No one said it would be easy for WNBA rookie Sabrina Ionescu.
She knew that before her first WNBA game of what should be a storied career.
It showed when first-year Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins decided not to use his prized rookie to be a ball-handler being that she was not ready for those responsibilities yet. The head coach wanted the newly minted Liberty to learn the speed of the game slowly and understand the game has to come to her.
This turned out to be a wise choice by Hopkins since the top overall pick in this year’s WNBA draft struggled by shooting 4-of-17 with no 3-pointer (missed all eight 3-point attempts) to show for it in the Liberty’s 87-71 loss to the Seattle Storm Saturday afternoon at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. To the rookie’s credit, she scored 12 points, which she earned against the Storm’s trapping defense.
Hopkins knew so much about Seattle’s defense from his days as the Minnesota Lynx assistant coach. He understood it would have been too much for Ionescu to handle, which is why he decided to let veteran Layshia Clarendon be the ball handler for this game.
For anyone that criticized him for that, that’s wrong.
As talented as Ionescu is, to put her in a position to fail for a defense she is not ready for would be a disservice to her and the team.
The speed of the WNBA game is 100x more than a college basketball game, and the Storm feature so many veterans that know the trick of the trade of playing defense. She is not a finished product yet to handle this responsibility.
This season should be about learning, especially since she hasn’t played a basketball game since the COVID-19 canceled the NCAA Tournament and other sports. To expect her to shine in her first game was unrealistic, especially against a championship title contender.
Maybe Ionescu could have done well against an awful team, but in the long run, this turned out to be a good thing for her. She can learn from her mistakes, and it’s easy to learn against an elite team than an awful team. Seattle is considered the best defensive team in the league, so Hopkins can spend time as the guard whisperer in telling her what she needs to know.
There’s not to say there were no positives about her debut. Her intangibles stood out more than anything.
Ionescu played 34 minutes by grinding it out defensively and wearing down the Storm players. She kept at it by guarding Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird at times. She did a fine job of boxing out. She grabbed six rebounds for her efforts with five of them coming from defensive rebounds. She wasn’t benched, so she must have done something right to stay in the game as long as she could.
She scored her first points of the game on her own rebound with 5:14 to go in the first quarter. For her to create her shot of her rebound on a put-back is impressive.
Just getting the effort to grab the ball and then score works.
.@sabrina_i20 lays it in for her first career bucket!
Tune in NOW on @espn to watch the @seattlestorm take on @nyliberty! pic.twitter.com/eX0VVqdB69
— WNBA (@WNBA) July 25, 2020
Her best moment came when she beat Natasha Howard, last year’s WNBA defensive player of the year, and scored, cutting Liberty’s deficit to 45-41 against Seattle.
That was as close as the Liberty could get because from there, the Storm took off and put the game away for good.
.@sabrina_i20 putting last year's DPOY Howard on skates ? pic.twitter.com/mCY2MwAVPS
— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) July 25, 2020
On a day the former Oregon Ducks star struggled to shoot, she showed how fearless she was to come up with other ways to score such as going to the paint, which has become a lost art in today’s basketball.
She did not display any lapses, which tends to happen with rookies who may be overwhelmed in their first game. Just from watching Ionescu play for 34 minutes, she did okay in a sense she did the little things. It would have been troubling if she did not do that in the game.
Once she knows the game and figures out the defenders, she will shoot as good as Bird and Stewart. Until then, this season serves more of a learning process.
Most importantly, the Liberty rookie got this game out of the way after all the hype and nerves that came with it, so it’s a relief for her and the Liberty. Now, she can focus on the grind of a WNBA season such as how to get better and how to learn from it. No more distractions. No more hype. No more nothing anymore.
From now until the end of the season, it’s about working to get better.
If there is something we learned about Ionescu on the day she didn’t have it, she is tough enough to play pro basketball.
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