not be the only Liberty rookie on a WNBA crash course. She is one of seven rookies overall as New York (10-24) had four first-round picks in the 2020 draft - Megan Walker (9th), Jocelyn Willoughby (10th), and Jazmine Jones (12th). New York's roster is comprised of six players taken among the first 15 selections.
Cohesion and chemistry will be important since Rebecca Allen and Asia Durr, last year's No. 2 overall pick who averaged 9.7 points in 18 games over an injury-plagued season, will not suit up this year. Only Layisha Clarendon and Amanda Zahui B have five or more years experience on the Liberty roster, though guard Kia Nurse did average 13.7 points in her second season.
The Storm's title defense in 2019 did not go exactly as planned as injuries ravaged the roster and illness caused upheaval on the coaching staff. The latter will again be a factor as Dan Hughes will not join the team in Florida, citing an elevated risk for severe illness due to COVID-19. Hughes missed nine games last season after being diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his appendix as Seattle - missing starters Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird - went 18-16 in 2019.
"I am saddened that I won't be able to travel with the team as everyone knows how much love I have for this organization. I am thankful to be in good health and looking forward to supporting Coach Klopp and the staff and players in any way I can this season," Hughes said in a statement released by the team.
Gary Kloppenburg, who served as interim when Hughes was sidelined last year, will again take the reins for the Storm. Stewart, the 2018 WNBA and Finals MVP, returns after suffering an Achilles injury while the 39-year-old Bird - the league's all-time assists leader - sat out last season with a back injury.
"Take the best of what we did in 2018 and put that together with what we did in 2019, and hopefully you get a pretty good team that's going to be hard to deal with," said Stewart, who averaged 21.8 points and 8.4 rebounds in 2018, to the Seattle Times. "It's never as easy as it sounds or how it might look on paper. … You never know about chemistry until you get out there and play."
Updated July 23, 2020