No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu struggles in WNBA debut for Liberty


WNBA No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu didn’t have her best shooting game, but in general she said she felt OK about her pro debut Saturday.

Ionescu had 12 points, six rebounds and four assists as her New York Liberty fell 87-71 to league favorite Seattle in Bradenton, Florida.

Like the rest of the Liberty, Ionescu struggled from the field. She was 4-of-17 overall and missed all eight of her 3-point shots, the most missed 3s without a make in any debut in WNBA or NBA history. The previous mark of futility belonged to O.J. Mayo, who went 0-for-7 in his 2008 debut with the Memphis Grizzlies.

New York as a team was 23-of-66 (34.8%) from the field and 6-of-28 (21.4%) from long range on Saturday.

Ionescu, the former Oregon star who had an NCAA-record 26 triple-doubles and was the consensus national player of the year this past season, scored her first basket on a putback with 5:14 left in the first quarter. In her senior season with the Ducks, she averaged 17.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists per game.

“I think there’s a lot of expectation on me coming in and just producing the numbers I did in college,” Ionescu said. “But I definitely think there’s going to be a lot of down and a lot of adversity I have to face in order to get there.

“I was just happy to be able to see arguably the best team in the league in our first game and just learn from the defensive schemes that they threw at me and us as a team, and continue to build from that. I’ll live with 12, six and four and my first game against the best team. I’m not used to taking eight 3s a game. I’m used to being able to come down and be able to facilitate. Now I have to be more of a scorer.”

The teams tipped off the first game of the 2020 WNBA season by leaving the court before the national anthem in honor of Breonna Taylor, the EMT who was killed in a police raid on her home on March 13. She is a focus of the WNBA’s social justice platform, and the players are wearing her name on the back of their jerseys.

“I’m really proud of this league and this team and what they’re doing to amplify our voices,” Ionescu said. “I’m excited to see, hopefully, change being made.”

The Liberty, who have seven rookies led by Ionescu, were able to hang with the more experienced Storm for the first half, trailing 42-35. But Seattle, the 2018 WNBA champion, pulled away in the second half. However, Ionescu’s comfort level seemed to increase during the game.

“I know on every single ball screen, a lot of attention is on me and trying to get the ball out of my hands,” she said. “I’m still learning, I’m a rookie. I think [it’s about] just continuing to put myself in uncomfortable positions in order to grow, and that’s what I’m doing.

“We can refine things in every category, from defense to offense. I need to take care of the ball better. But I think we did some things really well; we gave them a game, especially for the first three quarters. Us predicted to finish last, and them first … we didn’t fold at the beginning because they are who they are, so I think there’s a lot of positivity in that.”

Layshia Clarendon, the Liberty’s oldest player at 29, led New York with 20 points. Seattle coach Gary Kloppenburg said the Storm emphasized trapping and pressuring Ionescu, who had four turnovers.

“We know how good she is if you allow her to do what she wants coming out of screen-and-rolls,” he said. “We really wanted to target her, force some turnovers. I think we did a pretty good job for the first game of doing that.”

Seattle’s Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird made their returns to the WNBA after both missed last season; Stewart had a torn Achilles tendon and Bird had knee surgery. Stewart, the 2018 MVP, had a team-high 18 points and eight rebounds, while Bird, at age 39 and starting her 17th WNBA season, had 11 points and five assists.

The Storm players did not address basketball in a postgame video conference call, saying they only wanted to talk about Taylor and the league’s social justice initiative.

“It seems like in this fight for justice, women at times get overlooked,” Bird said. “Until ‘Say Her Name’ came about, you didn’t really hear about Breonna Taylor. As a women’s league, we have an amazing opportunity to bring awareness, shed light on this.”



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