The WNBA season started with 26 seconds of silence and an empty court.
“We are dedicating this season to Breonna Taylor,” Layshia Clarendon, a New York Liberty guard and member of the new WNBA Social Justice Council, said at the game’s start. “We will be a voice for the voiceless.”
The 2020 season, which is being played in a 22-week “bubble” tournament at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, is expected to be charged with social justice initiatives alongside a full championship schedule. Symbols and logos declaring “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name” were prominent on the court, and players wore jerseys that bore the name of Taylor.
The opener — pitting young guns against league veterans, first times and comebacks — ended with an 87-71 Seattle Storm victory over the Liberty.
The Storm brought back Sue Bird, the all-time assist leader of the league, and Breanna Stewart, the 2018 MVP, after both were unable to play last season. The team started with the same lineup that garnered it the 2018 championship title.
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Both players were comfortable on the court: Bird with 11 points and five assists; Stewart 18 points, eight rebounds, two assists and a personal-record four steals. The team’s defensive strategy forced the Liberty into 20 turnovers and 35% shooting.
“I have no problem saying it,” Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins said in a pregame Zoom call with reporters, “they’re probably the favorite to win it this year.”
While the Storm sported a seasoned lineup, the Liberty entered the arena with a new set of players, staff and strategy. Hopkins, a first-time head coach who previously was an assistant coach for the Minnesota Lynx, has pushed for a faster pace and more 3-point attempts.
Sabrina Ionescu, the No. 1 2020 draft pick out of Oregon, played for nearly 34 minutes in her first league game. She made the first rebound of her career just a few minutes into the game and closed her debut with 12 points, six rebounds and four assists. But the player, known for her triple-doubles, wasn’t able to sink any 3-pointers, and ended up making 4 of 17 shots from the floor.
“I definitely think we did have some letdowns,” she said in a postgame Zoom call. Ionescu is the only NCAA basketball player to record 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds. “But we have to play in a few days and I have to learn from those mistakes.”
She’s one of seven rookies on the Liberty’s roster, which started down Asia Durr, who is battling the coronavirus, and rookie Megan Walker, who will join the team Monday following quarantine protocols after testing positive for the coronavirus just over two weeks ago.
Jazmine Jones, another new face to the WNBA, was also absent after sustaining an ankle sprain in training this past week. And the Liberty lost Kia Nurse, their second-leading scorer, with eight minutes left in the second quarter, to an apparent ankle sprain, although a final diagnosis has yet to be announced.
The New York Liberty will play the Dallas Wings on Wednesday; the Storm against the Minnesota Lynx on Tuesday.
The games will continue to be marked by social justice initiatives; the league dedicates its 22-week season to Taylor.
“We’re not just slapping her name on a shirt and saying, ‘Here we go,’” Clarendon said. “We’re being intentional about this and working with her mother.”