Sabrina Ionescu's debut prompts as much assurance as adjustment

The number one overall pick established herself in "bright spots"

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Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the New York Liberty handles the ball against the Seattle Storm on July 25, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images.

It shouldn’t shock anyone that Sabrina Ionescu was the last Liberty player to meet Amanda Zahui B. for a hi-five while New York was moving from pre-game warmups to the bench. She’s going to get her last shot up, right? It’s Ionescu, that’s a given.

It also shouldn’t shock anyone that Sabrina’s first points as a professional basketball player came on her own putback adjacent to 2019’s DPOY Natasha Howard.

What did come as a surprise, however, was how she accepted her first stat line from her WNBA debut. After losing 87-71 to the Storm, teammate Zahui B. could tell that Ionescu was a bit down on herself for missing all eight three-ball attempts and turning the ball over four times. But, the point guard countered Zahui’s assessment, telling reporters after the loss that she’ll “live with the 12 [points], 6 [boards] and 4 [assists]” in her first professional game.

“I'm not going to get too down on myself because we play in a couple of days and I have to learn from those mistakes that I made to continue to grow.”

Head coach Walt Hopkins isn’t concerned by Ionescu’s more modest performance, as he was impressed with how she dealt with the pressure surrounding her first game. He also took responsibility for not preparing the young squad enough off the ball, especially when Ionescu would find herself in a trap against a defense so aggressive on pick-and-roll. “On my end, I didn't do a good enough job preparing the team off the ball,” he said in a postgame presser. “For those traps to move into an angle where [Sabrina] can make those passes.”

Against the Storm, Ionescu took on a load she wasn’t comfortable with at first. As primarily a facilitator in college, she wasn’t used to being in a position to take 8 three balls, a skillset that All-Star Kia Nurse is expected to execute for New York.

But, after swatting the ball away from 6’6 Mercedes Russell, Nurse went down with an ankle sprain with over 8 minutes left in the second quarter. A truly scary moment revealed something else about this very new, young and scrappy Brooklyn group: they care about each other deeply and don’t take stepping up for one another with a grain of salt.

When Nurse went down, Ionescu tried to overcompensate, taking 17 shots and making four. While some of her shot selection looked forced, Ionescu is getting her legs underneath her and understands that being willing to score is going to oil her team, and make it go.

“I have to definitely be more of a scorer especially with some of our players that are out and injured and not able to play in our game, and so I think just continuing to put myself in uncomfortable positions in order to grow, and that's what I'm doing,” she said.

Something that Hopkins will consider and return to this season is consistency, and for younger players, that’s “the hardest” part of their acclimation process to the WNBA. While he believed his players showed up on both ends of the floor, according to the Liberty head coach, the roster would tell that story differently. “I think that they would tell you their body language in their effort wasn't as consistent as it needs to be,” he said. And it wasn't as consistent as it has been [in training camp].”

Layshia Clarendon ‘went hella hard’

Layshia Clarendon #7 of the New York Liberty shoots the ball against the Seattle Storm on July 25, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images.

Consistency, however, was the name of the game for the most veteran player on the floor for New York. This offseason, Layshia Clarendon has been one of the most forceful voices for the league. But on Saturday against Seattle, her strength and relentlessness first and foremost had an established place on the court rather than just off.

“She went hella hard,” Amanda Zahui B. said in a postgame presser.

When their name was announced as a starter on Saturday, Clarendon met Liberty hype-woman Jazmine Jones, who was resting a sprained ankle, with such a force. The seven-year veteran chest bumped Jones so hard that the rookie was jolted backward, a moment that clearly foreshadowed the rest of the afternoon for Claredon.

They finished the game as the leading scorer on the court, netting 20 points on a floor including Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird. While it was a quiet 20 points, what wasn’t so understated was how often Clarendon got to the line, fighting to throw herself to the rim. Their acrobatics weren’t as smooth or jaw-dropping as what Liberty fans saw from Marine Johannés in 2019, but Clarendon was efficient (shooting 5-9 from the field) and consistent (draining 10 of 12 free throws), which will be a model that the rest of the youngins ought to follow.

But what’s more impressive about Clarendon’s performance was what it represented, and how their aggressiveness on defense, nimbleness in the lane and relentlessness until she had no more gas left in the tank is exactly parallel with how they feel about playing and fighting for and honoring Breonna Taylor.

“So there's really mixed emotions there: of like this is amazing,” Clarendon said about how they internalized playing this season for Breonna Taylor. “We can do it with this platform but this is the heartbreak, that we have to do this.”

The combination of Clarendon and Ionescu on the floor at once presents itself with both benefits and barriers. Firstly, that’s a brainy backcourt, but also, Clarendon and Ionescu aren’t as speedy, which seems counterintuitive to the main principles of the “New Era” system, which is reliant on a heightened pace up and down the floor. Something to consider is: how will this look in 2021 with Asia Durr on the floor? Durr, who runs in transition a mile a minute might help ameliorate this issue moving forward.

