First overall in this year’s WNBA draft, 5-11 guard Sabrina Ionescu is about to change the landscape of women’s professional basketball. With a highly decorated career already, Ionescu has no intention of slowing down. Let’s take a look at everything that led her to this moment.
First of all, how about we get the name pronunciation out of the way. Say it with us: YO-NESS-COO!
So how good is Ionescu? Well here’s a list of all the awards she received during her senior year of college:
- Wade Trophy (national player of the year)
- Naismith Trophy (national player of the year)
- Wooden Award (national player of the year)
- Associated Press National Player of the Year (unanimous)
- USBWA National Player of the Year
- ESPN.com National Player of the Year
- Nancy Lieberman Award (nation’s top point guard)
- Hon Sport Award
- Senior CLASS Award
- Associated Press First-Team All-America
- WBCA First-Team All-America
- Wooden Award All-America
- Senior CLASS Award First-Team All-America
- AAU James E. Sullivan Award finalist (nation’s top amateur athlete)
- Pac-12 Player of the Year (unanimous)
- Pac-12 Tournament Most Outstanding Player
- Three-time Pac-12 Player of the Week
- Pac-12 Academic honor roll
Quite the list, but it arguably doesn’t even contain her top two athletic achievements. Not only is she the all-time NCAA leader in triple doubles with 26, but she is the first player in NCAA history to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 1,000 assists. For context, the second triple-double leader is BYU’s Kyle Collinsworth with 12.
Steph Curry said it well in an interview with ESPN: “It’s amazing to see what she’s made of herself, and it’s amazing what she’s done on the court. How that’s transformed the attention and awareness of where the women’s game is. The eye test when you see her out on the floor. Stats, they mean a lot. But when you get to watching somebody and see the passion that she brings, it’s in her eyes. The competitive nature that she has . . . you can’t teach that.”
Ionescu was very low-key with her commitment announcement when entering the NCAA. In an interview with The Athletic, she mentioned not knowing which school she wanted to pick, and then the morning of the move she told her dad he was driving to University of Oregon and off they went. The team learned she had committed to them only when she showed up on campus.
Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike and Oregon donor, texted Oregon Head Coach Kelly Graves about signing Ionescu, saying, “This is a game-changer. She’s a difference-maker, not just for your basketball program, but for the entire university.”
He was right. By the time Ionescu was in her sophomore year at Oregon, her presence had caused the team’s average fan attendance to increase by almost three times the amount it was before she arrived. In her junior season, the average home attendance reached 7,148. Wherever the Ducks went on the road, crowds would follow. In fact, some even drove hours to see her play, like the dad who was able to introduce his daughter to Ionescu after driving seven hours to see her live.
“You should have seen her face,” Graves said of the meeting. “It was incredible. And her dad actually had tears in his eyes. That’s the kind of impact that she makes.”
The road to her being named Sabrina “Triple-Double Queen” Ionescu began in December 2017 when she set the women’s record for overall triple-doubles with eight during her sophomore year. For context, it took previous record holders Suzie McConnell and Louella Tomlinson 128 and 125 games, respectively, to reach seven. For Sabrina, it took only 48.
In her junior year, on Dec. 20, 2018, Ionescu broke the NCAA triple-double record for both men and women, scoring her 13th. This was after just 82 games in Oregon.
Before she arrived at Oregon, it had been 11-straight years since the Ducks made the NCAA tournament. Not only did they make it every single year Ionescu was there, but they had two appearances in the elite eight, and during her junior year they made the final four. Eventually falling short, Ionescu had 24 hours to decide whether or not to declare for the 2019 WNBA draft. She declined, and penned an open letter stating she had “unfinished business” in Oregon, and would be back in the fall.
During the preseason leading up to her senior year, Ionescu and the Ducks became the first college team since 1999 to beat Team USA in an exhibition match. Ionescu recorded 30 points, 7 assists, and 4 rebounds in the win.
Her final year was not without challenge both on and off the court. The entire sports world mourned the loss of Kobe Bryant, and all the lives that were lost in the tragic accident in January. Bryant was a mentor to Ionescu, and she truly represents the ‘Mamba mentality’ he had. Ionescu also helped him coach his late daughter Gianna (Gigi), who dreamed of one day playing in the WNBA.
“I wanted to be a part of the generation that changed basketball for Gigi and her teammates,” said Ionescu. “Where being born female didn’t mean being born behind, where greatness wasn’t divided by gender.”
The game in which she reached her “2,000, 1,000, 1,000” record took place in the evening after Bryant’s celebration of life, where she spoke about the incredible impact he had on both her life, and the world of women’s basketball. In the third quarter of the Ducks’ 74-66 win over Stanford, the record was made, adding to the emotion of the day.
“That one was for him,” Ionescu said. “To do it on 2/24/20 is huge [2 for Gianna, 24 for Kobe, and 20 for Ionescu]. We had talked about it in the preseason. I can’t really put that into words. He’s looking down and really proud of me and just really happy for this moment with my team.”
