On every basketball superteam, one star player is tasked with having to sacrifice the most for the good of the collective. Through four games, it’s clear that on the overnight juggernaut New York Liberty, that player will be Sabrina Ionescu. While Ionescu was the first piece of New York’s super roster, the way she plays and her lack of experience compared with her MVP-caliber veteran teammates make her the player who will have to change most for the Liberty to rise.
The team added Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, and Courtney Vandersloot during the offseason. It was clear that, as a result, when and how Ionescu got the ball would be quite different than at any point in her basketball life. The returns have been up and down through four games to start the season amid the team’s feeling out process, although Ionescu was ultra-productive in Stewart’s return to Seattle on Tuesday night.
Ionescu made six of 10 threes, showing awareness off-ball and a growing understanding of where and how she will need to operate around her new star teammates after spending most of her career as the focal point in New York. Plays like this illustrated a comfort using her shooting as the ultimate back-breaker for the Liberty offense:
Expect plenty of these actions from the Liberty this season. Double drag with Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, with the former spacing and the latter rolling. Easy triple for Stewie. pic.twitter.com/SuF1OxKRPr
— Positive Residual (@presidual) May 31, 2023
With a quick flick release and tons of confidence, Ionescu is more than capable of being a lights-out floor-spacer. As a former No. 1 overall pick who led the Liberty to the playoffs the past two seasons, she is overqualified for such a rudimentary role. While she’s aced that assignment so far and is among the best shooters in the WNBA to start the season, Ionescu is nonetheless adapting to her role on one of the most talented teams ever assembled.
Through four games, Ionescu’s usage and assist rates are way down while her three-point rate is a career-high. She is shooting 45 percent in the restricted area and 29 percent from 2-point range. She has seven total free throw attempts in 132 minutes.
Ionescu missed some shots she’d normally make to start the year, which I believe comes down to getting used to the demands of an off-ball role. Playing next to Vandersloot — who is third in WNBA history in assists — Ionescu is starting more possessions as a floor-spacer or flying off screens in head coach Sandy Brondello’s motion offense. Still, in Ionescu’s fourth season, she knows how to create space for her pull-up jumper or floater, and her trademark power driving game makes her tough to corral. Some of the shots she’s gotten as a result of all this have just not fallen, which is a thing that sometimes happens over a sample size of four games.
Ionescu is operating more like Diana Taurasi did for nearly a decade in Brondello’s system in Phoenix than the Trae Young-like role she was in to start her career. More structure should benefit Ionescu as the season goes on, but until Tuesday, her timing and touch had been just a little off.
The bigger adjustment will come in attacking closeouts and getting to the basket, something Ionescu has not routinely done as a basketball player until this season. While Ionescu got comfortable taking spot-up threes next to Betnijah Laney and Natasha Howard in recent years, in the biggest moments, she returned to a traditional high pick-and-roll or transition drag screen game, getting downhill with the threat of her passing and pull-up three creating space for her in the halfcourt.
Next to a superior scorer in Stewart and a superior table-setter in Vandersloot, Ionescu will act as a more straightforward off-ball player. There are tons of things that are just different enough about that role — the physics, the footwork, the need to stay locked in even as your team gets away from you for stretches. Ionescu has front-rimmed many of her misses, as good a sign as any that her misses are down to discomfort.
Ionescu is shooting 46 percent from three, so defenses still must respect her as a major threat even as she finds her way in a new role. Her best moments inside the arc early in the season have come when she takes advantage of that space, shifting and cutting into space without the ball and canning wide-open looks.
By staggering her and Vandersloot, the Liberty can still retain much of what makes Ionescu special. She is dynamite handling the ball in transition, and remains a matchup problem because of her size as a guard. When she gets hot from deep or gets the opponent into foul trouble, Ionescu can pile up points with the WNBA’s best. When she gets to handle the ball, Ionescu is still a killer in transition when the defense is on its heels and she has more time to process.
And when everyone is on the floor, opponents are already being faced with the fact that they cannot afford to leave Ionescu to guard the primary action Brondello calls. Ionescu is a high IQ player who is already learning to maneuver within her new confines and challenge the defense even more aggressively.
For the Liberty to reach their ceiling, one key ingredient will be Ionescu settling into the best version of herself alongside the other stars. New York’s starting lineup is outscoring opponents by just 3.4 points per 100 possessions this season, whereas the other superteam in Las Vegas has seen its starters post a net rating of plus-31. Of course, plenty of things need to be sorted out in the early days of New York’s grand experiment, which is always the case when there’s such a major injection of talent. It’s unclear if the Liberty have enough defense in their starting lineup overall, and while Stewart and Jones have excelled overseas playing together, they both are used to scoring and defending as centers. Even Brondello and Vandersloot, as envious of a problem as it is, face a challenge in keeping everyone engaged and involved on offense.
The history of basketball is littered with players on ultra-talented teams — Klay Thompson, James Harden, even Candace Parker on this year’s Aces squad — who needed to sacrifice to make everything around them work. Though she is still early in her professional career, Ionescu has a pathway toward doing what she’s great at and still driving winning at the highest levels. If she can polish her role over the next 36 games, Ionescu’s adaptation should be one of the biggest reasons why New York is able to compete for a WNBA championship this fall.