The New York Liberty faced pressure from the moment the franchise won the WNBA Draft Lottery in 2019. Finally out from under the weight of James Dolan’s ownership after being purchased by Nets governor Joe Tsai, the ping-pong balls determined that the Liberty would have the chance to draft Sabrina Ionescu, one of the most famous and exciting prospects ever to come out of college, the following spring. A new era had begun.
Ionescu represented hope for a franchise that Dolan had publicly complained about owning, then moved out of the five boroughs. Before she even played a WNBA game, Ionescu was one of the most famous basketball players on the planet, a voice for the sport, and a thrilling talent.
Unfortunately, Ionescu suffered an ankle injury three games into the WNBA Bubble season, creating something of a lost year for both her and the Liberty, which went 2-20 in Bradenton. Still, New York pushed ahead in its quick rebuild, adding star free agents Betnijah Laney and Natasha Howard ahead of the 2021 campaign. This allowed them to sneak into the playoffs for the first time since 2017 despite Ionescu still acclimating to the WNBA for much of the season.
Laney turned in her first All-Star season and became the top option on the team with a physical, slashing style that made her difficult to contain with one defender. At the same time, Howard made good on the claims she made when she was signed by New York, upping her scoring production while remaining efficient before getting injured midway through the year.
Ionescu was tied for third on the team in scoring behind Laney and Howard, posted a subpar 47.0 effective field goal percentage, and turned the ball over on nearly a quarter of her possessions. New York’s offensive rating was one of the worst in the WNBA and was only slightly better when Ionescu was on the court. Late in the season, however, Ionescu started to come on, becoming an engine for New York in tight games as the Liberty powered to a 9-8 record in games that were within five points in the final five minutes. Ionescu closed the season with 11 straight double-digit scoring games, including 22 points and nine assists in a must-win matchup with Washington in the final game.
In a one-point loss to Phoenix in the first round, Ionescu put up 14 points, 11 assists, and five rebounds while Laney went off for 25 points while playing nearly every minute of the game. Howard was back and healthy in time for the game as well, pitching in a double-double with an assist and a block, and the promise of the Liberty core showed itself again. Fully healthy, their stars rose to the occasion and nearly knocked off a Phoenix team that would end up in the WNBA Finals.
All that does is add to the pressure coming into 2022. Entering her third season, Ionescu has yet to fully make good on the promise she had coming out of Oregon, when Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb called her a “generational player” and Oregon head coach Kelly Graves called her a “transcendent basketball player.” Ionescu was a nightly triple-double threat in the Pac-12. As a pro, she has been mistake-prone and inconsistent. Even in 2021, with star talent around her like she had in Eugene, Ionescu did not consistently raise the level of her teammates or control games like she was expected to do when she was the No. 1 overall pick in 2020.
There are reasons for Ionescu’s rather slow start to her WNBA career. After playing 35-plus games per season at Oregon, Ionescu has played just 33 total since being drafted in April 2020. She also has not yet traveled overseas to play during the WNBA offseason nor has she yet been invited to join Team USA for international competition, creating a vacuum of competitive basketball for Ionescu outside of the WNBA summer. The Grade 3 ankle sprain in the Wubble ended up requiring surgery in November 2020, and Ionescu was still rehabbing the injury into the start of 2021, both taking away the experience of her rookie year and her first full offseason to put in work.
Other recent top picks hailed as generational such as A’ja Wilson or Breanna Stewart had made Finals appearances and won MVPs by the end of their rookie contracts. The WNBA is unrelenting. The league’s limited size, increased player movement, and short season creates a huge gap between contenders and lower-level playoff teams. Eight of 12 teams make the postseason, which means a playoff appearance can have the dual effect of inflating the achievements of teams and players but also intensify the pressure on them to make a deeper run the next season.
That pressure has seemed to drive decisions this offseason for New York. They moved on from head coach Walt Hopkins after two seasons as his five-out system failed to generate elite offense, hiring Sandy Brondello — one of the most accomplished coaches in WNBA history — away from Phoenix. And already, they have reportedly met with two-time Finals MVP Stewart and reigning WNBA champion Stefanie Dolson to fill out the frontcourt and take the team over the top. The Liberty are +2200 to win the title, and Ionescu is +2000 to win MVP, but New York is handling its business like a team ready to make a big leap.
Unless they land a Hall of Fame talent like Stewart (which would require some salary cap creativity), the Liberty will likely go as far as Ionescu can take them. The rest of the roster met or exceeded expectations in 2021, and still they were several games below .500. A big guard who can rain in pull-up threes, create consistently out of the pick and roll, and handle multiple assignments on defense is theoretically a game-breaker in today’s WNBA. Ionescu has rarely been that across two WNBA seasons, but getting a full offseason while healthy after finally seeing what WNBA basketball is like on a nightly basis will give her a chance to build on last year.
Elite players usually find a way to rise to the top. New York drafted Ionescu to be one, and built a team under the assumption that she is an All-WNBA level offensive engine. With an accomplished new coach, a deeper set of teammates, and a clear hunger for more from ownership in free agency, the table is set for Ionescu to make 2022 her breakout year.
If she does, the Liberty could indeed make the leap from an outside playoff team to a true contender. New York could finally return to the sustained excellence it enjoyed under Teresa Weatherspoon, Becky Hammon, and Tina Charles throughout franchise history. Under Tsai, the team’s investment, visibility, and star power have been among the best in the WNBA. Now’s the time for the winning to follow, and Ionescu will be expected to take on that pressure and make good on the promise of her college superstardom.