May 22, 2024 

2024’s Sabrina Ionescu is improved and celebrating it

Ionescu: 'I'm just living in the moment'

NEW YORK — On Monday night, the Liberty were tired. The adrenaline from playing 4 games in a week to open the WNBA season was waning. Monday was one of those evenings when their signature threes just weren’t going in. With 1:50 remaining in the third quarter, New York had only made 2 threes and missed 16 of them. That ugly three-point percentage didn’t scare Sabrina Ionescu

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Nyara Sabally set a screen that was around 30 feet out from the basket and slowed down Ionescu’s defender Sami Whitcomb just enough. Neither Whitcomb nor Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu were even close to Ionescu’s field of view for a contest. 

Leap, shot, swish, and then a Seattle timeout — the Liberty were now up by 17.  Those were the ingredients that produced an Ionescu celebration of epic proportions. 

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With her body turned slightly as she watched the ball fall through the net, she turned around fully to run back the other way, stuck her tongue out and did her best Mikal Bridgesinspired celebration. She pointed two fingers out on her right hand while waving both hands all around.

She knew the Brooklyn Nets slasher was in the building. But Ionescu’s demonstration didn’t end there. She ran over toward the fans that were seated across from the Seattle Storm bench, and threw her arms up to encourage that group of fans to get louder. 

This wasn’t the only demonstrative celebration from Ionescu on Monday evening, and it didn’t just come from shots she made either. The fist-pumping appeared when one of her teammates scored on one of her no-look passes. If it was Breanna Stewart cutting into the paint in the quarter court or Kayla Thornton running the floor ahead of everyone else, Ionescu was celebrating it, and celebrating it with a heightened sense of passion and purpose.

“I don’t think I’m having more fun,” she said postgame. “I honestly just feel like with the crowd, and especially playing at home, I think just capitalizing on the energy that we have here and knowing that kind of just fuels the team, it fuels me and understanding how big this game was for us.” 

Her teammates and coach have noticed her effusiveness as well. Stewart and Sandy Brondello snapped their heads in-synch while smiling to look at Ionescu to hear her answer on the postgame podium. Jonquel Jones chuckled to herself while listening to what her teammate had to say.

Ionescu continued: “And I think just in the heat of the game, I was just fired up. And I mean, I do it in practice as well. So I would just say I’m just living in the moment.” 

This swagger is a result of seeing the work she put in during the offseason pay off and translate during games in real time. The Liberty gave Ionescu the directive during the offseason to improve her scoring and finishing inside the paint. 

While the season is young, Ionescu has shot 8-for-13 (61.5 percent) within the restricted area. That number, while it’s a smaller sample size, is striking when put up against the 53.8 percent from within five feet that she shot last season.

Sabrina Ionescu goes in for a layup
Sabrina Ionescu (20) hoists up the ball for a layup on May 20, 2024 during the New York Liberty’s 74-63 win against the Seattle Storm at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. (Photo Credit Brandon Todd | New York Liberty)

“I have my three-point shot but to continue to help the team to be able to just manipulate defenses and get into the paint which allows the extra pass, defenses to collapse,” Ionescu said about how she expanded her game during the offseason. “My ability to go up, get fouled and understanding that sometimes the three point shots [are] not going to go in and sometimes defenses are going to guard it really well.” 

But, the progress has also been on the defensive side of the ball. Ionescu’s bugaboo on defense in the past has been knowing when to be aggressive and finding the ways to use her physical gifts to her advantage. She’s not the quickest player, but she’s strong and tough. The reason she has a propensity to rebound the ball at a high level in addition to scoring it and passing it has always been because of the strength she possesses in her legs and her will to secure the basketball. 

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There were moments in the third quarter on Monday when this work defensively came alive. Ionescu at one point guarded Jewell Loyd one-on-one and knew exactly where she would go. She followed her when she drove to her left, and then once Loyd stopped on her right pivot foot to change direction, Ionescu turned her body into Loyd’s new path. When Loyd tried to step through, Ionescu stayed with her as she went up for the floater with Jones providing length and protection behind her. Loyd hoisted the shot, and it went off the backboard and dropped off the rim and then into the hands of Betnijah Laney-Hamilton. 

Later in the quarter, Ionescu guarded the less offensively potent Victoria Vivians on the block. The Liberty guard used her strength in her legs to challenge Vivians, moving her enough off her spot so that Skylar Diggins-Smith’s entry pass was too wide. The ball went out of bounds, and Ionescu celebrated that stop on defense that she helped create demonstratively, flexing and pumping her right fist in celebration.

There can be joy in defense too. Brondello praised this commitment from Ionescu on Monday night. “I’m proud of her defense,” Brondello said postgame. “That’s an area we thought we knew that she could keep getting better in, but her commitment to excellence has been showing through and overall I’m just happy with her defense. I’m happy with our defense because we found a way to win ugly.”

Brondello also mentioned that the sharp rotations from the Liberty’s post players so that they can guard the paint is what allows for guards like Ionescu to feel much more confident in her movements on the defensive end. Laney-Hamilton agreed. “Sab, she’s definitely been more aggressive, just trusting herself more on defense,” she told a group of reporters postgame. “And then always just making sure that she’s communicating, being there for us.”

For the Liberty to be able to take another leap this year and accomplish those championship dreams, there’s going to need to be growth defensively. Brondello mentioned that in order for that goal to be realized there needs to be a commitment from all players 1 through 11. “Let’s buy into doing the best that you can be with the toughness that we have,” Brondello said. 

What she means is the defense doesn’t have to be perfect, but there has to be an effort, and Ionescu’s effort and joy on both ends of the basketball stood out on Monday night. While Ionescu’s 20 points and 8 assists against Seattle are solid numbers, she shot 41.2 percent from the field and just 1-6 from three. It’s a step in Ionescu’s development that even when the long ball isn’t falling all that much she can still play with energy and help the Liberty win. And for her, joy doesn’t just have to come from one place or one type of shot. 

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For Ionescu, it’s about comfort and stability. This is her fourth season playing at Barclays Center and she feels more at home than ever. 

Prior to tipoff on Monday, her father was lingering around and chatting with the Barclays staff wearing a shirt with his daughter’s logo in a bright seafoam color. Moments after Ionescu spoke to the media postgame, she was greeted by a loved one in the Barclays Center loading dock. The familiar face was about to take off in a Jeep. 

After years of an injury, a pandemic, and a carousel of different teammates over the years, Ionescu is much more at ease.

“I’m having so much fun playing alongside the best players that are on my team,” she said. “And obviously super excited to be able to win.”

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Written by Jackie Powell

Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.

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