When the New York Liberty host the Indiana Fever on May 14th to kick off the WNBA season, Sabrina Ionescu will make her highly anticipated return to the court, bringing a close to what has been a long and challenging year-and-change for the No. 1 overall pick of the 2020 WNBA Draft.
It all started in January of 2020, during the heart of Ionescu's historic senior season at Oregon, as she lost a mentor and close friend when Kobe Bryant passed away.
Ionescu was more than just Bryant's understudy.
Through his appreciation of her craft, skill and dominance at the collegiate level when they were first introduced to one another, they became family. While Bryant mentored Ionescu by helping the superstar improve her game, Ionescu served as a similar mentor for Bryant's daughter, Gigi, who was well on her way to becoming a women's basketball superstar herself before her passing.
Ionescu was one of the speakers at Bryant's Celebration of Life at the STAPLES Center in February of 2020, a day that the Oregon standout will likely never forget.
Just hours after giving her speech at Bryant's memorial in Los Angeles, the then-22-year-old had to ship up to Stanford for a top-five matchup with a chance to make history. Through the emotional toll, a long day of travel and battling the flu, Ionescu still delivered, notching her 26th career triple-double by dropping 21 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists in a blowout win for the Ducks over No. 4 ranked Stanford.
The victory secured the Pac-12 regular-season title for Oregon, and Ionescu wrote her own page in the NCAA history books in the process.
She created her own club in college basketball history, becoming the first player - men's or women's - to tally 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists over the course of her illustrious four-year career at Oregon. Her 26 triple-doubles are also by far the most by an individual player in NCAA history - men's or women's - with BYU's Kyle Collinsworth ranking second with 12.
Oregon would go on to win the Pac-12 tournament, again defeating Stanford to win the championship, and with momentum rolling, Ionescu and the Ducks were well on their way to retaining a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Cancelling March Madness, and sports as a whole, Ionescu's four years of dominance could not be rewarded with an NCAA championship. Instead, she moved on to begin training for the next step in her career, the WNBA.
Ionescu was selected by the Liberty with the first overall pick, looking to turn around a franchise that was in the basement of the WNBA standings.
When sports finally resumed and the WNBA season tipped off in the "Wubble," Ionescu's rookie year would only last three games before a Grade 3 ankle sprain sidelined her for the remainder of the season.
The severe ankle injury eventually required surgery, keeping the 23-year-old off the floor for much longer than ever imagined. New York would go on to finish the 2020 season with a 2-20 record, finishing in last place without their phenom point guard.
But the tides are finally turning for Ionescu.
The 23-year-old is set to make a long-awaited return to the court after what would be 288 days since the last time she competed in a real game.
The Liberty, with fresh new jerseys and all, will be moving to play their home games at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn this season.
That May 14th tip-off is creeping. 👀 #OwntheCrown🗽👑- New York Liberty (@nyliberty) April 22, 2021
(@sabrina_i20 via @espn) pic.twitter.com/6YctvNKukY
Along with the return of Ionescu, they've loaded up with talent around the former No. 1 pick, adding an All-Star in Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb in separate trades with the Seattle Storm, as well as 2020 Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney in free agency.
"I don't think there's really a ceiling for what we can accomplish," Ionescu told ESPN's, Kevin Pelton.
"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."
Ionescu's return to action will be worth the wait as one of women's basketball's most prolific talents is ready to set the league ablaze in a do-over first season.
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