After a serious ankle injury in her rookie season and a somewhat tentative second year, Sabrina Ionescu has in her third year hit the kind of heights everyone expected of her, and her Liberty are back in 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 in the opening round.
When the Liberty drafted Ionescu No. 1 overall in 2020, hopes were high. The team had been terrible for two seasons, but Ionescu had been a transcendent star at Oregon, where she had an N.C.A.A. record 26 triple-doubles. She seemed like the kind of player who could turn a team around almost by herself.
In just her second game in the W.N.B.A., she fired in 33 points, including six 3-pointers, added 7 rebounds and 7 assists and had fans thrilled about the future.
That future turned sour quickly when, in her third game, she went down with a severe ankle injury that would keep her out for the rest of the season.
Without her, and without their veteran star Tina Charles, who had been traded away, the team was abysmal, finishing 2-20.
The team bounced back in 2021 and sneaked into the playoffs, but it was a group effort led by Betnijah Laney, Natasha Howard (after a return from injury), Sami Whitcomb and Michaela Onyenwere, who was named the rookie of the year, that pushed them there. Although Ionescu played a full season, her scoring game fell a bit short of what might have been expected.
Not that she didn’t help the team, but it was in a more supporting role: Though she was among the league’s assist leaders, she averaged just 11.7 points a game and dealt with lingering ankle pain. She was often the third or fourth scoring option.
But in her third season, Ionescu has stepped forward, and she was named to her first All-Star team. She has improved in almost every category, playing more minutes, shooting at a higher percentage and increasing her rebounding, assists and steals numbers while reducing her turnovers.
Notably, she has taken a more prominent role in the offense, shooting about 14 times a game to lead the team, up from just under 10 times a game last season, leading her to score 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 only player to do so. And her rebounding numbers are especially impressive since she is the Liberty’s main ballhandler.
Ionescu also made history in her third season, becoming the first player ever to record a triple-double in three quarters and, separately, the first player ever to score at least 30 points as part of a triple-double. Those two triple-doubles brought her into a tie with Chicago’s Candace Parker for the most career triple-doubles, with three.
Ionescu’s step forward, as well as having Howard available the whole season, helped the Liberty return to the playoffs and weather the loss 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 at the buzzer that would have won the game.
The team has a chance to rectify that in the opening round of the playoffs this year, which will be best of three instead of single elimination. But even with Laney’s return, the odds 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 such as Parker, Kahleah Copper, Courtney Vandersloot and Emma Meesseman, and with the first two games in Chicago, will be tough for the Liberty.
The Liberty are one of the eight founding W.N.B.A. franchises and the only one still in its original city that has never won the W.N.B.A. title. Its last decade has been especially fallow, with just one trip to the semifinals or conference finals.
Like any team, the Liberty will need to acquire talent, draft shrewdly and catch some breaks to step up to championship quality. But more than anything else, they will have to rely on Ionescu to continue playing at the stellar level she did this year. Or preferably, given that she is still only 24, to get even better.