One place the Liberty appear set is at the point guard position. Though Ionescu played only three games before an ankle injury ended her season, she quickly displayed the evolved offensive repertoire that turned her Oregon team into a juggernaut, and her 33-point effort against the Dallas Wings served notice that her production translates to the next level. When Ionescu went down, Layshia Clarendon, a former All-Star, took over point guard duties and provided veteran leadership. With Clarendon running the offense, the Liberty proved they could play at the speed Coach Walt Hopkins preaches, finishing second in the league in pace.
Ionescu’s return will give the Liberty even more options. Her pick-and-roll skills juiced the offense at Oregon, where she collaborated with rolling bigs like Ruthy Hebard (now with the Chicago Sky) and Satou Sabally (now with Dallas).
It is easy to picture the team around Ionescu taking form. Kia Nurse, whose season-long shooting slump in 2020 came after her breakthrough All-Star 2019 season, seems likely to return to form. The perimeter looks that Hopkins’s system generates should be more fruitful with the sharpshooting of Rebecca Allen of Australia and Marine Johannes of France, both of whom opted out of the 2020 season over concerns about traveling to the United States during the pandemic.
Bigs: Natasha Howard or Nneka Ogwumike?
The team’s primary center from last year, Amanda Zahui B., is a free agent. Kiah Stokes, who recently signed an extension with the Liberty, is efficient around the rim but struggled from 3-point range for a team that gave everyone the green light to shoot from deep.
The market ahead offers multiple ways to address this deficiency, while potentially pairing the younger Ionescu with a veteran big with championship experience. Natasha Howard, who was a bench player on Minnesota Lynx championship teams and then a vital part of the Seattle Storm title winners in 2018 and 2020, is a free agent. She shot 35 percent from 3-point range last year, while feasting on interior defenders worn down from trying to stop Breanna Stewart. But Howard was the fourth offensive option in Seattle, after Stewart, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd, and she could decide to join the Liberty and become more of a focal point. She averaged only 7.5 shot attempts per game in 2020.
Then there’s Nneka Ogwumike, the longtime Los Angeles Sparks forward. Like Howard, she is a free agent, and like Howard, she was relatively low on the pecking order in Sparks Coach Derek Fisher’s offense last year, averaging a career-low 9.3 shot attempts per game. She’s also the president of the W.N.B.A. players’ union and, with a move to New York, would find herself a subway ride away from its headquarters.
While Seattle and Los Angeles have given Howard and Ogwumike core designations, that only guarantees compensation for the teams should the players force their way out. That was how Charles and Diggins-Smith landed with new teams last season. A lineup of Ionescu and either Howard or Ogwumike, with the other returning Liberty players like Nurse and Allen, would be the framework for a true contender.