• The Star Staff

WNBA rookie showdown halted by Ionescu injury

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu hurt her left ankle in the second quarter against the Atlanta Dream

By Gina Mizell

Sabrina Ionescu accidentally stepped on Betnijah Laney’s foot near midcourt, then dropped to the floor after rolling her left ankle.

What was supposed to be an early-season showdown between Ionescu, the Liberty guard, and the Atlanta Dream’s Chennedy Carter, two of the top WNBA rookie of the year contenders, took an abrupt turn in the second quarter Friday night.

Ionescu, unable to put weight on her left leg, slung her arms around the shoulders of two team staff members as they helped her off the floor. She was found to have a sprained ankle, and underwent X-rays as the game at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., continued. The team said Saturday that doctors believed the sprain would not require surgery.

Carter also could not finish her third professional game. She struggled early, converted a string of key buckets down the stretch, and then fouled out with less than two minutes to play.

Ionescu and Carter illustrated that, even for the most promising young players, WNBA life can be rocky.

“You got to grind night in and night out in this league,” Atlanta coach Nicki Collen said after her team’s 84-78 victory. “You can say, ‘Would it have been different if Ionescu played?’ Sure, it might have been different. It’s hard to say. But you play the cards that are dealt to you and you find ways to win.”

Ionescu and Carter are both expected to play crucial roles on their rebuilding teams.

It has been years since a player entered the league with as much fanfare as Ionescu. Thanks to a multidimensional skill set, she set the NCAA record for career triple-doubles while leading Oregon to the 2019 Final Four. She was poised for another deep NCAA tournament run with Oregon this season, before the event was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Liberty drafted her first overall in April, and Ionescu was immediately tasked with anchoring a New York team that went 10-24 last season and recently hired a new coach, Walt Hopkins. The Liberty have six other rookies, and played Friday without 2019 All-Star Kia Nurse, who sprained her ankle in last week’s opener against Seattle.

It took only two games for Ionescu to unleash her first breakout performance: She totaled 33 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in Wednesday’s loss to Dallas.

Yet Ionescu remained matter-of-fact in her self-assessment.

She made 4 of 17 shots in her WNBA debut against Seattle, and acknowledged she “didn’t have much confidence” and rushed while shooting. She thanked the Storm, a championship contender, for immediately showing her how much faster, stronger and more athletic professional players are compared with college athletes. She said she felt more comfortable during the Dallas game but that building chemistry with a new group takes time.

“My teammates know it took us some growing pains at Oregon, as well,” Ionescu said.

When asked Friday about the prospect of a lengthy Ionescu absence, Hopkins did not mince words.

“There’s not a lot of ready-to-go options hanging around,” Hopkins said. “We’re going to have to huddle up and see if we can get Kia right. Hopefully it’s not serious with Sabrina.”

Carter, the fourth overall draft pick out of Texas A&M, has an attacking, score-first style that earned her the nickname Hollywood.

She has become the primary ballhandler for an Atlanta team that is trying to up its playing pace after finishing last season 8-26 and overhauling its roster. The Dream have 11 new players, and are just introducing Courtney Williams and Glory Johnson to the mix after both players cleared testing protocol for the coronavirus.

Carter totaled 18 points, eight assists and five rebounds in her WNBA debut, a victory against Dallas. She then struggled shooting in a 30-point loss to Las Vegas. Collen said she has challenged Carter to improve her shot selection and, at times, her defensive engagement. Carter believes she is “a little bit underrated” as a passer, and hopes her first outing indicates she can also facilitate as a point guard.

“We’ve put in a lot of work in training camp, and I’m starting to really know them and find them,” Carter said. “It’ll all come together.”

Carter finished with 17 points on 6-of-15 shooting and three assists Friday, a performance with rough stretches and dynamic moments.

She missed shots early. But with less than five minutes to play, she drew a foul on a drive, finished a scooping layup and buried a nifty pullup jumper at the elbow to help the Dream maintain their advantage. With 1:25 to play, though, Carter made contact with New York’s Jazmine Jones as Jones rose for a jumper, which sent Carter to the bench with her sixth foul.

Before her injury, Ionescu appeared to be on her way to another impressive performance.

She scored 10 points in 12 minutes, mixing aggressive drives with outside shooting. During one excellent sequence, she finished at the basket, sprinted back and jumped to snag a steal, then delivered an overhead pass down the floor — while still airborne — to Layshia Clarendon for a layup.

But by the fourth quarter, the Liberty needed their other rookies to produce with Ionescu injured. Jones finished with 20 points, two steals and two blocks off the bench, while Jocelyn Willoughby added 14 points, three steals and two blocks.

“It’s been exciting to see, every night, somebody else has stepped up,” Hopkins said. “What we’ve talked about with consistency, with a younger team, it’s about getting those types of efforts.”