The production of the 2020 WNBA draft made it clear that the stage belonged to Sabrina Ionescu, as a stream of feature videos and pre-prepared Ionescu-to-the-Liberty content followed New York’s selection of the Oregon star. It almost felt like the actual draft only began after Ionescu was picked first overall — when the prospect of uncertainty was introduced for the first time.
That is why it may have come as a surprise when WNBA legends, and UConn teammates for two years, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi openly debated who from this year’s draft class would have the best career in a wide-ranging discussion on Instagram Live.
In addition to all their other credentials, like Ionescu, both were drafted first overall when they entered the league. So when they hopped on Instagram to deliver hot takes, people listened.
Bird said her top two were Chennedy Carter, drafted fourth overall to the Atlanta Dream, and Satou Sabally, Ionescu’s Oregon teammate taken second by the Dallas Wings. Taurasi chose Ionescu.
“Sabrina did all the things in college that you and me did,” Taurasi said.
The Los Angeles Sparks’ Chelsea Gray, however, would tend to side with Taurasi. The Duke product came into the league as the 11th overall pick, having to spend time in a role off the bench until breaking out in 2017 with her first of three consecutive All-Star appearances.
Put three guards in a room and there won’t likely be much agreement on anything. That both Gray and Taurasi came away from the draft thinking Ionescu was the best in the class speaks volumes.
“I look at her game from a point guard’s perspective, and to achieve triple-doubles the way she does? That’s not an easy thing to do,” Gray told Just Women’s Sports. “You have to fight for rebounds and go take them from post players. That’s hard. And you have to rely on your teammates to make shots for you to get assists.”
“You can control your points, but sometimes you have an off day,” Gray added. “What she was able to do is so difficult, you really have to appreciate the way she plays the game.”
Ionescu finished her Oregon career with an NCAA-record 26 career triple-doubles. In the WNBA, the feat has historically been much more difficult to accomplish, with only nine ever recorded in the league’s 23 seasons.
While acknowledging that the WNBA is a different level from the college game, especially considering the adjustments that come with playing against teams with in-depth scouting, Gray is betting on Ionescu.
“I think she’s capable of succeeding at the highest level.”
To her credit, Ionescu had phenomenal games even against schools and coaches known for their scouting. Hall of Fame head coach at Stanford Tara VanDerveer saw Ionescu quite a bit and always struggled to contain her.
Ionescu is coming into a difficult environment in New York. The franchise had the opportunity to draft her first overall by virtue of a 10-24 record last year. It will be a challenge to find success immediately.
For comparison, Bird was drafted by a Seattle Storm team that went 10-22 the year prior and won her first championship in year three. When the Phoenix Mercury took Taurasi in 2004, it was coming off an 8-26 record in 2003. In season four, the Mercury and Taurasi each had their first championship.
So, whatever the case, it would be fair to allow Ionescu time to acclimate in the league. Then again, she joined an Oregon team that had not made a tournament appearance since 2005, had not won a Pac-12 regular season title since 2000, and had never advanced past the first week of March Madness. But in just her freshman season the Ducks made the first of three consecutive trips to the Elite Eight. By the end of her sophomore season, they had won the Pac-12. And during Ionescu’s junior year, Oregon was a Final Four team for the first time in school history. In her senior year, Matthew Knight Arena was consistently selling out and Oregon was the talk of national media.
It’s that kind of transformative potential that Gray was referring to when she said Ionescu is a great player.
“She’s done something very special at the University of Oregon,” Gray said. “She’s lifted up every single athlete that she’s played with and made that university a household name. That’s something that you really appreciate.”
Now, the challenge for Ionescu is to not just live up to but somehow try and exceed the lofty expectations surrounding her professional career. Ever since the Liberty faced the Sparks in Los Angeles for the league’s inaugural game, the two franchises have played in front of some of the league’s largest media markets. But the Sparks have won three titles. The Liberty? Zero.
Gray, after four seasons in Southern California, offered Ionescu some advice on how to navigate the heightened scrutiny.
“I don’t want her to put so much pressure on herself because she’s such a big name already,” said Gray, who like Ionescu, went to high school in the East Bay. “She’s still going to be a rookie. I hope and I think she’s going to be great, but I just want her to play as freely as she did at Oregon, because all of these fans, and the fame… it puts a lot of weight on people.”
“I hope she doesn’t have that,” Gray added. “I hope she’s able to play free, play the game, and get triple-doubles. I hope she achieves at the highest level until she plays the Sparks. Then she can have a bad day.”