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New York Liberty’s big moment approaches

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Stanford v Oregon Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Everything over the last 15 months have led up to this. During that time, the New York Liberty has added a new owner, a new general manager, a new head coach, a new home court and now, the star that will bind all of it together.

At 7 p.m. ET, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert will begin calling names from, as she says, “somewhere in New Jersey” offering up basketball’s most dramatic moment since the NBA shut down five weeks ago, the league’s virtual draft And the first name she’s likely to call in the league draft will be Sabrina Ionescu, who everyone thinks is bound for New York and Barclays Center.

Ionescu is seen as a generational talent, a WNBA version of Jason Kidd, a nightly triple-double threat (but without Kidd’s rough edges.) And picking her No. 1 will kick off a long night for the Liberty and its fans. Joe Tsai’s team have the No. 1, 9, 12, 13, 15 and 26 picks following Wednesday’s trade of the franchise’s iconic star, Tina Charles. And Jonathan Kolb, the Liberty GM, has not ruled out another trade on draft night.

The 5’11” Ionescu (pronounced Yo-NESS-coo) became the first player in NCAA history to finish her career with 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds. Not the first woman, the first player.

She has fans all over, from Romania, where her parents were born, to the NBA where she’s befriended some of the league’s top stars. As Greg Joyce reports in Friday’s New York Post...

The daughter of Romanian immigrants splashed onto the radars of NBA stars like Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, who would become an influential mentor to her before his death. Curry dubbed her “the walking Triple Dub,” James picked “Queen Sabrina,” and Bryant chose “Geppetto,” for the way she pulled the strings like Pinocchio’s puppeteer as a 5-foot-11 point guard who made NCAA history.

Here’s her record-breaking moment from earlier this year, Oregon vs. Stanford...

She’s not just a player. She’s got New York-level star quality and character. She became close to Bryant and his daughter, Gigi, mentoring the 13-year-old who died with her father in a helicopter crash on January 26. Bryant’s widow —Gigi’s mother— chose Ionescu to be among those who gave eulogies at the Bryants’ memorial service. Here’s an excerpt in which she talked about the advice he gave her, how difficult it was to lose him and Gigi...

“‘You have too much to give to stay silent.’ That’s what he said. That’s what he believed. That’s what he lived. Through Gigi, through me, through his investment in women’s basketball. That was his next great act, a girl dad.

“Basketball in many ways was just a metaphor. I still text him even though he’s not here. ‘Thank you for everything. The rest is for you. Rest easy my guy.’ The last one I sent him said, ‘I miss you, may you rest in peace, my dear friend.’”

As Jackie Powell of High Post Hoops wrote Thursday...

When Sabrina Ionescu speaks, her words are laced with humility, conviction and care. It’s a not a quiet confidence per se, but rather it’s her authenticity is on full display when she speaks. She’s straightforward, but she’s not afraid to show herself. There isn’t any arrogance about how she communicates.

Here’s the full eulogy. It’s worth a listen...

Kolb wouldn’t say ionescu will be his pick when asked about the Draft earlier in the week, but he may as well have in his description of what New York was looking for.

“It’s really easy to watch film on a player and say they’re really good at basketball, and say let’s draft them. That’s an easy thing to do. But what you have to do is more research on who those players are as people, what motivates them, who brings the best out in them. So, in doing that, it’s what we look for. Let’s say, player one, and then player two, we very much consider how they’ll play together and how they’ll get along together as we build this culture.”

Did someone say culture?

The addition of Ionescu is just one aspect of what has become a broader rebranding rather than just a rebuild. When Tsai bought the team, the franchise was moribund, an after-thought in James Dolan’s MSG.

After 20 years playing in the Garden, Dolan moved the team to Westchester County Center, a 90-year-old venue in White Plains with a capacity one-quarter of the Garden’s. He said it was a financial move, that putting on a game at 34th and 7th Avenue was 20 times as expensive as one at Westchester and claimed the Liberty had lost money every year with cumulative losses exceeding $100 million.

For 17 months, Dolan couldn’t sell. Then along came Tsai. He had already invested more than a billion dollars to claim a 49 percent ownership in the Nets and was looking to add more to his budding sports empire. The price tag has never been disclosed but speculation is that it wasn’t much.

When he bought the rest of the Nets and Barclays Center in August, it was a foregone conclusion that the Liberty would move back to New York and Brooklyn. Two months later, it became official.

Kolb hired Walt Hopkins, an assistant coach with the Minnesota Lynx, one of the WNBA’s top teams, as head coach and won the draft lottery, setting up tonight. The Liberty have also added a new sponsor, FanDuel, and have rejiggered their logo and uniforms, retaining the “seaform” or pale green as the primary color but switching from the Knicks orange-and-blue to the Nets black-and-white as their secondary colors.

More importantly, the team added a couple of pieces that Kolb and Hopkins think will help in the short term. In free agency, the team added veteran point guard Layshia Clarendon, “[She’s] highly respected around the WNBA from her peers as well as coaches,” Kolb told High Post Hoops. “Somebody that we’ve thought highly of for a long time.”

Then, there’s last year’s two rookies, No. 2 overall pick Asia Durr, a shooting guard who Ionescu played with on Team USA, and 6’9” Chinese import Han Xu, who has shown some promise but is still a ways away.

Expect the Liberty to add a big woman Friday night, either in the Draft or a Draft Night trade. Tina Charles will be hard to replace. And of course, the loss of the Jamaica Queens all-star will represent as big a change as anything that’s taken place in recent months. As Kolb told High Post Hoops...

“I think ultimately what it comes down to is a misalignment of timelines. And, and we’re building something here with a fairly young group, a really young group and Tina wants, just craves and deserves a championship. And her window is a bit different. And so I think at the end of the day, it really wasn’t a long time in the works, but it was more waiting to know what that next step looked like for her.”

Charles, in fact, is the only former WNBA MVP without a championship ring. The Liberty has gotten kudos for the way they handled the rebuild, consulting with Charles on where she wanted to play and then executing her wish.

Long term, it will take some time to get the team back to its glory days ... and beyond. After all, like Tsai’s other team, the Liberty have never won the big prize, but everything Tsai has done indicate that he wants to change that. Of course, it’s all on hold because of the coronavirus. So, like with the Nets, we’ll have to wait, but the Liberty appears to be on the right track.

The Draft will be carried live on ESPN starting at 7 p.m.