But for now, in the most 2020 way possible, how should New York adjust? According to Hopkins, he believes that he has to get the two point guards into off-ball split actions. What this might do is it will give Clarendon and Ionescu more of an opportunity to be pass-first, getting the ball from the block to some of the quicker folks on a backdoor cut.

Clarendon realized that an improvement moving forward will need to be how the team varies its defensive actions on ball screens. “Now, our game plan was definitely to go under screens but there were times that we were supposed to go over and mix it up, so we all kind of fell in the rut of only going under,” they said on the Liberty’s defensive approach to the Storm. “And so that's on the guards to switch opportunities of when to go over when to go on there, but we do want to go under and make people take those shots.”

Without confidence, you’ve got nothing

Leaonna Odom #0 of the New York Liberty drives to the basket against the Seattle Storm on July 25, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images.

And while the Liberty lost as predicted to the Storm by a 16 point margin, the youngest team in the league found a way keep within reach of the 2018 WNBA champions until midway through the fourth quarter.

“But I think we did some things really well I mean, we gave them a game, especially from the first three quarters and I think that's something that a lot of people weren't used to seeing: us predicted to finish last and them first,” Ionescu said. “And so I think that's hats off to us. We came out strong. We didn't fold at the beginning because they were who they are .”

In addition to some moments of brilliance from Ionescu, who else from this seven-piece rookie class found a way to impress? Jocelyn Willoughby (not to my surprise) and Leaonna “Neah” Odom raised eyebrows. With nine points apiece from the pair, including four rebounds, two-three balls and a couple of trips to the line for Willoughby and 4-6 shooting, 3 boards (2 of which were on the offensive glass) from Odom, Hopkins was encouraged and loved that the pair “tried to do what they do,” which indicates confidence.

“I think it's easy to come in and just kind of try to hide and not assert yourself,” he told The Next. “I thought Jocelyn right away, she used her body. She tried to attack through an offensive foul. I loved that she got downhill and got in the paint. That's what she does. Neah was all over the place, she's on offensive rebounds, cutting. She did a good job defensively.”

Amanda Zahui B. was proud of the first years, as she told the media that Willoughby “can play physical,” taking folks off the dribble and proving that she can play “against some great ass players.” Now on Odom, with a smug smile, Zahui said: “We got Odom. She surprised people. She got bunnies for days.”

Confidence wasn’t only on display from the rookies, but from the young vets as well. With 3:52 left in the third quarter, Sabrina took the ball up and passed it across to Kiah Stokes on the left-wing. Former Liberty guard Epiphanny Prince was late to contest her former teammate’s shot. And just like that, Stokes scored her first three-ball ever on a catch and shoot.

Fellow young vet Zahui B. was more than pleased. “That's what you do, baby,” she said of Stokes. “That's what you do.”

The pair combined for four blocks and 17 rebounds, with Zahui netting 10 points and Stokes scoring five, including her three-ball. In addition to Stokes’ new-found confidence beyond the arc, it’s also notable that Zahui B. held her own on defense up against defensive stalwart Howard.

And for the Swedish Center who has struggled in the past to stay out of foul trouble, she finished the game with only a single personal.

“I’m honestly a little proud of myself for staying with her,” she said. “I didn’t get her running off away from me, which is that’s what she do. Tash is a runner and a guard and a post body, and I think I did all right.”

That optimism can be applied to Ionescu’s performance. During media availability on July 17, Hopkins discussed the groups’ progress, acknowledging how overwhelming the entire process has been.

“We are asking a lot from the team, for them to be able to read and react,” he said. “You’re not just putting them on train tracks and telling them where to go and what to do all the time. They are really taking to it. “I think we have a long way to go, but the bright spots are very bright.”

The bright sports were very bright on Saturday.

Sabrina battled it out and held her own with not only Howard but with Alysha Clark on both sides of the ball— who Hopkins believes are two of the most “underrated” and most dangerous players in the league— calling them “multifaceted and great defensively.”

With a little under eight minutes left in the third, Ionescu dribbled away from Clarke, hesitated, and then drove past Howard’s left shoulder to hoist the ball up for the right side layup. Apparently, Sabrina is quick *enough* for The Flash.

But the Liberty and Ionescu have their work cut out for them. The team shot a bit over 21 percent from three, which isn’t great.

But Hopkins still values the small victories, which is a facet of his growth mindset. Against Seattle, New York executed backdoor cuts, post and guard role reversals and 8 of 9 players attempted a three-ball. “One of the things that we just celebrated after the game was: It's uncomfortable to not hit shots and to continue to shoot them anyway.”