Oregon’s G.O.A.T. is ready for a taste of the Big Apple.
Sabrina Ionescu’s remarkable journey to the WNBA was completed when the New York Liberty selected the Ducks’ superstar with the No. 1 overall pick in Friday’s virtual draft.
The other members of Oregon’s famed “Big Three” were also taken off the board quickly — Satou Sabally was picked second by Dallas, and Ruthy Hebard picked eighth by Chicago.
“We're all so excited for each other and we've been talking to each other this entire time about this day,” Ionescu said during a teleconference with reporters moments after having her professional hoops dream realized. “I’m just really blessed and excited to to be able to share this moment with them.”
WELCOME TO NEW YORK, @sabrina_i20! Congratulations on being selected #1 overall in the 2020 #WNBADraft. #BrooklynLoud pic.twitter.com/JL2CF20uru— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) April 17, 2020
Ionescu — the NCAA’s all-time leader in triple-doubles and the only member of the 2,000-point, 1,000-assist and 1,000-rebound club — has been mourning the death of her mentor Kobe Bryant and coming to terms with the abrupt end of her collegiate career since the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to COVID-19.
“She's really just a phenomenal leader in multiple ways,” first-year Liberty coach Walt Hopkins said this week. “She's not somebody who just stands back and says what to do. She'll come down on teammates, but it's in a way that's constructive, and you can watch their body language as they take that feedback. It's not easy to be that type of a leader because you have to be doing everything you're saying in order to have the credibility to lead the way that she did (at Oregon).
“The poise that she handled all the things ... she’s been through a lot.”
Before the draft started, the WNBA made Bryant’s daughter Gianna and two of her Mamba Academy basketball teammates also killed in the January helicopter crash, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester, honorary picks.
“It was a very beautiful thing that the WNBA did to be able to draft those three girls,” Ionescu said. “They deserved it, and I know they're looking down and smiling and really excited.”
The WNBA selected Alyssa Altobelli, Gianna Bryant and Payton Chester as honorary draft picks.
The three girls were among nine killed in a January helicopter crash that also claimed the life of Kobe Bryant. pic.twitter.com/8a8PhIXwRV
The national player of the year averaged 17.5 points, a career-high 8.6 rebounds and an NCAA-leading 9.1 assists per game as a senior.
“I’ve had a target on my back for the last four years, so it’s not going to be anything new,” Ionescu said of living up to the hype at the highest level in the world’s biggest media market. “I’m just excited to be able to learn from (veteran players) and make some friendships along the way.
“I do know that it’s going to be difficult but I’m excited for the challenge to go up against some of the best players in the world.”
Ionescu finished her career with 26 triple-doubles and is Oregon’s all-time leader in scoring (2,562 points) and assists (1,091). She also had 1,040 rebounds for the Ducks as a point guard.
Nike signed Ionescu, who had also been courted by Under Armour and Puma, on Friday before she officially landed her new job in New York.
Ionescu’s No. 20 replica Oregon jersey was a hot item after she pressured Nike to make it available for fans this past season. Her new Liberty replica jersey sold out in less than an hour.
“Understanding that I have a platform and anything you tweet, anything that you put out there has to stand for what you are,” Ionescu said of the benefit of working on an advanced degree from UO in advertising and brand responsibility. “I’ve realized that more and I am just trying to use my platform and my voice to kind of step up for something that I believe in. Obviously that comes with negativity and a lot of hate, so to say, from people online.
“But taking a stand and finding myself and what I’m really passionate about has helped me through this master’s program.”
Ionescu joins George Shaw (1955 NFL) and Dave Roberts (1972 Major League Baseball) as the school’s only players selected No. 1 overall in a professional draft.
Sabally, who was an integral part of three Pac-12 championship teams during her three-year career at Oregon, plans to follow in the footsteps of fellow German basketball legend Dirk Nowitzki, who won an NBA title and was a 14-time All-Star during his 21-year career with the Mavericks.
“I feel like I can work on every aspect of my game. I'm never satisfied with myself, and I never settle,” Sabally said. “You can improve everything, and I'm also going to get that Dirk fadeaway shot since I will be in Dallas.”
Welcome to our fam, @BallySatou! pic.twitter.com/Vxczd4PLtS— Dallas Wings (@DallasWings) April 18, 2020
Oregon fans were hoping Ionescu would be reunited with Hebard if the Liberty was able to use the No. 9 pick on the 6-4 forward.
But Chicago gave Hebard her own much-deserved spotlight by selecting her with the No. 8 pick. She will still be able to run the pick-and-roll with coach Kelly Graves’ other iconic point guard — former Gonzaga star Courtney Vandersloot.
“(Hebard) is going to be playing with the current best point guard in the world in (Vandersloot),” Graves tweeted. “Would have been win-win at #8 or 9.”
Hebard, a first-team Associated Press All-American along with Ionescu, is the NCAA record holder for consecutive field goals made (33) and the Pac-12’s all-time leader in career field-goal percentage (65.1%).
“He’s always kind of treated us like pros in multiple ways,” Hebard, who averaged 16.4 points and 9.0 rebounds as a senior, said of playing for Graves. “He treated us like women, he talks to us like adults, and that’s been nice. The system and the way we play the game is going to translate well.”
We got a !!
Welcome to #skytown @RuthyHebard24! pic.twitter.com/n4Ft5eHSvV
Oregon State standout guard Mikayla Pivec was taken by Atlanta with the first pick of the third round (No. 25 overall). She joins former Oregon point guard Maite Cazorla, a late second-round pick (No. 23 overall) of the Dream last year.
“I’m super excited for this opportunity,” Pivec said. “You grow up watching these amazing players, and being able to be on that stage will be a huge accomplishment. I’m somebody that is going to do all of the little things for the team, and do whatever it takes.”
Minyon Moore, the dynamic USC graduate transfer who sparked Oregon’s defensive improvement this season, was not drafted.
The WNBA has postponed its season, originally scheduled to begin May 15. The league is considering the possibility of playing games without fans in attendance or in the fall.
“It’s a little bit of a Rubik’s Cube,” commissioner Cathy Engelbert said of mapping out the schedule during the uncertainty in a pandemic. “Every day there’s emerging information coming out on the situation by regions and in the U.S. and around the world. Everything is on the table.”
When the WNBA returns, it will have an Oregon flavor.
“If Eugene could have a party right now, it’d be a pretty good party,” Hebard said.
Contact reporter Ryan Thorburn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-338-2330, and follow him on Twitter @By_RyanThorburn and Instagram @rg_ducksports. Want more stories like this? Subscribe to get unlimited access and support local journalism.