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Sabrina Ionescu's playmaking and efficiency guiding New York Liberty

Sabrina Ionescu's playmaking and efficiency guiding New York Liberty

After an up and down start to the season, New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu has greatly impressed since the start of June. Her recent play was encapsulated by a landmark performance against the Minnesota Lynx on Tuesday night, in which Ionescu scored 26 points... on 11 shots... while only playing in the first three quarters. 

In case you still needed confirmation on how wide the rims were for Ionescu last night, she hit this.

The Liberty are 4-8, but three of those wins have come in the four games played thus far in June. Ionescu has scored 20 or more points in all four games after having accomplished the same task only seven times in 41 career WNBA games prior. She's been absolutely on fire.

Boasting 26.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists (vs. 2.5 turnovers) per game on .574/.469/1.00 shooting splits is bonkers; that's a 74.7% True Shooting percentage!

While noting that the Liberty have played only one team currently slated to make postseason play in this four-game run (Washington Mystics), this stretch is essential for the immediate future of the New York Liberty.

Another essential indicator: plus-15.83.

What is it? The difference in points scored per 100 possessions when Crystal Dangerfield plays the point guard position alongside Ionescu and when Dangerfield is off the court. Per PBP Stats, the Liberty have a 94.5 Offensive Rating without Dangerfield on the court and Ionescu on. With both on the court, that figure shoots up to 110.1.

When looking at the base Net Rating from Her Hoop Stats as a reference, that's a jump from the 10th-ranked offense in The W to the best. It's of course not a drag-and-drop equation, but the point remains: With Ionescu playing alongside another lead ball-handler, the Liberty offense is vastly better (and the defense remains roughly the same).

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This is not an indictment of Ionescu, but rather a dimension of New York's roster. Ionescu isn't currently routinely able to create high-level looks without a ball-screen. With how good Ionescu is at creating out of pick-and-roll, she's commanded two defenders to the ball much of the season, which has negated much of her ability to put defenses in rotation.

Adding Dangerfield to the starting lineup (the biggest change in this four-game stretch) hasn't actually changed Ionescu's usage as you'd think; her usage in June is up substantially from the first eight games of the season from 22.1% to 28.75%.

While Ionescu has just shot better in general and is certainly in an outlier stretch (21% above league average TS is insane), her looks have been easier — even her tougher shots. She's been very aggressive, but she's getting more clean three point attempt looks by... not having the ball!

That sounds counterintuitive, but playing with Dangerfield creates the opportunities for easier looks when Ionescu isn't always tasked with intitiating sets. Even when she is taking those tougher looks contested in the mid-range, it's more on her terms and dictated by her pacing than it was earlier in the year.

Dangerfield is remarkably quick and so good at getting downhill, knifing into the paint. The threat of someone who can penetrate the paint outside of Ionescu does wonders for the Liberty. It seems small, but watch this set.

The dribble continuity is awesome. Dangerfield puts things in motion and Ionescu is brought off of a screen up to the ball. The defense isn't dictating that possession when Ionescu isn't the player starting with the ball. Earlier in the season, she would get swarmed as soon as the screen came (watch that Sky game... MAN).

Again, speaking of the threat of another drive.

In spite of how small this New York team is across the board, it lacks many ball-handlers who can get downhill. The extra step of contemplation that Dangerfield draws from Sylvia Fowles, which in turn opens Sabrina up for the deep shot? That wasn't there earlier this season.

Having a player to even open a set for Ionescu to then initiate after flowing off of the ball makes it that much simpler to find a rhythm.

Utilizing Ionescu off of screens or even as a screener herself opens up more ways to weaponize her shooting abilities, which in turn provides more versatility in attacking out of secondary pick-and-rolls.

Dangerfield scores here, but why?

There's a momentary miscommunication and hesitation on the switch between Kayla McBride and Evina Westbrook. Ionescu's threat as a shooter is likely the root cause! If this is properly switched or communicated, Stef Dolson is cleaning house with a solid screen and Dangerfield is likely finding Ionescu above the arc to flow into a secondary action. 

Easier looks and less work to get into sets and shift the pieces on the chess board has made life simpler for Ionescu as a decision-maker and scorer. She can use her tempo and pacing to probe and attack now that those lanes exist with more regularity.

Does it matter if Ionescu "is" a point guard? To me, not really. These past four games have shown how good she can be and better apply her skills when she has another ball-handler alongside her. She certainly has limitations as a heliocentric creator, but that's partially on the roster as well.

What Sabrina Ionsecu brings is remarkably valuable and hard to replicate at the highest levels. Putting her in better positions to succeed provides strands of hope for a season that looked headed for disaster. How she and the Liberty continue to grow and develop as the season goes on will be a key storyline as the year unfolds.

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