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Sabrina Ionescu excited to start season for Liberty . . . even in a COVID-19-induced bubble

Sabrina Ionescu of the Liberty smiles during practice

Sabrina Ionescu of the Liberty smiles during practice on July 21, 2020 at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Credit: NBAE via Getty Images/Ned Dishman

There are moments, few and far between, when Sabrina Ionescu can forget just how weird the world has become.

She can forget that her friends and family will not be watching courtside Saturday when she makes her highly anticipated WNBA debut. She can forget that she is living and playing in a bubble in Bradenton, Florida, more than 1,000 miles from Brooklyn and Barclays Center, which was supposed to be her new home. She can forget almost everything but what it feels like to be with her teammates, have the ball in her hand and be doing what she has always dreamed of doing.

“After two or three months of being on Zoom, just the fact that we cannot wear masks and practice and talk to each other is just great,” the Liberty rookie told Newsday earlier this week. “Just to have some sort of interaction makes you feel more alive.”

Yes, even inside the bubble there are moments of pure joy. The biggest of those so far will be Saturday, when the WNBA tips off its COVID-19-shortened season with a game between the Liberty and Seattle Storm.

Ionescu, the college player of the year at Oregon and No. 1 overall draft pick, transcended the sports world when she spoke at Kobe and Gigi Bryant’s memorial service in February. If there was ever any doubt that the league expects her to be a star for years to come, it was dashed when they decided to feature the Liberty in the league-opening game.

Talk about being thrown into the line of fire. With seven rookies, the Liberty have been picked to finish last or near last in every preseason poll. Seattle, by contrast, is favored to win it all by many.

Ionescu, the point guard of the future will be facing one of the most decorated point guards of the present as 39-year-old Sue Bird of Syosset is returning after missing all of last season with a knee injury. Also back is Breanna Stewart, who was the league’s MVP in 2018 but missed all of last season after rupturing her Achilles.

“I’m just exited to be able to compete again” Ionescu said when asked about the challenge of opening against Seattle. “It feels like it’s been such a long time.”

Ionescu hasn’t played a basketball game since March 8, when she led Oregon to an 89-56 win over Stanford in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game. Four days later, the NCAA Tournament was canceled because of the virus.

The Liberty made her their No. 1 pick in a virtual draft on April 17. Until the team reported to the WNBA bubble at IMG Academy on July 7, all of her contact with her teammates and coaches had been phone, texts and Zoom meetings.

So life in the bubble, limiting as it may be, has felt liberating by comparison.

When she isn’t practicing or working out, she can hang by the hotel pool or have dinner with former Oregon teammate Ruthy Hebard, who was Chicago’s No. 1 pick. The food has been surprisingly decent – Chipotle is her favorite – and she has entertained herself by getting into Tiktok.

Ionescu and veteran point guard Layshia Clarendon bicycle from their hotel to practice every day. The Liberty signed Clarendon early in their free agency period to be both Ionescu’s backup and mentor. Clarendon has no doubts that Ionescu can deal with the pressure that is being thrown at her.

“She just makes people better around her,” Clarendon said in a recent Zoom news conference, “and that’s really nice to have as a point guard playmaker. Myself, it’s great to have another point guard playmaker knowing I could be off the ball sometimes and she could bring it out, but we have multiple people who can play and lead in different positions.”

It helps that Liberty coach Walt Hopkins runs an offense that is similar to the one the Ducks ran in Oregon. Hopkins said that you wouldn’t know what kind of pressure is on Ionescu by the way she carries herself.

“She goes about her business in a way that is pretty special for someone who is so highly touted,” he said. “She doesn’t think about herself that way. She walks the walk . . . There’s enough pressure on her coming from the media and fans and social media that I don’t want her to feel like we have extremely high expectations.

“It’s just, ‘Go out and do what you have done your whole life.’ ”

Even if you have to do it in a near empty arena.

Liberty at a glance

2019 record: 10-24 (11th overall, 5th in the East)

Who’s new this season: Minnesota Lynx assistant coach Walt Hopkins was hired in January as the Liberty’s head coach, replacing Katie Smith. … The Liberty have seven rookies on the roster. Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu (No. 1 overall pick), Connecticut forward/guard Megan Walker (No. 9 pick) and Louisville guard Jazmine Jones (No. 12 pick) were selected in the first round, and Louisville forward Kylee Shook (No. 13 pick) and Duke forward Leaonna Odom (No. 15 pick) were selected in the second round of April’s WNBA Draft. The Liberty acquired Virginia guard/forward Jocelyn Willoughby (No. 10 pick) in a draft night deal with the Phoenix Mercury. Texas forward Joyner Holmes was taken with the No. 19 overall pick by the Seattle Storm in the draft, but was waived and signed by the Liberty last month. … Veteran point guard Layshia Clarendon was signed during free agency in February. Clarendon has played for the Indiana Fever, Atlanta Dream and Connecticut Sun over her seven-year career, averaging 6.9 points and 2.8 assists in 198 career games, including 88 starts.

Who’s not playing: Guard Asia Durr, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft, announced earlier this month that she would not play this season after testing positive for the coronavirus in June. Sharpshooting Australian guard Rebecca Allen announced last month that she was opting out due to health concerns related to the uncertainty of the coronavirus. French guard Marine Johannes, Chinese center Han Xu and Australian forward Stephanie Talbot, acquired in a draft night deal with the Lynx, announced they would remain overseas and return for the 2021 season.

Offseason departures: Franchise star Tina Charles was traded to the Washington Mystics in a blockbuster three-team deal in April. … North Babylon’s Bria Hartley signed with the Mercury in free agency. … Reshanda Gray was waived and later signed with the Los Angeles Sparks. … Tanisha Wright retired and is now an assistant coach with the Las Vegas Aces. … Brittany Boyd and Tayler Hill, who was acquired from the Dallas Wings in the Charles deal, were waived.

Mike Rose

New York Sports