ERIN CHANG/ISI PHOTOS

Back in November, Sabrina Ionescu tweeted out a message criticizing Nike for not selling her team’s jerseys. The University of Oregon is, famously, where the Swoosh was born, and when Ionescu’s No. 20 jersey miraculously became available online six days later, they sold out in two hours. It was one of the biggest off-court stories of the early season, as college basketball’s premier player flexed her star power.

Now, with the WNBA draft only days away, the biggest off-court debate isn’t who will be taken where, but who Ionescu will pick as a sponsor. And while Nike is the reported frontrunner, Under Armour’s most famous ambassador was spotted last week working out with Ionescu:

All of this to state the obvious: Sabrina Ionescu is a really big deal. Had she left Oregon a year ago, after elevating a program that had not made the NCAA tournament since 2005 to the Elite Eight in her first two seasons and then the Final Four in her third, she would have likely been the first pick in the WNBA draft.

Now, after a season in which she became the only Division I player to ever reach 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists in a career, all while ballooning her career triple-doubles record to a staggering 26 and putting her team on the path to a national championship, there’s no question where she’ll be drafted. The New York Liberty, and new head coach Walt Hopkins, will be taking Ionescu with the first pick on Friday.

Ionescu will become the 26th first pick in league history, the first out of Oregon, the fourth born in California, and the fifth from a Pac-12 school. She will be the seventh guard taken first overall and the fourth in the past six years. Most importantly, the Liberty still have Ionescu’s No. 20 jersey available, and odds are Ionescu won’t have to tweet at them to make sure it’s being sold.

Making history

Ionescu’s four years at Oregon will always be remembered above all for those 26 triple doubles. Not only did she record more than twice as many as any other Division I player, men or women, but the number 26 itself became imbued with tremendous symbolism, as Ionescu recorded her 26th triple double on February 24th against Stanford, after speaking that morning at Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s memorial service. That date, 2-24-20, contained all three players’ numbers, with Gianna wearing two, Kobe 24, and Ionescu 20. Two and 24 added together also make 26. During the game, Ionescu also recorded her 1,000th rebound, having already passed the 2,000 career points and 1,000 career assists marks earlier in the year.

Coincidence? Not according to Ionescu:

While a lot of people expect Ionescu’s all-around dominance to continue, when she enters the professional ranks, she’ll still be “just” another rookie, albeit a pretty famous one. Betting against her seems unwise, but WNBA triple doubles are no easy feat: there have only been nine in league history, including the postseason, and only Sheryl Swoopes, who had both the first in league history and the only one in the postseason, recorded two.

Lisa Leslie notched a 29-point triple-double, but did so with 10 blocks. Outside of that performance, the most points scored in a triple-double were 14 by Swoopes both times.

Ionescu, on the other hand, surpassed 14 points in seven of her eight senior-season triple doubles. Also on Ionescu’s side is the fact that three of the eight triple double artists were first overall picks themselves (Swoopes, Margo Dydek and Candace Parker).

In other words, expect Ionescu to either run into a wall in a league that simply doesn’t support triple-doubles, or revolutionize the sport entirely. History may be against her, but then again, Ionescu spent all of college humiliating the record books.

The tale of the tape

There is a rich history of WNBA scouts nailing first picks. Twelve have made an immediate impact and won the Rookie of the Year Award. Seven went on to win MVP at some point in their career, and Parker even did so during her rookie year.

First picks have averaged 13.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in their rookie seasons. For comparison, in their last year of college (for those that came directly out of the NCAA) these same first picks had an average stat line of 20.9/8.0/3.0.

Ionescu averaged 17.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists in her final year. While her individual scoring may be a tick behind her peers, those assists all lead to baskets too. One category where her stats may take an immediate dive in the WNBA, however, is rebounding.

“Trust me, 10 rebounds in college will go down to four or five in the WNBA,” Diana Taurasi told ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel. “That’s just how it is: You’re talking about the most physically imposing players. So will that dynamic change a little? Yeah, but she still has a knack for the basketball.”

Thankfully, the Liberty need more help running their offense than they do collecting rebounds. The team faltered last year without ever settling on a point guard under previous head coach Katie Smith. Asia Durr and Kia Nurse had opportunities, while Brittany Boyd averaged the most assists per game, with Tanisha Wright and Bria Hartley coming in second and third. Hartley, however, chose the Phoenix Mercury in free agency, and Wright currently is absent from the Liberty’s publicly available roster.

