Avengers: Infinity War, Machu Picchu, and Flex Tape.
Those are all the things I can think of that lived up to all the hype they received. Nothing else. Not Batman v. Superman, not the Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather fight, and especially not Anthony Bennett. However, I might have to start putting Sabrina Ionescu on that first list as well.
I remember way back yonder in 2020, everything I saw concerning the WNBA was about someone playing college basketball. Everything was about Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu. People spoke so highly of her that some of her accomplishments felt fake. She led her college team to a victory over Team USA in an exhibition game. She was mentored by Kobe Bryant. She was on her way to winning every award in women’s college basketball before COVID shut the season down. I thought to myself: “There’s no way she’s that good.” Sure, she was the sure-fire No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming draft, but so was Zion Williamson, and I wouldn’t say he’s been all he was cracked up to be. He’s been good, but not the guy who’d make Pelicans fans forget about Anthony Davis like he was supposed to. Well, it turns out, I’m a pathetic, pessimistic, dumb-brain, because Ionescu has taken every expectation and blown them out of the water.
COVID-19 robbed us of a lot in 2020, but after the first three games of the 2021 WNBA season, Ionescu’s rookie year might have been one of the greatest sports casualties of the pandemic. All Ionescu has done in this short amount of time is lead the New York Liberty to a 3-0 start, hit a game-winning buzzer-beater to open the season, and record the 9th triple-double in WNBA history (it was also the first in New York Liberty history, and Ionescu is the youngest player in WNBA history to record a triple-double). All that in just her sixth career game. Oh, and she’s done it all without the presence of one of her best teammates, Asia Durr. It is nothing short of insane what Ionescu has been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time.
This is exactly what I wanted to see from the WNBA this year. After the 2020 season had to be shielded off from fans, the WNBA needed something to draw people back in. It’s incredible to see someone so dedicated to success and achieving it. It’s not being handed to her, and she’ll definitely face some struggle down the line, but she’s taking adversity head-on and striving to be better every moment. Her basketball mentality has been compared to Michael Jordan’s, and from what I’ve seen, I can’t disagree with that assessment. There’s an aura surrounding Ionescu whenever she’s got the ball in her hands that screams “I am going to embarrass you” — the same energy that MJ brought to the table for the Bulls. For a player with that attitude, that swagger, and that elite level of play to back it up, to be playing in New York City is just *mwah* beautiful icing on the cake. It hasn’t been this good to be a New York basketball fan in dang near a decade. Julius Randle is having the best season of his career — leading the Knicks to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 — and he’s not even the best player in the Big Apple.
This lightning-quick rise to stardom for Ionescu makes me think about all the other “can’t miss” players in the WNBA recently. It makes me wonder whether or not we’d look at them differently if they’d played in LA, Chicago, or New York. Players like Brittney Griner, Maya Moore, Breanna Stewart, and A’ja Wilson were all expected to be the next big name to go down in the WNBA mythos. Between them are dozens of All-Star appearances and a few MVP awards, but none of them were ever talked about nearly as often as Elena Delle Donne. Is that because Delle Donne was the only one of them to play for a major market? I think that has a lot to do with it.
Talk of WNBA expansion has heated up this year. With the success of players like Ionescu and her being thrust into the national spotlight, it seems like this may be the perfect opportunity for the WNBA to do so. Adding a second team to the Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York markets would create more opportunity for great players to draw more attention to the WNBA as a whole. Ionescu will be a key figure in expanding the WNBA’s fanbase. She is doing things never before seen on the hardwood, and she has an opportunity to set the stage for a fun, compelling WNBA season when it so desperately needs one. I look forward to watching it.