Sabrina Ionescu was hailed as a savior for the moribund Liberty when New York’s W.N.B.A. team drafted her No. 1 overall last year. And why not? At the time, Ionescu was the college player of the year, the record-setting star of one of the best teams in the country.
That made her a strong candidate to resurrect the Liberty, who were coming off two straight losing seasons and still chasing — more than two decades after becoming a founding member of the league — their first W.N.B.A. title.
But Ionescu’s transition from college stardom to professional basketball was anything but smooth. Her career at Oregon ended in disappointment when the N.C.A.A. tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and then her rookie year with the Liberty ended in her third game when she injured her ankle.
Now she is making up for lost time. In her third game of the new season on Tuesday night, Ionescu put up her first career triple-double: 26 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists in a win over the Minnesota Lynx.
In the N.B.A., triple-doubles have become increasingly common. There were 142 this season alone, 38 of them by Washington’s Russell Westbrook. But in the W.N.B.A., they remain a rarity. There have only been nine, in fact, in the league’s 25-year history.
Ionescu’s was only the second that included 20 points. In 2004, Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks had 29 points in a triple-double that included 15 rebounds and 10 blocks.
Ionescu, 23, also became the youngest player and the first Liberty player with a W.N.B.A. triple-double, but the feeling was hardly new. She had 26 triple-doubles in college, an N.C.A.A. record.
“Obviously getting a triple-double in a win is important,” she said after Tuesday’s game. “It’s definitely pretty cool.”
Should Ionescu do it again — and why wouldn’t she? — she would set the record for regular-season W.N.B.A. triple-doubles, with two, although Sheryl Swoopes once had one in the regular season and another in the playoffs in the same year.
Ionescu’s season is just three games old, but she is already matching or exceeding the hype that marked the start of her career. Going into Wednesday night’s games, she leads the league in assists, with 9 per game, and ranks fifth in scoring at 21 points per game. As a 5-foot-11 point guard, she even ranks third in defensive rebounds.
Outside of the triple-double stats, Ionescu also leads the league with 10 3-pointers, and is making them at a .526 clip. She ranks first in both free throws and attempts, hitting 19 of 21 so far.
And one could argue that Tuesday’s game was only her second most memorable night of the season. Last week, she hit a game-winning 3-pointer to beat the Indiana Fever in the Liberty’s season opener.
When a team is as bad as the Ionescu-less Liberty was last year — they finished a league-worst 2-20 — improvement is expected. It doesn’t always come so fast. But now the Liberty are off to a 3-0 start for the first time in 14 years, and it is not absurd to see a healthy Ionescu lead the team to the playoffs.
She isn’t afraid of the rising expectations.
“The expectations I have for myself are always higher than anyone else’s,” she said last fall, “regardless of what level I’m playing at.”