New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2020 WNBA draft, says her excitement for starting her first training camp in the Liberty's new home of Brooklyn is "through the roof" after an atypical rookie season saw Ionescu debut in the WNBA's campus site at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, before a severe ankle sprain ended her campaign after two-plus games.
"I've never been removed from the game for this long," Ionescu told ESPN during a Zoom interview Monday, "so it definitely just opened up my eyes and made me appreciate what I have when I have it."
Ionescu suffered a Grade 3 sprain of her left ankle, the most severe kind, during the first half of the Liberty's third game on July 31. After she was unable to return before the conclusion of the 2020 season, Ionescu underwent surgery in November to remove scar tissue that had formed in the ankle.
It wasn't until the past month or two, after a rehab process she describes as "brutal" complicated by the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, that Ionescu was able to get back on the court for 5-on-5 work. That timeline prevented her from considering going overseas to play as most WNBA players do during the league's offseason.
"During the pandemic, I wasn't really trying to get in contact with a bunch of people, especially that I didn't know where they had been," she said. "I didn't want to risk my health. So I kind of just stuck to my trainer and I kind of grinding away, getting all my skill work done, then finally integrating back into 5-on-5 once it was safe to do so."
Earlier this month, the WNBA announced that Ionescu and the Liberty will again be featured in the season's opening game on May 14, hosting the Indiana Fever in their first game since moving full-time to Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Ionescu is trying to stay in the moment but admitted she thought about that moment -- which will hopefully include fans, though the organization has yet to announce its plan for attendance -- when packing for the trip east from her native California.
"I thought about it a couple of times while I was packing my basketball shoes to get out to New York because I was trying to figure out which ones I was going to wear for the opening game," Ionescu said. (She's yet to decide among the 20 or so pairs she packed.) "So I thought about it a little bit, but then just try to stay focused on the present moment, not get too far ahead and do what I can to stay healthy and be the best that I can."
For Ionescu, the experience of playing in Brooklyn will be different enough from last year's so-called WNBA "Wubble" that it's like she's starting over in some ways.
"I think this year I definitely feel like a rookie coming in here not knowing where I'm staying, not knowing how to get to the arena, not knowing anything," she said. "I'm just excited to finally be in Brooklyn, hopefully have fans in attendance and play in front of our community here -- just doing everything that we couldn't do in a bubble."
Still, Ionescu will take lessons from the experience she did gain in 2020. After a rough shooting game in her debut, when she missed all eight 3-point attempts and finished 4-of-17 from the field overall against the eventual champion Seattle Storm, Ionescu realized -- with the help of some starry mentors -- she was "beating myself."
"I talked to Steve Nash after that game, Steph Curry FaceTimed me and just a lot of my mentors and people I'm close to I was able to talk to," she said. "I think the media portrayed it as such a bad game, but they were just so happy and I think saw so much opportunity in what I was able to do in my first game that it gave me a lot of confidence -- especially talking to Steph."
With their guidance, Ionescu realized she no longer needed to beat the double- and triple-teams she was accustomed to in college at the University of Oregon. Instead of rushing, Ionescu allowed herself to slow down. The result was a dominant performance in her second and final full game of the 2020 WNBA season: 33 points on 11-of-20 shooting, including six 3-pointers in 10 attempts, plus seven rebounds and seven assists.
Tragically, one mentor was unable to help Ionescu during her rookie season: Kobe Bryant. Ionescu considers the Bryants "to be family" and both provided support and leaned on them to get through the year after Kobe and his daughter Gianna died in a helicopter crash in January 2020. The anniversary of their death was difficult for Ionescu.
"The day wasn't fun," she said. "The day wasn't something that I was looking forward to at all. Just try to stay busy -- I was not on my phone, tried not to think about it do much, but obviously can't really escape it. I don't think anyone escapes it that was remotely close to any of those people that were involved in that accident. It's something that you just live with every day. It's not something that you escape."
In a different way, Ionescu found it challenging at times to watch this year's NCAA tournament knowing that the pandemic-related cancellation of the 2020 tournament prevented her Ducks team from trying to win a championship during her senior season.
"There were certain times that I didn't want to watch games," said Ionescu. "I watched some of the games with the volume off just because there were people talking about it. It was hard to watch two Pac-12 teams (Arizona and Stanford) playing in the championship knowing that the previous year, we had beaten both of those teams."
Just as Ionescu helped Oregon go from a program without a strong tradition in women's basketball to a championship contender, she hopes to turn around the Liberty starting this season. Although New York went just 2-20 in the 2020 season largely without Ionescu, the Liberty have higher hopes after adding All-Star Natasha Howard and teammate Sami Whitcomb in separate trades with the Storm as well as 2020 Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney via free agency.
"I don't think there's really a ceiling for what we can accomplish," Ionescu said.
"I know talking to them, they're very excited and I think it says a lot about who they are as people and competitors because we did finish last. If you want to take two players that came from a championship team to come to the last-place team in the league, I think that says a lot about who they are, how competitive they are and how they view us and what they see in us. Obviously they see opportunity and want to be a part of this program and where it's going to go. So it's really exciting to have them on board and want to go to war with us, with one another, and see what we can do here in Brooklyn."