Sabrina Ionescu, one of the most celebrated incoming talents in WNBA history, started carving her way into the league record books on Saturday.
Ionescu, the New York Liberty’s No. 1 draft pick, put up 12 points, six rebounds and four assists in her debut, though the Liberty fell, 87-71, to the Seattle Storm in the WNBA season opener at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Breanna Stewart, the 2018 league player of the year and finals MVP, made her WNBA return to a tune of 18 points, eight rebounds, two assists and four steals. Sue Bird, the 17-season veteran, also made her return after a knee injury last year.
The teams held a 26-second long moment of silence before the game as it dedicated its season to Breonna Taylor and other Black women who are “often forgotten in this fight for justice.”
Ionescu’s first WNBA bucket
Ionescu’s first professional stat was a rebound a few minutes in when a miss came to her at the top of the key. Her first points came about seven minutes into her debut. And it was very fitting to her style. The rookie put up a shot from the elbow and rebounded it for the layup to tie the game at eight.
Her first assist was to fellow rookie and top-10 draft pick Jocelyn Willoughby late in the second quarter. The bucket was Willoughby’s first. She and rookie Leaonna Odom had nine points each. New York will rely heavily on its rookies since it has seven on an 12-person roster.
Ionescu played nearly 34 minutes in her debut and couldn’t get her shot going. She was 4 of 17 overall and missed all eight 3-point attempts.
The Liberty never let the Storm get too far away up until the fourth quarter, when a deep Seattle squad turned it up a few notches. Layshia Clarendon, the most veteran of the Liberty’s rookie-laden squad, scored a game-high 20 points.
How will Ionescu do in the WNBA?
In interviews leading up opening weekend, league veterans noted time and again Ionescu has a target on her back. That was clear in her debut. The Oregon graduate has her work cut out for her to break through that constant attention.
Drawing Seattle in the debut was tough and was always going to be an unfair measuring stick for this young Liberty crew. They shot a combined 34.8 percent, including 6-of-28 from 3-point range, with 19 turnovers.
Ionescu was challenged by the Storm’s defense, which consistently trapped and kept her from controlling the court in the first half. But she appeared, as always, unfazed. And her performance was solid against the title favorites.
The biggest questions around the collegiate triple-double queen heading to the WNBA was rebounding against talented, seasoned post players on a nightly basis. She didn’t disappoint there, bringing down all six of her total rebounds in the first half.
Ionescu was caught on ESPN’s “Wired” telling teammates to stop letting the Storm dictate what they do, and start dictating their own game. Ionescu and the Liberty will have a better matchup on Wednesday against the Dallas Wings, a fellow group of young talent.
Breanna Stewart looks sharp in WNBA return
Stewart made her return to the WNBA after tearing her Achilles in a EuroLeague game in April 2019. She already came back to game action with Team USA earlier this year and with her team in Russia before the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was like she had never left. Stewart looked strong, undeterred and in prime 2018-level form. Bird also impressed, as usual, after a knee injury. She had 11 points and five assists in 20 minutes.
Stewart, along with the Clarendon, took the microphone before the game to honor Taylor and #SayHerName. In the first quarter in-game interview she answered ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe’s questions by pivoting to justice for Taylor.
“Our momentum is bigger than getting on the court,” she said, answering to the WNBA’s return. “We want to continue fighting for justice for Breonna Taylor and her family and keep putting pressure on the Kentucky attorney general to make that happen.”
She continued it in the post-game Zoom call with Bird.
“Right now, we have a platform, and that’s what we want to bring attention to,” Bird said.
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