Nylon Notebook: Sabrina Ionescu and early-season WNBA outliers

The WNBA season is not even a week old but we’ve already seen some eye-popping individual performances. Who have been the stars of small sample size theater?

It’s been just five days since the WNBA season tipped off but we’ve already seen a historic triple-double, a 30-point scoring explosion, a wild game-winner and several stars smashing their previous career highs. Who has started this season on the right foot?

Sabrina Ionescu is carrying an unprecedented offensive load for the New York Liberty

With the Liberty off to a 3-0 start, Sabrina Ionescu has been the face of this first week of the season. She’s averaging 21.0 points, 9.0 assists and 7.0 rebounds per game and was responsible for both the aforementioned triple-double and the wild game-winner. We only got to see three games of Ionescu last season before an ankle injury knocked her out of the Wubble. And in her three games so far this season she’s already established a historic pace.

The graph compares Ionescu’s numbers from this season to the previous 40 seasons in WNBA history where a player was on the court for at least 300 minutes and recorded a usage rate and assist percentage that were both above 25.0.

Ionescu really is on an island by herself at this point, an outlier from an archipelago of fellow outliers. The load she’s carrying for the Liberty as a creator — both for herself and others — is in unprecedented territory.

One of the other interesting things here is Chennedy Carter’s numbers from last season, which put her in similar territory but with the outlier usage traded for Ionescu’s outlier assist percentage (and then whatever the heck Angel McCoughtry’s 2013 season was). The Dream have played just one game this season so Carter’s numbers feel flukey but she and Ionescu could be leading a new wave of ball-dominant creators similar to what we’ve seen in the NBA, with players like James Harden and Russell Westbrook regularly threatening to lead the league in both scoring and assists.

DeWanna Bonner is going to give Breanna Stewart and Jonquel a run for their MVP money

The Connecticut Sun were going to be playing somewhere below their ceiling this season without Alyssa Thomas who is recovering from Achilles’ surgery. But the return of MVP candidate Jonquel Jones, who opted out of the 2020 season, was expected to keep them as a fringe contender. The Sun have won both of their games so far this season and Jones has been fantastic, but it is DeWanna Bonner who is playing like an MVP.

Bonner led the team in scoring last season, picking up the slack and posting career numbers in her first season with the Sun after a decade with the Phoenix Mercury. So far, she’s on pace to ratchet those career highs up again. Bonner has averaged 24.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.0 blocks per game thus far, with a 63.3 true shooting percentage. That last number is propped up by her hitting 7-of-12 from beyond the arc, a pace that probably isn’t sustainable for the career 29.9 percent 3-point shooter.

Two games is an extremely small sample but it’s worth noting where Bonner’s production is at this point. The on-off component of Positive Residual’s Estimated Contribution, all-in-one metric is probably too noisy to mean much at this point. But Bonner leads the league by a healthy margin in the box score portion of Estimated Contribution at plus-1.2 points per 100 possessions.

Betnijah Laney might be Most Improved, again

Ionescu is not the only reason the New York Liberty have gotten off to a scorching hot 3-0 start. Rookie Michaela Onyenwere has given them solid minutes and free agent pick-up Betnijah Laney has been of the early season’s biggest surprises.

Laney won Most Improved Player with the Dream in 2020, before signing with the Liberty this offseason, her fifth team in her six-year career. And she’s built on a career season by … having another career season. So far, Laney is averaging 24.5 points, 3.8 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game shooting 53.2 percent from the field and 57.1 percent from beyond the arc, both of which are new career-highs.

Laney is certainly benefiting from the personal gravity of Ionescu — 11 of her 25 made field goals have been assisted on by Sabrina. But she’s continuing to build confidence creating her own shot, like here, driving through a triple-team for the layup:

Or attacking closeouts:

Or just recognizing a mismatch and getting herself into post position:

Through three games, Laney’s actual effective field goal percentage (61.7) is exceeding her expected effective field goal percentage (43.3) by 18.9 percentage points, by far the most of any player who has attempted at least 20 shots this season. She’s been a perfect complement for Ionescu thus far, both as a spot-up shooter and as a secondary creator. Maybe the New Yorker needs to run a reprint of their New York basketball cover and get the Liberty in with the Nets and Knicks.