August 11, 2022
How Sabrina Ionescu made the New York Liberty her team
'We've all accepted holding each other to that standard'
BROOKLYN — Sabrina Ionescu wasn’t silent and stoic as she waited for the pregame formalities to finish, ahead of a recent game against the Phoenix Mercury.
During the announcing of opposing team’s starting lineups and during New York’s home introductory video, she was seen on the baseline deep in conversation with the Liberty’s 22 year-old 6’10 center, Han Xu. Ionescu was demonstrative in her body language while talking to Han, gesturing with her hands and arms to make sure Han understood exactly what the Liberty’s goals and intentions were for their matchup against their head coach Sandy Brondello‘s former team.
Eight days later in Dallas, New York had just fallen 86-77 to the Wings in a game that clinched Dallas’ No. 6 seed in the playoffs. With the Liberty’s 20th loss of the season, the team’s playoff math continued to get more and more complex, trending more toward luck rather than controlling its own fate. But following the loss, Ionescu, who had 32 points, seven rebounds and four assists, was disappointed but not defeated. She thought her team had stayed mentally focused amid how physical the Wings were all evening. But when she was asked about Marine Johannès’ performance, particularly in the second quarter when she scored 13 points, Ionescu chose her words carefully, using not only superlatives but a confident set of language to describe what Johannès has meant to her and the team.
“We demand that from her every game because we know she’s capable of it,” Ionescu said postgame. “She’s one of the most talented guards in the league.”
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These two vignettes of how Ionescu speaks to and about her teammates reveals the recipe to her evolving leadership style as the Liberty’s only No. 1 overall pick in franchise history.
In her third season in the league, Ionescu has taken on the role that had been destined for her. She’s always known that this was her team, but up until 2022 she wasn’t in a position, physically and mentally, to take the reins. With two games left against Atlanta, the Liberty’s star guard has made a case to be in the running with Jackie Young for the league’s Most Improved Player award, and you can expect her to be on some MVP ballots, too.
Her win shares have increased from 1.8 to five over two seasons, per Her Hoop Stats — that’s a 177.8% increase. The Liberty are a franchise that in the past has moved forward on individuals carrying a massive load; Tina Charles spent seasons carrying New York. But how has Ionescu elevated her play while making sure the other 11 players on the Liberty’s roster have a role and a purpose? While Most Improved Player isn’t an award that is incumbent on qualitative characteristics, Ionescu’s evolution in her leadership and active voice on the Liberty only adds to her campaign.
Who Ionescu was in 2021
The physical health of Ionescu was what defined her first two years in the WNBA. In only her third game played in the 2020 Wubble, she endured the third-degree ankle sprain that would alter the course of her career. As a proverbial redshirt sophomore in the league last season, she often took a backseat to free agent signees Betnijah Laney and Sami Whitcomb. In huddles, Ionescu was listening, learning but not exactly leading yet.
There were stretches of games in 2021 where Ionescu looked lost and passive. She was trying to play through a lot of physical pain while adjusting to what pro-style defenses were going to give her. Ionescu didn’t have the capacity to lead the Liberty in 2021. She wasn’t physically healthy and she had to learn how to be a professional.
In a discussion with Boardroom’s Rich Kleiman, Ionescu reflected upon the mental and physical gymnastics she had been through in not only the Wubble, but also during her first full season in the W. 2021 was a year-long battle with herself and her body, trying to immerse herself completely into the WNBA while also proving to her team and the Liberty franchise that she wasn’t a mistake at No. 1. Following the Liberty’s 83-82 loss to the Mercury in the first round of the playoffs, Ionescu reflected and shut herself out from the world. She didn’t post a ton to her social media, she didn’t engage in many off-season media opportunities. “I kind of took a break because I was personally embarrassed and I was like ‘this is not acceptable,'” she told Kleinman. “I need to be better.”
During the pomp and circumstance of her first All-Star Game this past July, Ionescu revealed that a moment that kept her fighting through everything she was up against was when the Chicago Sky visited the Barclays Center last season. Candace Parker saw she was struggling to play at her best and gave the Liberty guard reassurance while standing at the free-throw line. It was one of those moments where Ionescu felt seen and heard by one of the most-respected figures in the league.
