Last year, the Liberty were able to pencil in their draft card weeks before officially making Sabrina Ionescu the No. 1 overall pick and anointing the former Oregon superstar as the centerpiece of their franchise.
There is no generational prospect awaiting the Liberty when the 2021 WNBA Draft commences Thursday (7 p.m., ESPN, again a remote event due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Only a reminder of the untapped promise of that night and the continuing work of building a complementary roster around Ionescu’s triple-double, point-guard skills ahead of this season’s delayed move to Barclays Center.
In her first game last summer in the WNBA’s so-called Wubble in Bradenton, Fla., Ionescu squared off with Sue Bird on national TV. In her second game, she put up 33 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. In her third game, she stepped on an opponent’s foot, severely sprained her ankle and was lost for the rest of the season. The Liberty finished 2-20, the worst record in the 12-team league by a four-game margin.
“Sabrina’s the real deal. I know we were all stripped away of seeing her have a full season last year, but I’ve never seen a more engaged, locked-in person, let alone player,” Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb said Wednesday, confirming Ionescu is a full go in workouts and is expected to play the May 14 season opener against Indiana. “She is wired for this, she is ready for this, and she’s excited. … I’m excited really for Sabrina to have her first year.”
Despite their results in the bubble, the Liberty pushed to accelerate their rebuilding this offseason by acquiring two prime-aged stars. They signed 27-year-old wing Betnijah Laney, the 2020 Most Improved Player, to a max contract in free agency. They parted with the No. 1 pick in this year’s less heralded draft in a three-team trade to acquire 29-year-old Seattle Storm center Natasha Howard, a two-time champion and former Defensive Player of the Year. Both are capable floor-spacers and switchable defenders for second-year coach Walt Hopkins’s five-out system; Howard is a natural pick-and-roll partner for Ionescu.
“I couldn’t be more excited to have Sabrina back because what it gives us particularly from an offensive perspective,” Hopkins said. “Offensively, she changes the entire game. She bends the entire defense every time she comes off a pick-and-roll. If she doesn’t have the ball in her hands, she has so much gravity, the defense is gonna suck toward her because they’re so scared of her getting an open look. If anybody lets that door get open, she can drop 40 on them, like that, because of that shooting ability and her ability to create for her teammates. That combination in addition to the fact that Sabrina is always gonna do what it takes to win.”
In the trade for Howard, the Liberty also recouped the No. 6 overall pick. Shooting seems like a must after a season in which they hit a league-worst 27.7 percent of their 3-pointers and finished with a historically inept 88.6 offensive rating, all exacerbated by Ionescu’s absence.
“New York is going to be really interesting because I don’t think we got the clearest view of what they were going to be or can be last year because of the injury to Sabrina and then some of the international players who didn’t play, the trades made in the offseason,” ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said last week. “But Walt showed last year that there’s a certain style that he wants to play, so you would expect the players to have size, be able to shoot 3s and try to get to the free-throw line.”
Four who might be Libs
Aari McDonald, PG, Arizona
The darling of the NCAA Tournament may have played her way out of range at No. 6. A tenacious defender capable of scoring in bunches would allow Ionescu to play more off the ball.
Arella Guirantes, SG, Rutgers
The most pro-ready scorer on the board. This would keep the Long Island native in her home market.
Jasmine Walker, F, Alabama
Size (6-foot-3) and shooting ability (39.8 percent from 3 as a senior) may present the cleanest roster fit.
Dana Evans, PG, Louisville
First-team All-America in 2020-21. The pipeline is strong: Liberty have drafted three former Cardinals the past two years.