The New York Liberty, entering its 24th WNBA season, has never had a player record a triple-double.
Of course the franchise, and the league for that matter, has never had a player quite like Sabrina Ionescu.
The Oregon women’s basketball legend will make her professional debut when the Liberty opens the 2020 season against the Seattle Storm on Saturday at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. (9 a.m., ESPN).
Ionescu became the NCAA’s all-time leader in triple-doubles and the only member of the 2,000-point, 1,000-assist and 1,000-rebound club while leading the Ducks to a Final Four and three Pac-12 championships.
Now the No. 1 overall pick in April’s WNBA draft will lead a rebuilding Liberty roster that includes six other rookies. New York is predicted to finish last in the regular-season race as the 12 teams play 132 games over 49 days.
"It reminds me a lot of my freshman year at Oregon," Ionescu said during a recent Zoom with the media. "Because we had seven freshmen. I think just the ability to learn and adapt and not really know any better … we are playing with no pressure, honestly. No one expects us to be very good, no one expects us to succeed.
"So I think kind of having that underdog mentality that we’re all going to have, it’s going to help us. Maybe teams are going to overlook us, maybe we’re going to surprise some teams. Who really knows?"
Ionescu will likely be matching up against Sue Bird, the WNBA’s all-time assists leader, during most of Saturday’s game. However, this isn’t the first time the two generational talents have shared the floor.
During Oregon’s stunning 93-86 victory over the U.S. Women’s National team in an exhibition last November at Matthew Knight Arena, Ionescu had 30 points and seven assists while Bird had eight points and eight assists in limited minutes.
"It 100 percent prepared me," Ionescu said of the experience. "Just being able to be on the court and see how they conduct themselves, how they play, how they take care of their bodies, the mental side of things as well. Being able to talk to Diana Taurasi before our game and kind of see the approach that she takes, and they take as professionals, kind of gave us a little bit of insight.
"And being able to play against top-10 teams (at Oregon), a lot of those players were drafted — some are my teammates, some are on other teams. Being able to be familiar with a lot of those players helps with scouting and being familiar with the league a little bit and who I’m going up against."
Game Ready. pic.twitter.com/FuUZzFSEQ3— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) July 24, 2020
Ionescu has reconnected with two of her former Oregon teammates — Dallas Wings forward Satou Sabally (No. 2 overall pick) and Chicago Sky forward Ruthy Hebard (No. 8 overall pick) — inside the WNBA bubble.
The Liberty plays Dallas next Wednesday and Chicago on Aug. 20.
The "Big Three" combined for 51 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists during the Ducks’ victory over Stanford in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game on March 8 in Las Vegas.
Four days later, the NCAA canceled its basketball tournaments and Oregon’s shot at winning the 2019-20 national championship.
"We’re kind of starting at ground zero with a new coaching staff, a new team really," Ionescu said. "There definitely is a direct representation from how I feel that first year at Oregon to how I feel now. It’s exciting. Sky’s the limit."
Even more weight is being put on Ionescu’s shoulders with Asia Durr, the Liberty’s first-round pick (No. 2 overall) in the 2019 draft, deciding to sit out this season after testing positive for the coronavirus last month.
Veteran guard Layshia Clarendon, who has played 198 career WNBA games, said Ionescu fit right in during preseason practices.
"I would say one of my first impressions is how understated her game is in a positive way," Clarendon said. "She just makes people around her better."
Clarendon described Ionescu as a "chameleon." At Oregon the three-time Pac-12 player of the year demonstrated an ability to dominate as a scorer and rebounder or just by setting up other players for open shots.
Ionescu was the unanimous national player of the year after averaging 17.5 points, 9.1 assists and 8.6 rebounds as a senior.
"It’s been really impressive to see," Liberty coach Walt Hopkins said of Ionescu’s leadership. "I think having all that experience at Oregon, being somebody who came in and off the bat and found a way to lead, and then as her role changed as the years went on she found new ways to lead. She kind of grew into different roles.
"I don’t think this is going to be any different. She’s really special."
Contact reporter Ryan Thorburn at email@example.com or 541-338-2330, and follow him on Twitter @By_RyanThorburn and Instagram @rg_ducksports. Want more stories like this? Subscribe to get unlimited access and support local journalism.