Liberty Guard’s Sabrina Ionescu’s historic WNBA season, by the numbers

After a serious ankle injury in her rookie season and a somewhat tentative sophomore year, Sabrina Ionescu reached the heights everyone expected her to in her third year and her Liberty returned to the WNBA playoffs.

The No. 7 Liberty will take on the No. 2 Chicago Sky — the defending champions — in Game 1 of the best-of series in the first round on Wednesday.

When Liberty compiled the first issue of Ionescu in 2020, hopes were high. The team was terrible for two seasons, but Ionescu was a transcendent star at Oregon, where he had an NCAA-record 26 triple-doubles. He looked like the kind of player who could almost single-handedly turn a team around.

In just her second WNBA game, she scored 33 points, including 6 3-pointers, 7 rebounds and 7 assists, and fans were excited for the future.

That future quickly soured when, in his third game, he went down with a severe ankle injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the season.

Without him and their veteran star Tina Charles, who was kicked out, the team was terrible and finished 2-20.

The team bounced back in 2021 and made the playoffs, but it was a group effort led by Betnija Leni, Natasha Howard (returning from injury), Sami Whitcomb and Michael Onyenwere, who was named Rookie of the Year. They are there. Although Ionescu played a full season, his goalscoring performance fell slightly short of what was expected.

Not that he didn’t help the team, but he was in more of a supporting role: Even though he was among the league’s assists leaders, he averaged 11.7 points per game and dealt with a sore ankle. He was often the third or fourth scoring option.

But in his third season, Ionescu stepped up and was named to his first All-Star team. He improved in nearly every category, playing more minutes, shooting at a higher percentage and increasing his rebound, assist and steal numbers while decreasing turnovers.

Notably, he’s played a more prominent role offensively, leading the team in shooting nearly 14 times per game, leading just 10 times per game last season, scoring a team-high 17.4 points per game. Playing in all 36 games helped him finish in the top 10 in the league in total points, assists and rebounds, the only player to do so. And his rebounding numbers are especially impressive because he’s the Liberty’s primary ball handler.

Ionescu also made history in his third season, becoming the first player to record a triple-double in three quarters and, separately, the first player to score at least 30 points as part of a triple-double. Those two triple-doubles tied her with Chicago’s Candace Parker for the most triple-doubles with three.

Ionescu’s step forward, as well as having Howard around for the entire season, helped get Liberty back to the playoffs and helped Lenny lose most of the season to a knee injury.

Last season, the Liberty lost a one-game playoff game, 83-82, to the Phoenix Mercury. Ionescu had 14 points and 11 assists, but he missed a 30-foot desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have won the game.

The team has a chance to remedy that in the opening round of this year’s playoffs, which will be best-of-three instead of single-elimination. But even if Lenny returns, the odds are high. Eight of the WNBA’s 12 teams are making the playoffs, leaving room for teams that finished below .500, including the Liberty (16-20).

A matchup against the mighty Sky (26-10) with all-stars such as Parker, Kaleah Cooper, Courtney Vandersloot and Emma Meisman, and the first two games in Chicago will be tough for the Liberty.

The Liberty are one of the WNBA’s eight founding franchises, and the only one still in its original city, that has never won a WNBA title. His final decade was particularly unremarkable, with just one appearance in the semifinals or conference finals.

Like any team, the Liberty will need to acquire talent, make smart breaks in order to raise the quality of the Championship. But more than anything else, they’ll have to rely on Ionescu to continue playing at the stellar level he’s done this year. Or preferably, considering he’s still only 24, to get even better.

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