Sabrina Ionescu isn’t officially on the New York Liberty yet, and the Liberty are already Ionescu’s team. When — not “if,” though Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb spoke in an interview this week about not ruining a “special moment” with any definitive spoilers — Ionescu becomes the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft shortly …
Sabrina Ionescu isn’t officially on the New York Liberty yet, and the Liberty are already Ionescu’s team.
When — not “if,” though Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb spoke in an interview this week about not ruining a “special moment” with any definitive spoilers — Ionescu becomes the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft shortly after 7 p.m. on Friday night, she’ll be joining a franchise that has been made over from top to bottom while carving a spot for the former Oregon triple-double superstar to be the player holding the torch.
The latest step in the makeover, commenced last year when Nets owner Joseph Tsai bought the team and hired Kolb and moved homes to Barclays Center, was executed Wednesday when the Liberty dealt Tina Charles, their marquee and best player for the past six seasons, to the defending champion Washington Mystics.
The three-team trade netted the Liberty a first-round pick from the Mystics (12th overall) plus two picks from the Dallas Wings (ninth and 15th overall). It leaves the Liberty with five top-15 selections in Friday’s draft, including the first No. 1 pick in the team’s 23-year history.
Kolb left the obvious dots to be connected as he talked about targeting a new face of the franchise with the No. 1 pick who was “humble and hungry” and “helping grow the women’s game,” then describing the 22-year-old Ionescu as “ready to take on the responsibility of carrying women’s basketball.”
“It extends beyond the court,” Kolb told The Post. “She has a competitive fire that will not let her fail. … Yes, there are questions about her athleticism and quickness at the next level. But her will to win will supersede those.”
He also raved about Ionescu’s passing and court vision, which should facilitate the fluid, ball-movement-focused style the Liberty are promising under new head coach Walt Hopkins, who arrived in January to succeed Katie Smith.
Charles — the 31-year-old, seven-time All-Star center from Queens — is a traditional post-up big, and did not seem to fit a five-out, 3-pointer-heavy offense nor a multiyear rebuilding timeline (she hasn’t won a title in 10 pro seasons). But there will be short-term pain in replacing Charles’ 18 points and nine rebounds a game, as soon as the WNBA begins play (the scheduled May 15 season tipoff has been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic).
The mantle of veteran leader will be assumed by Team USA mainstay Layshia Clarendon, a 28-year-old combo guard whose free-agent signing, even back in February, practically screamed “Sabrina’s rabbi.”
The core also features Kia Nurse, 24, an All-Star in 2019; Asia Durr, 23, who had an injury-plagued rookie season after being last year’s No. 2 pick; Rebecca Allen, 27, an Australian sharpshooter; and Amanda Zahui B., 26, a 6-foot-5 center who can step out to the perimeter.
Plus the bumper draft crop the Liberty bring in Friday when they log into their virtual war room. Kolb said they’d go “best player available” and trust Hopkins’ staff to be the “best player developers in the league.” Ionescu’s Oregon pick-and-roll dance partner Ruthy Hebard begins to make a lot of sense at No. 9 or No. 12. After all, it’s Ionescu’s team now.