“She understood because she’s gone through injuries,” Ionescu told The Next. “So I think it was really just a perspective from a veteran who’s gone through it. Kind of talking to her younger self that had gone through injuries and just telling me to take care of my body, be smart, it’s not worth it. And so, stuff like that was really kind of impactful, because I didn’t know any better. My perspective was what it was at the age that I’m at. So it was really nice to hear that from her.”
Leading with the mental toughness that defines New York
How Ionescu got from Point A to Point B, the realization of her role on this team, was all about getting the opportunity to do so. When Laney, the team’s most-vocal leader and 2021 All-Star, had to endure multiple injuries to her knees in the past six months, the Liberty’s former No. 1 pick had no choice. With Whitcomb’s minutes dwindling due to less-efficient shot-making and less defensive resistance, it was time for Ionescu to take a step toward the potential that she was frustrated she couldn’t reach a season prior. She was physically ready, but she had to grow mentally for it.
When I surveyed 2021 teammates Natasha Howard and Whitcomb about how Ionescu’s leadership has changed from last season to now, they both emphasized how vocal she’s become. Ionescu’s aggressive style of play often dictates the example she sets for her teammates. But Sabrina has become vocal and more deliberate about what she believes her team needs.
“She’s been similar in terms of trying to lead by example and do that from last year to this year,” Whitcomb said following New York’s win over the Wings on Wednesday. “But definitely, I think, in moments when maybe previously she wouldn’t be the one speaking or the one trying to ignite us or trying to get us going or whatever it is. I definitely think she’s stepping into that role more now.”
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How does Ionescu verbally ignite the Liberty? Howard was surprised at first when she got her first glimpse of what that looked like. While she wasn’t expecting it, Howard welcomed it and it reaffirmed her belief in Ionescu as a player way beyond her years. When the Liberty beat the Aces 116-107 on the road in a game that was purely an offensive barrage, it was Ionescu’s voice that allowed New York to come back and match how potent Las Vegas was offensively.
“When times get rough, she like raised her voice a little bit, and it was like I’ve never seen that before,” Howard said back at All-Star in Chicago. “And I was like ‘oh, okay Sab, I see you, let’s get it, come on.'”
Ionescu has explained the way in which she and her teammates hold each other accountable, even during games when shots don’t fall. The willingness to listen to others and for those others to also listen to her has allowed the Liberty to remain on the same page even when they aren’t playing at their best.
“We’ve all accepted holding each other to that standard because it’s for the betterment of the team and so I think once everyone is on that same page, and we’ve all gotten to that same page of we’re holding each other to that high standard because we all want to win and we all have a common goal,” Ionescu said after the Liberty shot 31.5% from the field in their 64-61 win over the Sparks. “It helps you stay connected through times when the score is 24-8 in the first quarter and we’re out there sleepwalking. And we stayed together and we found a way to win.”
Head coach Sandy Brondello has noticed how mentally tough Ionescu is, often comparing her to the most successful players in the WNBA. She’s often compared her to Diana Taurasi. On Wednesday night against the Wings, when Ionescu didn’t score a point in the first half, Brondello remarked that how Ioenscu is built different is in her ability to keep her focus on her team rather than her individual output.
“She’s had this tough mindset, it doesn’t matter if she had zero points,” Brondello said postgame. “She knew, ‘now I need to help my team a little bit more because everyone else is rolling,’ and the openings were there for her. So that’s a maturity as a young player.”
According to one of Ionescu’s closest friends, Chicago Sky big Ruthy Hebard, the way in which players gain the trust of the Liberty guard is via hard work. If Ionescu sees that a player wants to be great, just like she does, that bond is solidified. It’s exactly how, despite a language barrier, she’s able to communicate with Han Xu and it’s also how she’s able to have the utmost confidence in Johannès, a player who needs confidence around her to be able to internalize it herself.
Ionescu’s desire for greatness is how she connects with her teammates, but it’s also how she understands what her teammates need from her so that they can also reach their highest peak.
“I think leadership is also not necessarily catering to everyone as a whole but also on an individual level,” Ionescu said following the Liberty’s blowout win over the Mercury on July 31. “And so being able to talk to everyone and understanding what kind of leadership they need in what situation is something that we’ve continued to do and continue to try and get better at. And so this year, that’s what we’re doing, obviously leading by example, but continuing to figure out ways that we can lead each individual to collectively succeed.”
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also covers women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.