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WNBA

Sabrina Ionescu Is An Avalanche

9:02 AM EDT on August 7, 2023

Sabrina Ionescu shoots a three-pointer
Michelle Farsi/Getty Images

Details can get lost in a margin of victory as large as the one that separated the New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces on Sunday. A 99-61 final score, fashioned out of a game that was effectively over early in the third quarter, can make it hard to find the game's rhythm within the box score. Who did this?? is a natural question to ask upon encountering a 38-point blowout in a game featuring the two best teams in the league. Did Breanna Stewart, and her 23 points, six rebounds, and five assists do this? No, try again. Was it A'ja Wilson getting clocked by Jonquel Jones's elbow in the first half, and then going 2-of-14 from the field that sealed the Aces' fate? Eh, not exactly. If you're looking for someone to credit for handing the Aces their biggest defeat in franchise history, look no further than Sabrina Ionescu.

Ionescu played her best game of the season on Sunday, scoring 31 points and handing out seven assists while shooting 63 percent from the floor. That percentage is made all the more ridiculous by the fact that 10 of Ionescu's 19 shots came from behind the three-point arc; she dropped six of them.

As meaningful as each of those points were, so too was when and how they were scored. Ionescu was relatively quiet in the first quarter, scoring six points in a frame that ended with the Liberty trailing by three points. The second quarter is where she started to inflict real pain, hitting five of her six attempts from three and scoring 17 points.

The Liberty were still only up five at halftime, though, and the Aces could have felt reasonably good about starting the second half at just a single-digit deficit after watching Ionescu score 23 points in 18 minutes. But as soon as the third quarter started, Ionescu got to work killing whatever confidence may have still lived in the hearts of the Aces. Her first shot of the second half was a 29-foot three-pointer that she cashed to put New York up by eight. After a Breanna Stewart layup on the subsequent possession, the next time down the court Ionescu stretched the lead to 13 with a driving, and-one layup.

That brought an end to the competitive portion of the game, which left everyone watching with plenty of time to think about the absolutely bonkers shooting season Ionesuc is having. Super teams require adaptation and evolution, and when Ionescu, Stewart, Jones, and Courtney Vandersloot all ended up on the same roster together, they faced questions about how they'd all fit in together. Ionescu looked to be at risk of suffering the most growing pains—Vandersloot's presence would drastically cut down on her minutes spent as the team's primary playmaker, and Jones and Stewart's scoring punch would take a few big bites out of her usage rate. Now, 28 games into the season, it's pretty clear that Ionescu has solved her personal fit issues by simply evolving into the deadliest high-volume, high-efficiency shooter in the entire league.

Ionescu was a perfectly serviceable three-point shooter in her previous two seasons (32 percent on 6.2 attempts per game), but good God, did anyone see this coming? Ionescu is now shooting 44 percent from behind the arc this season, and taking the third-most attempts from deep in the league, at more than eight per game. Fitting in is one thing, but Ionescu has more or less become a brand-new player in her third full season in the league. In 2022 she was the Liberty's starting point guard and taking more than half of her shots from two-point range; she spends most of her time now as a shooting guard sprinting around screens, and is taking 63 percent of her shots from behind the arc.

Should she be doing something else? This is a question I've been asking myself since encountering a piece of information at the all-star break that has remained lodged in my brain, like a splinter. When the votes were counted up for this year's all-star game, no player in the WNBA showed a bigger discrepancy between how she's viewed by fans, media, and players than Ionescu. The fan and media votes both had Ionescu down as the sixth-best guard in the league, but the players, well, they voted her 19th.

Unable to call up every single player in the WNBA and demand that they explain their deal to me, I've been left to ponder what could possibly explain this gap in appreciation. Possibly Ionescu is a big jerk and everyone in the league hates her. A more likely explanation might be that Ionescu's opponents just don't have much respect for the specific role she's filling on this iteration of the Liberty. If you really felt like being a hater, you could look at a team that starts both Stewart and Jones and conclude that any guard with a decent shooting touch could put up big numbers while pivoting around two former MVPs.

Filling a role isn't the same as thriving in it, though, and if Ionescu proved anything on Sunday it's that she's more than just an outlet waiting to soak up open shots created by the gravitational pull of her teammates. Ionescu was the best player on the court in one of the biggest games of the regular season. As a result, she validated not just her status as the most dangerous shooter in the league, but her team's status as a true rival to the Aces, perhaps the only one. The Liberty have won plenty of games, but they haven't quite reached the heights established by their Vegas counterparts, and they needed to get a lick back after losing by 17 to the Aces in June. This rivalry finally has some juice, and just in time—Las Vegas and New York will play two more times before the month is over. The Aces better hope Ionescu misses some shots.

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