With Sabrina Ionescu, the Liberty Have a Much-Needed Chance to ‘Reset’

The Liberty have drifted in and out of the W.N.B.A. spotlight, but the opportunity to draft Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu could be just what the team needs to right itself.

Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu is expected to be drafted No. 1 over all by the Liberty on Friday night.
Credit...Mason Trinca for The New York Times

For the Liberty, a tumultuous decade that put the franchise’s future in doubt has given rise to a team that is new in almost every way imaginable.

A new owner: Joe Tsai, not James L. Dolan. A new home: Barclays Center, after a long run at Madison Square Garden and a two-year exile to the Westchester County Center in the northern suburbs of New York, far from the fan base. And after the W.N.B.A. draft on Friday night, probably a new franchise star: Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, not Tina Charles, the veteran All-Star the team traded to the Washington Mystics this week.

Even the logo is refreshed, with more black coloring to better align with the N.B.A.’s Nets, which Tsai also owns.

There’s only one problem: Nobody knows when, or if, this season will begin.

“For us, it’s an opportunity, a bit of a reset,” General Manager Jonathan Kolb said. “And we’re excited to see where this goes in 2020.”

Then he sighed, citing the uncertainty of “where and when and how.”

For Kolb, Walt Hopkins (who is also new, as head coach) and the entire Liberty front office, the off-season has gone according to plan. The team is expected to use its No. 1 over all pick in Friday night’s draft on Ionescu, by far the standout star in women’s college basketball. In free agency, the Liberty added point guard Layshia Clarendon, an All-Star and U.S.A. Basketball veteran who can both mentor and play alongside Ionescu.

They will join a core that, even without Charles, has significant young talent and will have the chance to shoulder more of the offensive load. The team’s 2018 first-round pick, Kia Nurse, was an All-Star in 2019, and the team’s 2019 first-round pick, Asia Durr, is a talented two-way prospect who was out injured for much of her rookie season. Expect an expanded role, too, for 6-foot-9 Han Xu, the team’s 2019 second-round pick, an intriguing stretch-five who does not turn 21 until October.

Even the team’s veterans are young: The returning starting center, Amanda Zahui B., is 26, small forward Rebecca Allen is 27 and shooting guard Marine Johannes turned 25 in January. The Liberty have three first-round picks in this year’s draft, and five in the top 20 selections.

“We’re really aware of the age, and that’s something that we very much discussed,” Kolb said, adding: “This is going to be something where myself, our coach, our staff and our players are going to grow together towards what ultimately we hope will be something really special down the line. Getting players in our system is going to be major because they can hone their skills to fit exactly the way we want to play basketball.”

The way they intend to play, as Hopkins made clear at his introductory news conference in January, more closely resembles the modern offenses of the most successful teams today. The Mystics and the Seattle Storm, the past two champions, have been among the league leaders in 3-pointers attempted and made, and Hopkins believes in scoring primarily at the rim or beyond the arc.

That’s where Ionescu could come in. Last year’s point guards, Brittany Boyd and Tanisha Wright, finished first and second in the league in turnover percentage, and by a wide margin. Ionescu, meanwhile, averaged just 2.8 turnovers per game in her four seasons at Oregon and led N.C.A.A. Division I with 9.1 assists per game. That’ll mean more open 3s when Ionescu finds her teammates, and fewer live-ball turnovers leading to easy baskets for the other team.

But there’s an element well beyond Ionescu’s on-court fit that makes her the no-brainer pick for the team as well, and that is her star power. The Liberty have drifted in and out of the spotlight over the past decade, and this was never clearer than in the past two years. They were playing in White Plains, N.Y., north of New York City, amid a pair of losing seasons after three straight Eastern Conference regular-season titles and playoff appearances from 2015 to 2017.

But Ionescu, with a forceful off-court presence to match her relentless on-court game, commands attention in a way few W.N.B.A. prospects have. Combine that profile with a cultural moment of increased focus on women’s sports, and the Liberty have an opportunity to hitch the franchise’s wagon to an authentic change agent.

“I think, to me, she’s a perfect fit for New York,” said Rebecca Lobo, an ESPN analyst and former Liberty star. “The New York fan base is just a little bit different. Even 20-plus years ago when I was there, you could be walking through Central Park and people would start talking to you about basketball.”

Lobo continued: “I think Sabrina is perfectly suited for that, not only her game, which is next level, but her personality, her drive, her will to win. She fits in in high-pressure moments.”

Even though Ionescu said she had been to New York only twice, that challenge was something she said she would relish, if the Liberty drafted her.

“I am definitely, hopefully, excited for the opportunity to play there at Barclays Center,” Ionescu said this week. “And then just the marketability that there is in New York and the hustle and bustle is something that I think could be not only beneficial to myself as a person but as a brand for women’s basketball. So if I get that opportunity, I’ll definitely be excited to try and use that to the best of my ability.”

On paper, this is a Liberty team ready to take a big leap forward. In practice? Kolb said the Liberty are “like everybody else, trying to see what’s next and what we’re allowed to do.”

The scheduled May 15 start of the season and training camp have been delayed indefinitely.

“After Friday, it’s a little bit like, ‘OK, great, let’s go,’ and we won’t yet,” Kolb said.