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Liberty's Sabrina Ionescu looking to stay healthy in 'rookie season 2.0'

Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the Liberty looks on

Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the Liberty looks on during the second half of a game against the Dallas Wings at Feld Entertainment Center on July 29, 2020 in Palmetto, Florida.  Credit: Getty Images/Julio Aguilar

No, it was not the rookie season Sabrina Ionescu imagined.

The record-shattering point guard from the University of Oregon had high hopes for her first year in the WNBA after the Liberty took her with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft. Those hopes were dashed just 12 minutes into her third professional game when she suffered a high ankle sprain that ended her season and led to surgery and a grueling rehabilitation.

Now, she is ready to launch what some observers are calling rookie season 2.0 as Ionescu said she is approaching the year like it is her first, even though the WNBA counts it as her second.

In the WNBA and the NBA, unlike MLB, a person is considered to have played their rookie year the minute they step on the floor and there is no minimum number of games that must be played.

"I think it should be similar to the NCAA where there are a certain number of games you can play to be considered a rookie or not a rookie," Ionescu said. "I obviously played in about two games so if you personally ask me, I’m counting this as my first year . . . I’m sure they have that rule for a reason. I’m not sure what that is. I’m not too worried about it."

Ionescu’s last full game with the Liberty was a promising one as she scored 33 points, grabbed seven rebounds and made seven assists in a loss to Dallas. The league is hoping she will again bring that kind of excitement to the court as they are tipping off the season with a game between the Liberty and Indiana Fever at the Barclays Center at 7 p.m. Friday.

The Liberty had a difficult season without Ionescu last year, finishing with a league-worst 2-20 record. In the offseason, the Liberty loaded up on talent, adding All-Star Natasha Howard and two-time WNBA campion Sami Whitcomb in separate trades with the Seattle Torm plus adding 2020 Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney in free agency.

Head coach Walt Hopkins has been mindful in practice of the fact that Ionescu hasn’t played a full game in more than nine months, but said she is "nearing 100 percent." Assistant coach Shelley Patterson said there is a marked difference in the team when Ionescu is on the floor.

"Just her being out there and the way she’s so vocal and getting everyone organized and talking through every play whether it’s offensively or defensively really helps a lot," Patterson said. "You can see it the way people play off her, the confidence they have in her.

"Also, the fact we have her on the floor as an extra shooter makes a huge difference. It’s just the confidence she brings to the team and everyone is starting to gravitate in her direction."

It’s been a little more than six months since Ionescu underwent surgery to remove calcified scar tissue in her ankle, and she is excited to launch what she feels like is her first season. She may not get the opportunity to compete for Rookie of the Year, even though this will be her first time playing against 75 percent of the teams. Still, she has other goals in mind.

"I just want to get healthy and stay healthy," Ionescu said. "That is the main thing, taking care of my body and figuring out what I need to do. On the court it’s just doing what I have been doing my entire career just having fun doing what I love and helping those around me and finding ways to win."

Liberty at a glance

Coach: Walt Hopkins (second season)

2020 record: 2-20

Key offseason moves: The Liberty acquired forward Natasha Howard, a former All-WNBA player and league defensive player of the year, from the Seattle Storm for the No. 1 overall pick in April’s draft. In a separate deal with the Storm, sharpshooting guard Sami Whitcomb was acquired in exchange for the rights to forward Stephanie Talbot. The Liberty traded guard Kia Nurse and forward Megan Walker to the Phoenix Mercury for the No. 6 overall pick in the draft, which was used to select UCLA forward Michaela Onyenwere. The Liberty signed guard/forward Betnijah Laney, the league’s most improved player last season after averaging 17.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4 assists per game for the Atlanta Dream, in free agency.

Other moves and notes: Forward/center Amanda Zahui B., who averaged 9 points and 8.5 rebounds last season, signed with the Los Angeles Sparks in free agency. … Forward/guard Jocelyn Willoughby, who averaged 5.7 points and 2.4 rebounds as a rookie, tore her left Achilles tendon during a preseason game and will miss the season. … Guard Asia Durr, the No. 2 overall pick by the Liberty in the 2019 draft who averaged 9.7 points per game as a rookie, missed last season as she recovered from testing positive for COVID-19. Her status for this season remains in doubt. … Jacki Germelos, who played with Connecticut and Washington last season, retired and joined the Liberty as an assistant coach.

Outlook: Guard Sabrina Ionescu, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft, missed all but three games last season with an ankle injury. Ionescu showed a brief glimpse on why she’s already a star for the Liberty, averaging 18.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4 assists in the three games. With a healthy Ionescu and the additions of Howard, Laney, Whitcomb and Onyenwere, the Liberty will be much improved and could contend for a playoff spot.

Mike Rose

New York Sports