She scored her 26th and final college triple-double in that same 74-66 win over Stanford that led Oregon to clinch the Pac-12 regular season title. During her time with the Ducks, they won the Pac-12 regular season titles in 2018 through 2020, and the Pac-12 Tournament in both 2018 and 2020. Oregon was projected to be the top seed for this year’s March Madness.
The season was cut short due to the COVID-19, leading to an emotional post from Sabrina:
In an interview with SportsCenter’s Maria Taylor, Ionescu talked more about the closures and hope for the future of women’s basketball: “It sucks because I was hoping to do more and have a more lasting legacy hopefully with a national championship being brought, you know, to the university and our school but I think regardless of that, just trying to inspire people and for people to be better. And not only for little girls that are looking for an inspiration for playing a sport, but just hopefully being able to change the culture and the way that women’s basketball is viewed, and how I’ve been lucky enough to be on a team that has shaped that culture here and is hopefully transcending upon the entire world.”
There is no doubt her legacy will last.
Competition has always been a part of Ionescu’s life. Growing up with her twin brother Eddy, who shares her love of basketball, she learned how to win early on.
In their town of Walnut Creek, Calif., the two of them would go to the local park and challenge others to basketball matches to win Slurpees. They won a lot. Though they were close, they both had a strong competitive spirit.
“If we really got into it, there’d be blood, someone would cry,” Ionescu said during her ESPN cover story. “There’d be fights. It’d be pretty intense. […] He didn’t take it easy on me whether I was a girl, or smaller, he just did everything he could to win. And I did too. I don’t think I would be half the person that I am today if it wasn’t for him.”
Like many female professional athletes, Ionescu grew used to playing with the boys, as she would fill in for her brother’s team when they needed another player.
“When I was younger, I was always playing with the guys, and I had to find ways to get the ball, because they never wanted to pass to me,” she said in an interview with the Washington Post. “So I figured that if I could rebound, I would be able to get the ball myself. Then passing-wise, when I was in sixth grade playing with the eight-grade team, I was obviously a lot shorter, skinnier, smaller than they were. I would just have to find ways to impact the game other than shooting or scoring, and that was passing.”
The opportunity to play was unfortunately not always there for Ionescu. During her middle school years there were not enough girls to form a team, and though she requested to play with the boys, she was denied.
“My middle school said I should be playing with dolls,” she said. “Seriously, word for word. It’s funny now. I wish I could go back and just tell those people they had made a mistake.”
Well Sabrina, if they haven’t already, they must have realized it now.
Off the Court
Aside from all of her accomplishments on the court, Ionescu is looking to make moves off of it as well. As she is finishing her Master’s degree in advertising and brand responsibility, Sabrina knows the opportunities she wants to make available to her as an athlete.
During her time in Oregon, despite the backing from Phil Knight, she had to advocate for herself against Nike in order for them to start selling her jersey. It sold out in two hours. Similarly, her No. 1-draft-pick replica jersey sold out before midnight on Friday. It will be exciting to see her business sense and tenacity lead the way to providing equal opportunity in the world of sports merchandise.
The sponsorship deals are starting to role in, as right before the draft, Ionescu announced she had paired with Beats by Dre. After she was officially named as first overall, Sabrina added that she will join the Nike family with a multi-year endorsement deal. At the moment, only NBA players are featured on women’s basketball shoes sold by any of the top brands, and the only female players to actually have a signature shoe line instead of just a custom style are retired. Hopefully this sponsorship will bring some change. Her actual Liberty jersey is now available to preorder through the team’s website.
Ionescu has also joined WME entertainment in order to maximize her opportunities.
Looking to the Big Apple
The Liberty have made a lot of changes during the offseason that built hype leading up to the draft. With a new GM, head coach, jersey style, and even a new home at Barclays Center with the Brooklyn Nets, the team is ready for a fresh start. They even traded away star Tina Charles in a three-team deal that brought them extra picks. It’s the perfect opportunity for Sabrina to shine.
Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins’ reaction upon Ionescu’s selection:
“I think Sabrina is perfectly suited for that,” said ESPN analyst and former Liberty star Rebecca Lobo. “Not only her game, which is next-level, but her personality, her drive, her will to win. She fits in in high-pressure moments. She lives in them. She craves them. She comes through in them. And there’s nothing bigger than being in New York City.”
Ionescu realizes the full potential New York has to offer: “Just the marketability that there is in New York and kind of the hustle and bustle is something I think could be not only beneficial to myself as a person but as a brand and for women’s basketball.”
While it is unknown when the WNBA will be able to continue, one thing is for certain: Sabrina Ionescu will have an incredible impact not only on the world of women’s basketball, but the growth of women’s sport as a whole. In fact, she already has.
Featured photo credit: NBC Sports