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Sabrina Ionescu is finally back on the court ... and getting noticed

2020 New York Liberty Media Day Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. Sabrina Ionescu, overall No. 1 pick in WNBA Draft, rookie and potential franchise player, should have been racking up wins and big numbers at Barclays Center, leading her New York Liberty into their new home after two years of exile in White Plains.

Instead, the NCAA Womens’ Player of the Year out of Oregon is in Bradenton, Florida, at the WNBA’s “bubble” (or “wubble,” if you prefer), about a hundred miles southwest of the NBA’s version in (officially) in Lake Buena Vista. We don’t even know if she visited New York on her way from home outside San Francisco to Bradenton.

Still, Ionescu will not be denied. She’s been a star of the WNBA’s “bubble” and has even been penning a daily diary for the Associated Press. She and her head coach, Walt Hopkins, like her a rookie, will be on “YES, We’re Here” at 9 p.m. Friday night for a Liberty 2020 season preview special. The YES Network televises Liberty games.

Ionescu says she’s excited just to finally get on the court and start her pro career.

“I hadn’t been able to play basketball since March when the coronavirus pandemic hit, and now being in Florida with the New York Liberty at my first training camp has been great,” she told AP.

“You never know how much you miss something until you can’t do it anymore, and to be back on the court playing 5-on-5 with my teammates has been wonderful.

“I felt at home when I walked into the hotel in Florida and saw the WNBA posters and signs. It was at that moment when I was like: ‘Wow. I’m actually in the best professional league in the world.’”

Also, it was her first time meeting her new coach and teammates after enduring Zoom conference calls. She and Layshia Clarendon, who the Liberty acquired to be both back-up and mentor, bike to practice from the hotel each day, she noted.

The Liberty are in a major overhaul. Not only has their permanent (and temporary) address changed, but the team has seven rookies on the roster, six taken in the WNBA Draft back in April. They also have a new head coach and new uniforms. Now part of Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment, parent company of Joe Tsai’s New York properties, the Liberty added some black-and-white to their traditional seafoam.

Clarendon, who is one of the WNBA’s leading veterans, says the vibe with all the rookies is good but different.

“They have to learn by fire and trial and error,” Clarendon said on a Zoom call Wednesday, “We just don’t have time for them to truly act like rookies and so in that way it’s been a really interesting balancing act.

“We know we’re asking a ton from them.”

For Ionescu, the big moment will come when the season finally opens on July 25 vs. the Seattle Storm. It will be a good measuring stick. Sue Bird, the 39-year-old All-Everything point guard will be back after missing all last season as will Breanna Stewart, the Storm’s leading scorer and WNBA MVP the last time she played.

Clarendon thinks her protege’ will be fine.

“She just makes people better around her,” Clarendon said, “and that’s really nice to have as a point guard playmaker myself, it’s like great to have another point guard playmaker knowing like I could be off the ball sometimes and she could bring it out, but we have like multiple people who can play and lead in different positions.”

“I know games start next weekend,” Ionescu told AP. “And I’m really excited to go out and play and see what we have. I miss having those pregame jitters and getting nervous and excited when we play against another team.

“I know they’ll be down days and games we’re not going to win, but there’s going to be a lot of room for growth and I’m excited to be part of that.”

She also likes that the system Hopkins has installed is similar to what she ran at Oregon.

“I think it’s been really similar to where I went to college and, you know, coach (Kelly) Graves (at Oregon) kind of had that same system, where he just let us make reads and play. He didn’t have to call a play every single time down, and I think that’s really been the same with Coach Hopkins. He kind of gives us the freedom to be able just to play basketball and use our basketball IQ...”