Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu reacts after scoring a three-point basket...

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu reacts after scoring a three-point basket against the Mystics in the first half of a WNBA game at Barclays Center on May 31. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

It took five years, but Sabrina Ionescu is at the top of her game.

Ionescu is a superstar guard on the best team in the WNBA. She’s having a career year statistically, her Liberty team is off to the best start in franchise history at 15-3 and she is getting ready to play in her first Olympics this summer.

“Sabrina’s an elite guard. If you didn’t know that before, you know that now,” said Liberty coach Sandy Brondello, whose team will host Minnesota on Tuesday night in the Commissioner’s Cup championship game at UBS Arena.

Yet the path here hasn’t been an easy one, which is something that Ionescu can’t help thinking about when she sees the immense pressure being placed on some players in the current WNBA rookie class.

Before there was Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese, there was Ionescu, who was the first player to establish her brand before playing a minute of professional basketball.

A two-time Wooden Award winner at Oregon and friend of Kobe Bryant while still in college, Ionescu signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Nike for her own signature shoe on the same day the Liberty made her the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft. One news outlet dubbed her “Lady Liberty” and predicted that she was going to “torch the competition.”

When it didn’t exactly happen that way — Ionescu missed most of her rookie season with an ankle injury and struggled the next year — the spotlight was so intense that she began to doubt herself.

“There’s times when you feel the world is crumbling down on you,” Ionescu told Newsday. “That’s just part of being young and a rookie and figuring it out. It’s tough, obviously, and there’s only so much you can block out. There were times when I did doubt myself. I tried to rush back and came back too soon. I just wasn’t ready.

“I think that just kind of taught me the maturity of what it takes to be a pro and running my own race and not letting anyone else dictate whatever it is they thought I should be or do.”

WNBA players aren’t the only athletes who find it rough to make the initial adjustment from the college game to the pros. The transition of college players such as Clark, Reese and Ionescu is made doubly tough because of the intense pressure placed on them to not only play well for themselves and their teams but for their gender and their sport, which is just beginning to get the attention it deserves.

Sometimes it seems as if every missed shot, every postgame comment and every foul are scrutinized to the point that they are seen as a referendum on the character and skill of the player and the value of the sport. It’s easy to understand how that could get into the head of a 22-year-old regardless of the player’s level of talent.

Ionescu said she learned a lot going through what she did early in her career. She thinks today’s talented rookies will learn a lot, too.

“Every year my entire career, I’ve wanted to come out and try to get better,” she said. “I try to take every year, learn something and improve.

“I think that’s something every athlete learns to do if they want to be one of the greatest.”

One of the biggest things she learned is not to back away from trying something because of fear of failure. An example of this, she said, was her decision to enter the Three-Point Challenge against Steph Curry at this year’s NBA All-Star Game.

“There were so many reasons I could have said I don’t want to do it, because the pressure was high, obviously,” Ionescu said. “I mean, you could be letting a whole world of young girls down if you go out there and don’t do well. I think just understanding that there are a lot of reasons why you can be afraid to feel, but just go out there and put your best foot forward.”

Curry edged Ionescu, 29-26, in the competition, which ended up being the most watchable moment of the entire All-Star Weekend. This season, with her team determined to get back to the WNBA Finals, she has continued to make good things happen.

Ionescu has thrived in her ballhandling role in the two weeks in which Courtney Vandersloot has been out because of her mother’s illness and subsequent passing. In the past nine games without Vandersloot, the team has gone 8-1 and Ionescu has averaged 20.8 points, 7.7 assists and 1.3 steals.

She leads the league in assists during that stretch and in her last three games has averaged an incredible 27.0 points and 9.7 assists.

“This is absolutely the best I’ve felt since I came into the league,” Ionescu said.

“It’s physically, mentally and just kind of having the confidence in my game and being able to see a lot of the hard work I’ve put in show up on the floor.”

And she is sure that today’s talented rookie class someday will be able to say the same.


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