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Sabrina Ionescu Has Zapped The Liberty Back To Life

Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the New York Liberty dribbles during the first half against the Indiana Fever at Barclays Center on May 14, 2021 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Photo: Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Have you checked in on the New York Liberty lately? Just three games into the season, last year's bottom-feeders have already won more than they did in all of 2020. The wins have come courtesy of a fast, efficient, new-look offense that plays with the zip of teams who have been together for years. The Liberty's best players have been together for all of three weeks: Betnijah Laney, averaging a team-high 23.3 points per game, may have a case for winning Most Improved Player twice in a row; Sami Whitcomb scraps on defense; and rookie Michaela Onyenwere doesn't seem a step out of place in the pros. Feeding them, of course, is Sabrina Ionescu, whose WNBA career remains in its infancy, but has already lived up to the high—perhaps unfairly so—expectations.

Last night, Ionescu became the youngest WNBA player and first player in Liberty history to record a triple-double, putting up 26 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists in an 86-75 win over the Minnesota Lynx. Relative to the NBA, triple-doubles are still rare in the WNBA, owing to some combination of less time on the clock, much less positional flexibility (until recently), and typically fewer possessions per game. Ionescu's triple-double is just the 10th in league history and the first since Chelsea Gray's in 2019. At 23 years old, Ionescu is the youngest player in WNBA history to record one.

She'd be the first to tell you that 26-10-12 matters less than 86–75. “If I got that in a loss, it wouldn’t mean that much to me,” Ionescu said afterward. It may be that the novelty has worn off a little for her; remember that she finished her college career with 26 triple-doubles. The novelty may just wear off for everyone else, too; that she got her first WNBA triple-double just six games into her professional career bodes well for the possibility of many more.

Was it even the most interesting thing she's done in the last week? Depends on your read of her game-winning three in Friday night's season opener against the Indiana Fever. With just a few seconds left in a tie game, Ionescu came off a screen in a nicely drawn up play to take the game-winning three.

No one thought Ionescu wouldn't instantly improve the Liberty's fortunes, but the degree to which she's thrived as a playmaker on a team still building chemistry is remarkable. The Ionescu-Laney tandem, in particular, should frighten opponents. The two are first and second in three pointers made across the league, and Laney's usage rate is even a bit higher than Ionescu's. (Given Laney's 65.3 percent true shooting percentage, no one's complaining.)

The team isn't without its weaknesses; turnovers and low bench scoring will be a challenge. The opponents so far have been either bad (Fever) or shorthanded (Lynx), and the Liberty's showings in upcoming games against the Mystics and Sky may be more revealing. But I realize there's no use in preaching measured optimism to a market that went completely nuts for above-.500 basketball mere months ago, so I won't. In fact, I will do the opposite: The New York Liberty have started a season 3–0 for the first time since the second Bush administration! They've been doing this all without star center Natasha Howard while she wraps up her overseas obligations! They are clicking! They are fun as hell to watch! Basketball in New York is looking good, baby. The Liberty's own prestige magazine cover awaits.

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