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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Sabrina Ionescu, Liberty off to ‘remarkable’ 5-1 WNBA start

This past offseason, the brain trust of the Liberty talked about a “hybrid” rebuild of a team that had finished last season deep in the WNBA cellar.

Well, nearly 20 percent of the way through the 2021 season, the construction is looking sharp and the ceiling has been raised. With Monday night’s 88-81 win over the Dallas Wings at Barclays Center, the Liberty improved to 5-1, their best start since 2007. It’s heady real estate atop the standings for an underestimated team and an early indicator that New York playoff basketball might not end with the Nets and Knicks.

“It means a lot. We wanted to start the season how we knew that we could. It’s awesome to see that it’s showing, it’s not taking a long time to build this,” said Sabrina Ionescu, who scored 10 of her 15 points in the fourth quarter, to go with nine rebounds and three assists, to seal the victory. “It’s been really awesome. Obviously we’re not done yet.”

Ionescu, the 2020 No. 1-overall draft pick with the triple-double track record and the mini-mamba mentality, was to be the foundation of the rebuild as she returned from a severe ankle sprain that almost entirely erased her rookie year. She would be joined by several fellow second-year players plus a couple of 2021 rookies on the way. But the rebuild wouldn’t be entirely studs out — hence the “hybrid.” The Liberty renovated by splurging for in-their-prime complementary stars, as well, signing wing Betnijah Laney as a free agent and trading for All-Star center Natasha Howard.

Sabrina Ionescu (l.) and Betnijah Laney have been a big reason the Liberty are 5-1. NBAE via Getty Images

Laney continued to be a revelation Monday night, scoring a game-high 26 points — her sixth straight 20-point outing to begin her Liberty tenure — while forcing Wings star Arike Ogunbowale into an ugly shooting night at the other end. Howard, making her second start after a belated return from her overseas season followed by a six-day COVID-19 protocol, and still without having practiced with her new team, put up 17 points and six rebounds before exiting in the fourth quarter due to a left knee injury.

“I really don’t believe that the win column really depicted what this team was capable of last year, especially with Sabrina going down as early as she did in those first three games,” Laney said. “And then the free agents that we were talking to, I just really thought it would be something special.”

The Liberty’s modern five-out offense has begun to take shape during this torrid season-opening run. They lead the league in 3-point makes by a wide margin and are shooting 43.7 percent from behind the arc (Laney is at 52.2 percent, Ionescu at 48.6 percent) after hitting 10 of 25 attempts against the Wings. Last season, they shot 27.7 percent from deep.

Betnijah Laney scored 26 points in the Liberty’s win over the Wings on Monday night. NBAE via Getty Images

It’s put the playoffs squarely in view, if at a distance: According to the website FiveThirtyEight’s statistical model, the Liberty now have a projected 71 percent chance to make the postseason after beginning the year at 26 percent.

“I didn’t know we’d be 5-1. I didn’t know what we’d be,” head coach Walt Hopkins said. “I just knew I wanted us to play really hard and to learn how to execute and play together. The 5-1 is a by-product of this group and their buy-in to everything that we’re asking of them. It’s just been remarkable.”

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