The Sabrina Ionescu Rules
The highly anticipated debut of the greatest women's college basketball player ever took place over the weekend. It was a lot more difficult than expected.
Sabrina Ionescu and her New York Liberty took the floor against the league's top team in the Seattle Storm. The Storm were the unanimous selection amongst ESPN analysts to win the 2020 WNBA Championship. On Saturday, it was easy to see why.
Their defensive presence was swarming and in postseason form. They applied smart, relentless and coordinated pressure against the league's top rookie and never allowed her to get into a rhythm. Ionescu finished the game with 12 points, 4 assists and 4 turnovers, going 0-for-8 from deep, the most missed threes in a debut without a make in WNBA or NBA history.
Not all opponents for Ionescu will be as stingy and tough as the Storm. What Seattle did do was provide a roadmap for how to frustrate and limit Ionescu's impact, turning her into a spot-up shooter and a passer. Whether opponents copy their strategy, let alone if they're able to execute it with the same level of gusto, remains to be seen.
Early in the contest, the Liberty appeared intent on easing Sabrina into her role. They ran action away from her and used her as a catch-and-shoot threat. When the offense appeared to become more centered around her, the Storm's strategy really emerged.
The Storm were in her grill the entire day. Her defender would be in a closed stance, mirroring Ionescu and full on denying her the ability to catch the ball on reversal passes or handoffs. They were engaged on Sabrina from the start, shooting gaps and hugging her tightly whenever she'd set a back screen so that there could be no opportunity for her to get open:
Some of the moves are subtle, but Ionescu didn't get any easy touches, let alone easy looks, early. The pressure disrupted the offensive sets and left the Liberty to seek buckets without other primary playmakers capable of breaking down the Storm one-on-one.
Beyond the tactics of where and when they pressured, the Storm were intent on sending a message to Ionescu about how she'd be defended the entire afternoon. When scraping for a ball or jumping through their assignment, the d wouldn't be afraid to pick up a foul and knock Sabrina on her butt. There was no such thing as being too aggressive on her, a tone which they quickly set:
By making every catch difficult, the Storm forced New York to run their offense far beyond the 3-point line. They made Sabrina dance to get open and slowed down the rest of their attack.
Most importantly, they could pressure other spots while Ionescu struggled to get herself free. The Liberty lack other tremendous playmakers. When the ball was in Jocelyn Willoughby's hands in a Horns set, the Storm would pounce on Willoughby and pressure her as she seemed fixated on waiting for Sabrina to get open:
It's subtle, but Breanna Stewart shades her hands in the passing lane of Willoughby to discourage any reversal pass. Stewart, arguably the league's top player, has a ridiculous wingspan and puts it to good use here when crowding Willoughby. That's the coordinated effort of the Storm defense: not just pressure on Ionescu, but pressure on her teammates.
The most logical counter to a half-court denial for a star player is to let them bring it up the floor. The Liberty would find ways to get the ball into Ionescu's hands to quickly initiate the offense. She needed a little help springing herself open, so teammates would set ball screens for her.
The played right into Seattle's hands.
From start to finish, the Storm were trapping her off pick-and-rolls, forcing her to become a passer and playmaker for others. On middle pick-and-rolls, the Storm would try to force Ionescu to retreat towards half-court and remove herself from scoring range. She was able to turn the corner once in the first quarter, flipping up an erratic lefty layup attempt, but got virtually nothing else out of ball screens in the middle of the floor:
On side ball screens, the Storm were even more aggressive. The sideline can be used as an extra defender, sealing off one direction from the handler. The Storm tried their hardest to pin Sabrina to the sidelines, combining ice tactics (a no-middle ball screen coverage designed to keep the ball towards the sideline) with bigs who were ready to pounce and use their length to cut off passing angles.
Ionescu would drive to her left and get pinned to the left side of the floor. As a result, she'd protect the ball by bringing it to her outside shoulder, which was her non-dominant arm. That makes throwing skip passes over long arms in a trap a pretty difficult task.
The Storm were able to get a steal or a deflection on every sideline trap they initiated:
Head coach Walt Hopkins is no dummy, though. He designed the offense to include Split actions, a common cut seen at the NBA level when the ball goes into the post for a post-up. The Liberty would throw the ball inside and then see two cutters, one of which was Ionescu, converge at the elbow above the ball.
The gravity that Ionescu demands and commands in a denial scheme would open slips for her teammates at the rim:
The Liberty didn't get too much mileage out of this action, though.
Storm defenders would hone in on this attack and get even tighter to Ionescu. Meanwhile, the Liberty went too slowly through the action to get an advantage. Their wings would take too long to either set physical screens for Ionescu (which didn't get her open in scoring range) or be late to start their cuts.
Success in split actions comes from speed when they converge. They'd turn it over or fail to score when going too slow:
It's clear Sabrina needs more repetition in these actions. Her defender was so aggressive with top-siding her and denying a catch on the perimeter that there were multiple occasions when she could simply reverse pivot, change course and get a slip to a layup herself.
These opportunities were evident in the Split action:
One performance doesn't make anyone a disappointment. Ionescu is one of the most well-rounded talents the league has ever seen. She had 12, 6 and 4 while going 0-for-8 from deep and facing traps in ball screens the whole game.
There was a lot to like from her debut. she made some exquisite passes and reads, particularly in the open floor. She got herself free on a few occasions and got to the free throw line.
But what the Storm showed was a combination of their dominance and the blueprint for how to neutralize and frustrate the rookie out of Oregon. The WNBA season is young, and hopefully we'll see if Ionescu and her teammates can respond to the challenges they faced out of the gate.
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Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).