After a transcendent career at Oregon that made her the easy choice as the No. 1 overall draft pick for the Liberty in 2020, Ionescu severely sprained an ankle in her third W.N.B.A. game and missed the rest of her rookie season. This season, she was hard to miss. Her game face stretched across the entrance of Barclays Center. Slam magazine called her the “The Next Queen of NY” on its April/May cover. She traded wisecracks in commercials with the 11-time N.B.A. All-Star Chris Paul, who was in the stands for the playoff game.
Ionescu, 23, led the league in jersey sales this season, just ahead of Seattle’s Sue Bird, who has played in the W.N.B.A. almost as long as Ionescu has been alive. “She’s just done a really, truly magnificent job of balancing expectations that may have been unrealistic for a rookie,” Hopkins said.
In her playoff debut Ionescu finished with 14 points, a game-high 11 assists, and 5 rebounds.
It takes years, even for prodigies, to grow into their potential. Hopkins pointed to the Mercury’s Skylar Diggins-Smith, who at 31 made her first Olympic team this past summer, and scored a team-high 22 points against the Liberty. “She’s finally realizing her potential,” Hopkins said of Diggins-Smith.