So, Ionescu will be immediately inserted into a fairly talented roster with an opportunity to be a pass-first playmaker. While the transition to the WNBA may be difficult for some less accustomed to being surrounded by star power, Ionescu spent her entire Oregon career surrounded by elite players, and was essentially playing with a WNBA-caliber starting five this past year.

Not only did the Ducks beat Team USA in an exhibition, but the most recent ESPN mock draft has Ionescu’s teammates Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard going second to the Dallas Wings and 11th to the Seattle Storm, respectively.

Simply put, Ionescu knows how to get the most of her teammates, a fact that bodes well for both her and the Liberty.

What they’re saying

Taurasi views Ionescu’s passing as her most translatable skill, especially as she will likely have the chance to run an offense right away. In her article, Voepel also spoke to Sue Bird, another former first pick and guard, as well as several pro scouts about their evaluations of Ionescu. They all had good things to say.

“When you can pass, and make people around you better every game no matter how you’re shooting, that’s when you can play on any team in the world,” Taurasi said. “Whether you’re talking about WNBA, overseas, the Olympic team. That’s kind of gotten lost in the age of highlights. The simple pass isn’t going to be a highlight, but that’s the skill that’s going to keep you in the league for a long time.

“If it’s too late, it’s a turnover or the pass isn’t there,” Taurasi added. “And she always makes that quick decision. I can see it in her.”

The pass is special because, for the most part, it will always be there. By far, in the transition from college to pros, the stat that is least affected is the assist. That doesn’t mean things will be easy, though.

“The pro game of bigger, faster, stronger is going to be an adjustment for her,” according to an unnamed scout. “She’ll need to work more to get the ball, get open. She’s such a great passer, but more of her passes will be deflected. She’ll have to navigate the way she plays in the pick-and-roll system. Because there will be different ways to defend her.

“But her willingness to do hard things, to step up at key times … those are what make for special players and put them in that next category of elite.”

ERIN CHANG/ISI PHOTOS

For a while, Ionescu’s game was compared to that of the NBA’s Russell Westbrook, mostly owing to their respective triple-double prowess. But that comparison falls short, and even Ionescu shrugs it away. Pro scouts likewise have a hard time projecting her using current players.

“In our league right now, there’s not a good comparison, because she does everything: She shoots the 3, she assists, she rebounds,” a different scout said. “Defensively she’s going to be OK. It’s not a value, but she’s competitive and she doesn’t want to be a weak link. And positionally, she’s coming into the league at a time when there’s somewhat of a void at her spot.”

The college coaches Ionescu faced also sing her praises, though they may just all be happy they don’t have to face her anymore.

“She’s able to conjure up whatever she needs in any particular possession to help her team,” said Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma “A defensive play, a rebound, an assist, a big 3.”

After the first of three losses to Oregon in 2020, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer was asked what the difference was that put her squad on the wrong side of the score.

“Sabrina,” said VanDerveer. “They had Sabrina and we didn’t, and she was phenomenal.”

According to Bird, who matched up against Ionescu when Oregon took down Team USA earlier this year, it’s Ionescu’s mentality which will have the biggest influence on her career.

“She’s very relentless,” Bird said. “Even when you think you have her stopped, she keeps coming at you. Those are things you can’t always teach. People are going to talk about, ‘Is she a good enough shooter? Can she do this? Is she good enough for that?’ Who cares? If you’re competitive, that can overcome a lot.”

Ionescu herself credits her own determination to be a student of the game:

“I watch a lot of film, so usually I try to see how they’re playing defense and reacting, really studying the personnel and knowing the right reads. I feel like the game usually slows down enough for me to read and react quickly.”

Intangibles

Simply put, Ionescu is built for superstardom. She took an Oregon team from last in the Pac-12 as recently as 2013 to sellout crowds and three consecutive regular season titles. She made an afterthought a powerhouse. During her freshman year, average attendance was 2,595 a game, and Ionescu was often mistaken for the team’s manager. By her senior year, she couldn’t walk across campus without being recognized, and more than 10,000 fans were showing up for every game.

Of course, that same personality is exactly what the Liberty need as they move from Westchester County Center in White Plains to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Supporters of the league and WNBA executives couldn’t have dreamed of a better match between the sport’s biggest rising star and its largest media market.

Ultimately, Ionescu is an elite talent, a great teammate and the type of leader who can be the face of a franchise. More than anything, her competitive nature is a game-changer, an almost certain assurance that she will make it at the next level. The WNBA would have been much better off if Ionescu had her NCAA championship in hand. Even still, there’s no sign that she plans to slow down anytime soon.