Let’s see what you got, kid.
That’s the message — in a nutshell — Storm stars Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd delivered to Sabrina Ionescu.
Each of them knows all about the challenges and demands the New York Liberty rookie sensation will face this season, starting with Saturday’s 9 a.m. PT season opener against Seattle at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Like Ionescu, all three Storm stars were the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft and saddled with expectations of lifting a moribund franchise that had fallen to the bottom of the league.
“When you’re the No. 1 pick, everyone comes at you,” said Bird, the league’s oldest player at 39 who was taken first in the 2002 draft. “It doesn’t matter what position you play. That was my experience, and I bet if you can ask Stewie, that was her experience, too.”
Stewart added: “When I look back to when I was drafted, a lot of people wanted to see what you can do. That’s just going to be how it is when they match up every night.”
After the Storm selected Stewart No. 1 overall in the 2016 draft, the former Connecticut star made an immediate impact, scoring 23 points in her WNBA debut. She averaged 18.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks before winning the league’s Rookie of the Year award and leading the Storm back to the playoffs after a three-year absence.
Liberty fans are hoping Ionescu can have a similar impact as Stewart and Bird, who both needed three seasons before winning a league championship with the Storm.
“She is the face of the franchise at this point now that she’s been drafted,” Stewart said of Ionescu. “What’s in front of her while we’re here in the bubble, it’s going to be competitive games.”
Not since Stewart, the 2018 WNBA and Finals MVP who sat out last year while recovering from an Achilles injury, has a rookie entered the WNBA with so much fanfare.
Ionescu was a three-time All-American at Oregon and the NCAA’s all-time triple-double leader. She is the only Division I player to record at least 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds.
However, it remains to be seen if the 5-foot-11 point guard can carry a Liberty team that hasn’t won a playoff game in five years and is at the start of a major overhaul.
In the offseason, New York traded 11-time All-Star Tina Charles and stocked the roster with seven rookies, including six taken in the draft in April.
Second-year Liberty guard Asia Durr, who finished fourth on the team in scoring last season, is sitting out the WNBA season after testing positive for COVID-19 on June 8.
New York rookie coach Walt Hopkins is forced to lean heavily on Ionescu considering the Liberty returns just two starters from a team that finished 10-24 last year.
“Obviously she has a young team, and for them it’s probably more about long-term goals and developing and implementing what they want their culture to be,” Bird said. “For Sabrina, the best part of it (is) she’ll probably get handed the keys to the car.
“For her it’ll just be, you throw yourself into the fire, you see how you respond, and you learn from it.”
Every WNBA rookie regardless of stature must navigate a demanding regular-season schedule — that’s condensed to 22 games this year — filled with potential potholes and obstacles.
Loyd, the No. 1 overall pick in 2015, understands that as much as anyone.
The guard struggled early and asked to be taken out of the starting lineup during her rookie year. Midway into the season Loyd regained her starting spot and scored in double figures in 11 of her final 15 games to average 10.7 points, which led all rookies.
“The biggest thing coming into the league is trying to find out who you are and what you can do,” said Loyd, the 2015 Rookie of the Year and two-time All-Star. “When you’re an elite player, college is pretty easy.
“In the league, in general, people’s job is to make your life miserable. They try to make it as difficult as possible, and that’s just how it is. It’s a paycheck that you’re fighting for, and your job.”
No one among the Storm knows Ionescu better than third-year point guard Jordin Canada, who starred at UCLA and posted a 1-4 record against the former Ducks star.
“She’s gotten so much better since when I played against her,” Canada said. “What’s really special about her is her ability to read pick and rolls and being such a great passer.
“As a rookie you don’t really see that a lot as a point guard. I know I struggled with that. But for her to just come in automatically and being able to read the defense and (be) such a great passer, I think that’s what’s special about her.”