Sabrina Ionescu Arrives as New York’s Next Star Athlete
On April 17, the WNBA held its annual draft remotely. Prospects tuned in, along with nearly 400,000 fans, waiting for Commissioner Cathy Engelbert to reveal each successive selection.
Except, they weren’t waiting for the No. 1 pick.
Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu was not only among the most certain locks for the spot in league history, it’s also expected that she will revitalize the New York Liberty franchise while helping take the WNBA into the national U.S. sports consciousness. Not too much to ask of a 22-year-old wunderkind, right?
If her previous track record gives any hints, it’s that the sky-high expectations might actually be selling her short.
Though the season’s start date is still unknown, teams can begin—and have begun—to trim down their rosters and get a better idea of who will take the court in 2020. In this Prospect Spotlight series, I’ll go pick by pick, profiling members of the W’s freshman class.
When the New York Liberty won the draft lottery seven months earlier, it was already forecasted that Ionescu would be the pick. Her senior year performance cemented those predictions as she posted 17.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists per game. That means she averaged 17.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.8 assists across her four years at Oregon.
Many of her accolades have transcended the ceiling often placed on women’s hoops by mainstream sports media.
Her accumulated accomplishments are impossible to ignore. During her senior year, Ionescu became the first player in college hoops history—men and women—to join the 2K/1K/1K club (points/rebounds/assists). Her 26 triple-doubles more than doubled second-place Kyle Collinsworth’s dozen. She’s also just the second player in history to earn unanimous AP National Player of the Year honors.
Her name is equally tattooed across Oregon’s leaderboard: top in scoring, assists and 3s made; third in steals; fifth in boards.
When she decided to return to school for her senior season, it was to win a national championship. Each year had brought her closer to that goal. As a freshman, her Oregon Ducks were bounced in the WNIT semis. The team made the Elite Eight her sophomore year, the Final Four her junior, but couldn’t quite crest the mountaintop. And she never got a chance her senior year. Though the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the NCAA tournament, leaving that goal unachieved, that hunger to win will follow her to New York.
12-year-old Sabrina Ionescu hoped to one day become a WNBA player.
Today, she was picked No. 1 in the 2020 draft. pic.twitter.com/yx6bzDQiqi
— ESPN (@espn) April 17, 2020
In April of 2019, Kobe Bryant broke down Ionescu’s game for ESPN+’s series, Detail, in which top sports legends evaluate the game of current athletes.
“I thought it was important for another generation of players to be able to see how she thinks the game, “Bryant said.
“Not just women, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about basketball players in general. When I say I haven’t seen a player think the game that way, that’s both male and female. It’s important for the next generation to see how you process and think through the game at the highest level. And hopefully ‘Sab’ would pick up a few things too.”
By the summer of 2019, Bryant had become a friend and mentor. Sabrina worked out with him and his daughter Gigi’s team, taking lessons from the Hall of Famer while dishing out some of her own tips to the kids.
Bryant’s death in January—along with Gigi, her Mamba teammates Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester, and others—hit Ionescu hard. On February 24, 2020, a date that represented both Gigi and Kobe’s jersey numbers, Ionescu eulogized her late mentor, speaking in front of 20,000 mourners and an exponentially larger television audience.
That would also be the day she reached the 2K/1K/1K plateau. After the service, she chartered a flight to Palo Alto and led the Ducks to a victory over the Stanford Cardinals. She put up 21 points, snagged 12 boards and handed out 12 assists in what would be her final college triple-double.
Just as she did at Oregon, Ionescu joins a Liberty team that’s trying to grow into a contender. She’s not shy to mention that the Ducks were not a winning program when she arrived, and she said ready to be the face of this New York rebuild during an interview on ESPN’s First Take:
“I’m excited to get [to New York] and grow the fan base. I want more and more players to reach out to fans and try to get them as part of our family.”
When new head coach, Walt Hopkins, signed on back in January, he talked a lot about the new system he’d run. It sounds like an exciting brand of basketball, with lots of 3s and pace. Three returning players shot better than 35 percent from beyond the arc: Rebecca Allen (42.6 percent on 68 attempts, which was sixth in the league), Marine Johannes (37.9 percent on 66 attempts), and Kia Nurse (35.3 percent on a heavy 184 attempts).
Though she got off to a slow start from distance her senior year, Ionescu hit 39.2 percent from deep at 1.8 per game clip. She averaged 2.3 makes on 41.8 percent from deep during her four years as a Duck.
New York will need to be more efficient on the offensive end. They ran the third-fastest pace in the W—behind only the Chicago Sky and the Las Vegas Aces—but were the third-worst in offensive rating. A large reason why? Turnovers. The Liberty fumbled away the ball on 19.0 percent of their possessions in 2019.
The team’s primary ball handlers were guilty of coughing up the rock even more frequently. Of players with more than 500 minutes played, only the Indiana Fever’s Erica Wheeler topped Brittany Boyd’s 31.4 turnover percentage. Tanisha Wright (24.6), Bria Hartley (24.2) and Tina Charles (21.7) came in at 15th, 16th and 21st on the list, respectively.
All four are gone from the roster now. (Boyd’s a free agent, Wright has retired, Hartley signed with the Phoenix Mercury and Charles is with the Washington Mystics.) Charles led the team and the entire W in usage at 29.6 while Hartley was second on the team at 22.8.
With these players gone, all these vacated minutes will need to be accounted for.
This past season, Ionescu had just a 17.6 percent turnover rate, and her 3.05 assist-to-turnover rate ranked seventh in the nation:
That number was the worst of her four years—her best turnover rate was 12.4 in 2018–2019—but it would still signify a huge upgrade in ball security.
Not only does Ionescu come to New York as a day-one starter, but she has the potential to come in as a day-one star. New York is coming off two straight losing seasons, which positioned the franchise to pick Sabrina in the first place.
The average age of the fifteen players currently rostered is 23.7, and only three players have five or more years of experience in the W (Layshia Clarendon, 7; Allen, 5; Amanda Zahui B, 5).
Just days before the draft, New York dealt the franchise’s leading scorer, Tina Charles, to the champion Mystics, ending her era as the face of Liberty basketball. If Ionescu can live up to all the hype surrounding her game, she’ll step into the vacated spotlight. New York loves its stars, and it loves players with personality.
Ionescu is also the third member of the Liberty, alongside Asia Durr and Kia Nurse, to sign with Nike, meaning you can bet that team success will be further lauded by national ad campaigns.
Oregon head coach, Kelly Graves, has been effusive in his praise of his former star:
“We knew she was going to be an impact player, but I don’t think anybody saw this coming. She was a good player, but now she’s become an icon, not just here at the university but in all of women’s basketball. She’s going to have to prove it in the pros, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an Air SI someday. They’ll make a shoe for her.”
Ionescu has proven herself at every level so far. Taking charge in the W, especially on a rebuilding team, will be her largest challenge yet. The New York Liberty are in need of a leader, and this can become her team.
A quick answer there and the next question will quickly shift to how long it takes for the W to become her league.
Myles Ehrlich is a TBW staff writer from Brooklyn, NY. He has been writing since childhood when it passed the time better than rolling scenery and folk CDs on family road trips. He legitimized his passion at New York University and The Writer’s Foundry MFA. His work has been published with Castings, MASH Stories, and flashfictionmagazine.com. When not writing, Myles is usually playing, watching or reading about sports. His east coast WNBA fandom resides with the New York Liberty; his west coast with the Las Vegas Aces.