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Why Sabrina Ionescu’s rebounding is crucial to her role as the WNBA’s next superstar

Kelly Sopak can remember the exact moment he watched Sabrina Ionescu embrace the art of the rebound.

As a sixth-grader, Ionescu was playing up with the eighth-grade team. She was skilled with a chance to be special but just not yet physical enough. When her teammates headed off to high school the following year, Sopak ― who coached Ionescu in high school and at the grassroots level ― had her play de ella with her own age group.

If Ionescu had one rebound until that point, it was probably a career high. That quickly changed.

“Just had the uncanny ability to kind of knife through and slither through people (to get a rebound),” Sopak said. “Her length of her was (at that point) taking shape. She still has those long arms. And you started to see her rebound.”

While Sopak could see when it all came together for her in seventh grade, Ionescu looks back to her days playing with and against boys. Growing up with an older brother and a twin brother, Ionescu was often the only girl in games. She spent lots of time on the playground, picking up the importance of snagging a board.

“They didn’t really pass so I had to find a way to get the ball and that was just the rebounding,” Ionescu said. “So I think I’ve just always kind of found a way to try and help the team and get as many rebounds as I can.”

Now a starter for the New York Liberty, that skill is helping establish Ionescu as one of the young stars of the WNBA. She’s recorded two triple-doubles this season and has been close to achieving the feat multiple times. She averages 7.2 rebounds per game, the 11th most in the league to rank in the 92nd percentile, according to HerHoopStats, and the most rebounds per game among guards. Her 6.1 defensive rebounds per game from Ella rank seventh overall. Add that to her assists de ella (6.2 per game, third in the league) and scoring (17.2 points per game, ninth), and Ionescu is clearly a uniquely versatile player.

Ionescu is the only primary ballhandler for a team who ranks in the top 20 for rebounds this season. Sue Bird, for comparison’s sake, averages 1.7 rebounds a game, while Sky veteran guard Allie Quigley tallies 2.8 a game.

“(I’m) impressed with her rebounding,” Quigley said. “Not many guards can get that many rebounds per game. Overall, just her competitiveness of her and her fearlessness of her (stand out). ”

In high school, Ionescu became a rebounding magnet. If she wasn’t playing point guard, the ball usually was usually passed to her. If she went for a rebound, she often got it. By the time she left Miramonte High School in California, Ionescu had recorded the single-season rebound record: 298 as a junior. By the time she left college at Oregon, she was the first player (female or male) in NCAA history with 2,000 career points, 1,000 career rebounds and 1,000 career assists.

“First and foremost, she cares,” Sopak said. “You can teach (rebounding) technique. You can teach a lot of things about boxing out. But at the end of the day: See ball, get ball, and that’s Sabrina.”

Ionescu’s rebounding is as much a part of her pro career as it was her younger days — and fans are starting to see her full potential. After being selected No. 1 in the 2020 draft, she suffered an ankle sprain three games into her career and sat out the rest of her rookie season. She wasn’t fully healthy in her second pro season either, and she opted not to play overseas last winter. She focused on rehabbing and training to return to New York healthy and refreshed. Now, Ionescu seems to have found her pro jogging from her. Between a near constant triple-double watch and her clutch highlight plays, she’s already one of the league’s must-watch guards.

Sabrina Ionescu’s ability to rebound as a guard has set her apart in her third pro season. (Wendell Cruz/USA Today)

Sopak still sees a version of the younger Ionescu when watching her play for the Liberty.

“I still see a little kid running out there on TV now and just getting rebounds the same way she always has,” he said. “And I really think it’s because she cares.”

This season has been revealing in many ways for Ionescu. She’s been a major reason that New York’s playoff hopes remain alive; she’s averaging team-high minutes and points while adding clutch shots in big moments. She made her first All-Star Game appearance and won the skills competition as part of the weekend festivities. While the weekend in Chicago was largely focused on honoring retiring legends Bird and Sylvia Fowles, Ionescu’s play from her helped showcase the WNBA’s next generation — of which she is a headliner.

Quigley, who retired from the 3-point competition after a record four wins, named Ionescu as a player who could carry that competition’s mantle. Candace Parker, the Sky veteran who also recorded two triple-doubles this season, sees Ionescu’s ability to reel off points, rebounds and assists as part of the game’s evolution. Moriah Jefferson and Alyssa Thomas each have one triple-double performance this season, but only 11 players have recorded triple-doubles in league history.

“I think it’s the new age of players, but I also think it’s the way the game is played now,” Parker said. She’s tied with Ionescu for most triple-doubles in league history with three total. “It’s more fast-paced now. Now, you’re seeing 90s and 100 scores. They’re setting the record for 3-point shots. So it’s more like made shots. When we were coming to the league, I don’t know what the average was for points, but I’m sure it was way less than it is now. So you have more shooters, so you’re going to have more assists and your playmaking is better. So I think it’s just a combination of yes, the skill set of the players like Sabrina, but also, I think it’s the skill set of those that are around her that are able to knock down shots.”

Going from the collegiate “Triple-Double Queen” to the pros has forced Ionescu to adjust to veteran rebounders like Parker. There’s not only a larger age gap — rookies are facing some players nearly twice their age — but also more physical opponents.

“It’s been a learning experience and I’m just trying to do my best to do what I can to help the team win,” Ionescu said. “If that’s to get a lot of rebounds or get none and box out, that’s what I’ll do.”

Ionescu continues to watch the ball, seeing the rotation and getting the best spot to try to secure the ball. Sopak said she’s long had a knack for where the ball is going to go, either off her shot of her or someone else’s. He looks at Ionescu’s precision passing from her as another example of her intuitive feel from her for the game. To Sopak, what’s overlooked in her accolades from her is her ability to box out to help her teammates grab boards.

One of those teammates, Natasha Howard, smiles when asked about Ionescu’s rebounding. “She’s taking my rebounds,” the 6-foot-2 forward says with a laugh.

Howard actually loves what Ionescu brings to the Liberty in the paint and how the 5-11 point guard adds extra possessions through her rebounds. Howard compared Ionescu to the Connecticut Sun’s Courtney Williams (averaging 5.3 rebounds per game over her career). The Liberty have had an unusual season, dealing with a plethora of injuries that have seemed to hamper postseason hopes. After a 1-7 start, the Liberty won seven of the next 10, going into the All-Star break with momentum. New York fumbled that with four straight losses but then won a close game over the defending champion Sky on Saturday to remain a playoff contender.

Ionescu came up clutch with a drive to the basket that tied the game in the final 10 seconds.

She stepped up like she has countless times before. Over the course of the season, Howard has watched Ionescu become more vocal. Like others, she sees a bright future for Ionescu.

“In my eyes,” Howard said, “she’s turning into a vet.”

(Top photo: Catalina Fragoso / NBAE via Getty Images)


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