Column: Sabrina Ionescu’s setback only sets her – and the Liberty – up for a bigger comeback

Photo Credit: Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

Even with this most unusual of WNBA seasons taking place in the most unusual of circumstances, no one could have predicted that its latest of young stars will possibly not play for the remainder of the season.

That young star is, of course, Sabrina Ionescu of the New York Liberty. In only her third game in the W when the Lib squared off with the Atlanta Dream, she awfully rolled her ankle and had to be carried away from the court by trainers.

It appears that Ionescu had suffered a grade 3 ankle sprain – one that typically takes months to recover from.

It was one of the worst kept secrets – no, scratch that – the worst kept secret within WNBA circles after the Liberty won the first overall pick in last year’s draft lottery that Oregon great would be headed three time zones east to Gotham.

When the Liberty made her selection official the night of the draft, it was the much-needed shot in the arm New York needed after two seasons of dreadfully losing basketball and two seasons playing at an arena – the Westchester County Center – that effectively became a four-letter swear word among, not only Lib Loyals, but in the WNBA ecosystem.

The Liberty’s announcement of the move to Barclays Center was another much-needed shot in the arm. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and all teams effectively “relocated” to Florida.

Even with that, the buzz around Ionescu’s debut was palpable – particularly since her first game was against the team that is nearest to her alma mater – the Seattle Storm. Seattle made things difficult for Ionescu in her debut – and she managed 12 points, six rebounds and four assists in a losing Liberty effort.

In fact, the buzz around Ionescu’s entry into the WNBA was palpable given the Sabrina Effect gave New York 16 appearances on national television this season.

She then tallied 33 points against the Dallas Wings which set off a torrent of Kobe Bryant memes and vibes. She had 10 points against the Dream prior to the injury.

The best thing the Liberty can do for Ionescu’s future is to shut her down for the remainder of the season. Let’s be honest – New York is already 0-4 and more than likely will not be contending for a playoff berth this season. Either with No. 20 or without No. 20, 2020 is the next step in the seafoam and black’s rebuild considering half of coach Walt Hopkins’ roster is comprised of plenty of rookies.

Short-term, the injury is devastating to both the Liberty and the WNBA. But as Jackie Powell pointed out in her latest piece at The Next, it is another growing pain for New York that could set her and the franchise up for an even bigger comeback in 2021.

Let’s speak positivity on this one that the pandemic will have significantly abated by next year to the point where we are ready to return to arenas in 2021. The Liberty will stage its home games at Barclays Center next season and will have its full crop of players ready for that inaugural campaign at Atlantic and Flatbush – including those such as Marine Johannes, Han Xu, Rebecca Allen and Asia Durr that could not arrive to the wubble for various reasons – including Mr. Covid.

(Yeah, Mr. Covid. We still hate you. Go somewhere far away and take up a new pastime – one that doesn’t involve getting people, sometimes fatally, ill).

That also means that all of the preseason hype around that first game at Barclays will be about Ionescu’s return to the WNBA. Given how she had performed in her first three contests prior to her ankle injury, she was setting herself up to be firmly in the Rookie of the Year conversation with Ty Harris and (her Oregon teammate) Satou Sabally of the Dallas Wings, Chennedy Carter of the Dream and Crystal Dangerfield of the Minnesota Lynx.

Nor Ionescu nor the Liberty will admit this, but it has to sting that the injury will take her out of the Rookie of the Year conversation when she was an overwhelming post-draft favorite. Even after her ankle is fully healed, Ionescu will have a chip on her shoulder going into 2021 – and if it is one thing we know about great and intense athletes, they typically up their play when those chips are present.

Not to mention – when we are back at arenas and the Liberty have its first game at Barclays Center? With all the buzz around her (she has already entered the first-name basis “Kobe” and “LeBron” category where you know who you are talking about when chatting ball) plus the team’s extensive fanbase across New York City, it is not out of the question that New York’s first game there could be a sellout.

After all – a losing Liberty team with no Sabrina last year drew nearly 8,000 fans to Barclays in its only regular season contest at Brooklyn (an 84-69 defeat to the Storm). Imagine every seat in Barclays full and the subways heading to Atlantic and Flatbush full of fans in No. 20 Sabrina Ionescu jerseys.

Oh … and those national television appearances New York got this season via The Sabrina Effect? That will likely happen again next season with a fully healed No. 20.

For now, the injury does give Hopkins the chance to see what he has out of his other rookies.

Even though New York is currently one of two teams that is 0 for the wubble (its compadres up I-95, the Connecticut Sun, are the other) some of those rookies have shown promise – including Leaonna Odom and the Louisville connection of Kylee Shook and Jazmine Jones, who tallied 20 points in the Liberty’s narrow 84-78 loss to Atlanta (one where the Dream opened the game with a 12-0 scoring binge). Another rook, Jocelyn Willoughby, also scored 14 in that game.

Since the Liberty will find themselves with lots of ping-pong balls come lottery time, the primary aim for Hopkins and his coaching staff will be to see what he has from those other rookies and how they will fit into a system that will run through its nucleus that will include Kia Nurse, Amanda Zahui B and Ionescu.

And when the third piece of that big three returns … look out, rest of the WNBA.

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