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Sabrina Ionescu, Liberty look to refocus during Olympic break

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu reacts after she scores

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu reacts after she scores against the Dallas Wings in the first half of a WNBA basketball game at Barclays Center on Monday, July 5, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

There have been moments heading into this Olympic break when Sabrina Ionescu has shown flashes of greatness, moments such as last week in Dallas, when she matched her career high with 12 assists in leading the Liberty to an important win.

And there have been other games when one of the most recognizable faces in the women’s game has all but disappeared, games in which Ionescu has struggled to find her rhythm while playing under a minutes restriction designed to limit stress on her surgically repaired left ankle.

"The restriction has been frustrating at times," coach Walt Hopkins said Sunday. "She really got us rolling [early] in Indiana, but we have to think about the third and fourth quarters. I can’t leave her out there and I have to pull her off the court in the middle of her playing really well. And that hurts us in a game.

"She’s really had a lot to deal with this first half of the season with that injury. She’s tried to fight through it, but there’s no question it’s affected her. I would imagine that this break and this rest is going to do wonders for her."

Ionescu and the Liberty certainly looked as if they could use some rest in their final two games heading into the month-long Olympic break. The team had to win one of those two to finish over .500 at the break. Instead, hampered by some travel problems, the Liberty suffered blowout losses to Indiana, the team with the worst record in the league, and Connecticut. Ionescu totaled seven assists in the two games and shot 2-for-13, 0-for-6 from three-point range.

An intense competitor, Ionescu was looking to make her mark this season after missing most of last year, when she suffered a third-degree ankle sprain in her third game as a pro. In her first five games of 2021, she averaged 18.4 points, 8.8 assists and 6.4 rebounds. That stretch included hitting the game-winner at the buzzer on opening night and becoming the youngest player in league history to record a triple-double.

Since then, the realities of coming back from a serious ankle injury have set in. Ionescu missed two games with ankle tendinitis in early June. Since then, her minutes have hovered around 25 a game. Compare that to her first eight games, when she averaged just under 34 minutes a game.

"I don’t want to speak about how frustrating it is for her. That’s for her to say," general manager Jonathan Kolb said in a phone interview Sunday. "For us, it’s keeping in mind that it’s about a long career, not just one season. We want to make sure we are doing everything correct medically for the person Sabrina. From there, bringing her along as a player. That’s what we’ve been doing. We’re listening to doctors and bringing her along the right way.

"I’m sure Sabrina and we all would love for her to be 100% healthy right now. But we trust that with the process we have in place and the procedures we are following, she will get there. It’s just a matter of time. When that time comes, we’ve seen flashes of the talent and the work that goes into that talent to make her the player she’s capable of being."

Ionescu is averaging 9.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists in 27.8 minutes per game. Betnijah Laney leads the team with 19.0 points per game and Sami Whitcomb is at 12.1.

The good news is that the Liberty could be poised to make a push in the final 11 games of the regular season after returning from the break. After nearly a month of no games, Ionescu is expected to be ready to play more minutes. And Natasha Howard, who played only two games (averaging 14.5 points per game) before suffering an MCL sprain, is set to return on Aug. 15.

The Liberty, who went 2-20 last year, expected to take a major step forward when they traded their No. 1 draft pick for Howard and Whitcomb in February. With a 10-11 record, the Liberty are in sixth place in a league in which the top eight teams make the playoffs. They could use a stroke of health as the league is so tightly bunched in the middle that the ninth-place team is only a game behind the Liberty.

Hopkins still has high hopes for the Liberty and clearly was disappointed by the way they fizzled down the stretch heading into the break.

"No question the 10 wins are great. It’s a good start," he said, "but I think we are all very certain we could have had at least three more that would have put us in a nice spot going into the break. They were controllable.

"Part of my job is to let them know how good they can be. That’s where the frustration comes from. It’s not frustration with them as individuals. It’s frustration that I don’t think they understand they are ready right now to take those next steps."

The first next step is Aug. 15, when the Liberty host the Lynx.

New York Sports