WNBA Draft Preview Part 1: The New York Liberty Need Sabrina Ionescu

While the sports world is on hold due to the COVID-19 crisis, at least one thing is going on as planned, as the WNBA has announced that their draft will take place as scheduled on April 17th, though it will be held virtually.

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The New York Liberty hold the first overall pick, and at this point it seems like a foregone conclusion that they’ll use that pick on Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu.

And New York needs a star like Ioenscu, who’s arguably the most famous college basketball player in America right now, regardless of gender. Ionescu’s record-breaking career with the Ducks propelled her into the national spotlight, and her talent can help give the Liberty a real foundation star to build around.

Last year, I wrote before the draft about why the Liberty needed to draft Asia Durr. This year, let’s kick off our draft preview series by looking at why the Liberty need to draft Sabrina Ionescu.

What does New York need in this draft?

Before we can talk about Sabrina Ionescu, let’s talk about what the Liberty need out of this draft.

New York’s a team that’s at a crossroads right now. They have one veteran star, some young backcourt pieces, and then a bunch of other parts that may or may not fit into their long term future.

The biggest question when it comes to players on the current roster is Tina Charles. High Post Hoops reported earlier this year that the Phoenix Mercury were looking to trade for the 2012 WNBA MVP, and while Phoenix’s subsequent moves have taken them out of contention for a Charles trade, many still wonder if the Liberty are looking to move Charles.

I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that Charles doesn’t really fit New York’s current timeline, so a move would make sense. For now, though, let’s pencil Charles in at power forward.

A pair of recent first round picks — Asia Durr and Kia Nurse — give the Liberty a bright future at the two and the three, plus having young French guard Marine Johannès off the bench means that the team doesn’t really need to be focused on finding a two-guard at this point. Amanda Zahui B.offers a stretch five who defends well and showed a ton of growth last season, which should justify her place in the Liberty starting five going forward.

That leaves the biggest question mark being point guard. Last year, the team had Tanisha Wright start at point down the stretch, but she’s retied now. Bria Hartley ran the offense at times, but she plays for the Phoenix Mercury now. Brittany Boyd is on the roster, but she fell out of the rotation at one point in 2019, so it’s hard to really trust her to be the starter.

All that leaves New York really, really in need of someone who can run an offense. Someone like…Sabrina Ionescu?

What does Sabrina Ionescu bring to the Liberty?

At this point, Sabrina Ionescu barely needs an introduction. If you’ve paid any attention to college basketball over the last couple of years, you know Ionescu’s name.

The 5’11’ point guard is the only NCAA Division I player with career totals of at least 2000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 1,000 assists. She’s a three-time Pac-12 Player of the Year, the 2020 AP Player of the Year, and all-time leader in triple-doubles.

Ionescu brings New York something they’ve been missing: a point guard who can shoot the ball. Brittany Boyd is a solid passer and defender, but she isn’t a shooting threat, which has hindered the Liberty’s ability to build the kinds of efficient lineups that they can with Ionescu.

Ionescu just missed out on a 50/40/90 season for Oregon, shooting 39.2% from three. Only one WNBA has finished with a 50/40/90 (in a qualifying season) — Washington’s Elena Delle Donne last year.

Among D-I players, Ionescu ranked in the 90th percentile or better in points per possession on five play types, including her two most used ones, scoring in the 97th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler and the 95th on spot ups. New York was third in PPP on possessions that ended via pick-and-roll ball handler last year, so New York gets to load up on one of their strengths; they were 10th in PPP on spot up looks, though, and Ionescu’s prowess as a catch-and-shoot threat when the ball isn’t in her hands will add more dimensions to this team. Nurse, Durr, and Johannès are all capable ball-handlers, and Ionescu’s gravity when the ball isn’t in her hands can open up driving lanes for them, while Ionescu’s shooting also means that if defenders aren’t playing her tight enough, she can knock down a shot off a pass from one of them. Ionescu gives New York options.

And in terms of passing, Ionescu is just…look, just watch this mixtape of her passes:

The Liberty were already a solid passing team — they were fifth in the league in assists per game last year — but Ionescu’s presence can help push them to another level. Her court vision is otherworldly at times, as she’s able to find, create, and exploit passing lanes seemingly at will.

One thing I’m really, really looking forward to — again, assuming Ionescu is the first round pick — is the Amanda Zahui B.Sabrina Ionescu pick-and-roll. Zahui B ranked in the 84th percentile as a pick-and-roll roller last season. She can finish on a roll to the rim, but she also has the talent to be used on pick-and-pops as well.

It’s the small things like that, but it’s also the big things, like the fact that numbers aside, Ionescu passes the “is this player a star” eye test. Ionescu has the attitude you need from a number-one overall pick and possible franchise cornerstone, and as ephemeral as that idea is, it matters.

Of course, it’s possible Ionescu takes time to adjust to the WNBA. I’ve seen a lot of comparisons to Kelsey Plum, a gifted scorer at Washington who took awhile to get going in the pros because she wasn’t as quick as other players who were guarding her. But Ionescu’s passing skills and ball-handling should mean that even if she takes time to figure out how to score at the next level, she’ll still be able to affect the game early on.

So, in conclusion: Hey, New York Liberty: do the thing here. Draft Sabrina Ionescu.

(Stay tuned for previews of the second and third round, coming up soon.)