Celebrate Sabrina Ionescu’s 23rd birthday by looking back on a year that went far beyond her floor time with the Oregon Ducks and New York Liberty.
Sabrina Ionescu became the face of a franchise, bid farewell to her beloved stomping grounds, partook in prominent off the court endeavors in trying times, and came face-to-face with her biggest basketball nightmare.
All within her 23rd year around the globe.
Mere days after clinching the top overall pick in the WNBA Draft for the second year in a row, the New York Liberty celebrate Ionescu’s birthday, as the Walnut Creek, California native turns 23 on Sunday. While Ionescu’s Liberty career is only three games old thus far thanks to an ankle injury, her impact on the area, as well as the women’s basketball world in general, has been undeniable.
NetsRepublic looks back on a iconic year for Ionescu, one that brought her to emotions highs and lows…
January 16: Chop the Tree
Ionescu and the Ducks chopped the third-ranked Cardinal up into splinters, topping them in an 87-55 blowout in Eugene. It was a historic night in more ways than one for Ionescu, whose career-best in scoring (37 points) coincided with passing Alison Lang for the most points in program history. Ionescu broke the mark with a three-pointer in the final minute of the third quarter and wasted no time in extending her new lead over Lang with another triple just before the period let out.
January 24: No Love for The Glove
It’s hard not to appreciate the efforts Ionescu has made for her sport on a national and local level…unless, of course, you’re a fan of the Ducks’ rivals at Oregon State. Ionescu’s passing of former Beaver Gary Payton for the Pac-12’s all-time lead in assists couldn’t have been timed better, as her dish to Ruthy Hebard in the opening seconds of OSU’s visit to Eugene added a new layer to the teams’ ongoing in-state rivalry. She would further haunt Corvallis with 23 points on 10-of-15 shooting en route to the Ducks’ 76-64 victory. Payton congratulated Ionescu in a recorded video message.
“You’re a great basketball player, you’ve got a lot more in your tank…keep it up,” Payton said. “Congratulations from The Glove!”
February 24: For Kobe
Tragedy struck the basketball world on January 26, when NBA legend and women’s basketball advocate Kobe Bryant passed away in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. Bryant and his second-oldest daughter Gigi were among the nine people who perished in the incident. The disaster was tough on Ionescu, who had forged a strong friendship with both Bryant and his family during her time at Oregon.
One month later, Ionescu was among several basketball stars to speak at a memorial service at Bryant’s old stomping grounds, the Los Angeles Lakers’ home of Staples Center.
“I grew up watching Kobe Bryant game after game, ring after ring, living his greatness without apology,” Ionescu said in her eulogy. “I wanted to be just like him, to love every part of the competition, to be the first to show up and the last to leave, to love the grind, to be your best when you don’t feel your best and make other people around you the best version of themselves. And to wake up and do it again the next day.”
“So that’s what I did: Wake up, grind and get better. Wake up, grind, and get better.”
After her speech, Ionescu set out for Palo Alto, joining her Oregon teammates for a rematch with Stanford. She would tally her eighth triple-double of the season (tying her own NCAA record set the year before) and become the first player in NCAA history to earn 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 1,000 assists. Her box score of 21-12-12 capped off an emotional day, one that ended with a 74-66 Oregon victory.
March 1: Duck (Happy) Trails
Ionescu bid farewell to Eugene during the Ducks’ Senior Day festivities. Appropriately, one more double-double (13 points, 11 assists) awaited the Oregon faithful as the Ducks topped Washington 92-56. In addressing the crowd one last time, Ionescu referred to Matthew Knight Arena as “The House That We Built”.
“You guys (the fans) help us out more than you know,” Ionescu said. “(I remember) coming into my freshman year, seeing all these empty seats, and having my friends be able to sit wherever they want. Now they’re all fighting over who texts me first for tickets!”
March 8: Best Two-of-Three
Shortly before the ongoing health crisis flipped the world upside down, Ionescu gave sports fans one last show before the shutdown through the Pac-12 Tournament. In three days in Las Vegas, she tore through Utah, Arizona, and, once again, Stanford in a final Oregon showing, capping things off with a 20-point, 12-assist effort in an 89-56 parting gift over the Cardinal. Ionescu made America’s Playground her jungle-gym, averaging 23.3 points and shooting 60 percent from the floor over her trio of conference tournament contests.
April 17: Welcome to New York
Ionescu’s professional journey officially commenced when WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert called her name from her home as the first pick of the 2020, socially distanced, WNBA Draft. With the draft festivities confined to domiciles due to the situation, Ionescu was able to celebrate with her family in her hometown of Walnut Creek, California. Her name came after Engelbert made Gigi Bryant, Alyssa Altobelli, and Payton Chester, three of the youngest victims in the aforementioned helicopter crash, honorary draft picks to open the proceedings.
“Her accolades truly speak for themselves. She’s talented,” Engelbert said in a draft day conference call. “We’re excited to have someone of her caliber and most importantly her character in our league.”
“The fact that I’ll be able to be in Brooklyn and have a platform and a voice in kind of the mecca of the world is going to be amazing,” Ionescu said after her drafting. “I’m just excited for that opportunity, having done it in Eugene and kind of changed the way people viewed women in sports in Eugene. (Becoming the top pick) is worth all the long nights, early mornings of going in and doing all the extra work. This is really what it’s all about. I’m so excited for this opportunity, but not settling here. I’m just excited to continue evolving my game and doing more.”
June 20: Scu’s Out
One more Eugene-based speech awaited Ionescu on her way out, as she delivered the commencement speech during Oregon’s virtual graduation ceremony. UO president Michael H. Schill described Ionescu as “a woman who defies description” and “holds many titles”.
In her speech, Ionescu channeled lessons she took from Kobe Bryan and her green/yellow-clad teammates, encouraging listeners to find positives and press forward in trying times.
“We have all lost something. For me, it was my college basketball dream,” Ionescue said. “But for you, it may have been something else. Maybe you were the first person in your family to graduate, maybe you overcame a learning disability or perhaps you’re a nontraditional student that just finished something you never thought was possible.”
“This is hard and it is not what any of us wanted. But for each of us, this still counts. It still matters and we still earned it. COVID cannot take that away.”
The ex-Duck had earned her bachelor’s degree in general social sciences and later secured a master’s in advertising and brand responsibility.
July 25: The Calm Before the Storm
Though Brooklyn would have to wait, Ionescu’s New York debut coincided with the opening of the WNBA’s proceedings in the Bradenton bubble. In the first game in the Floridian enclosure, Ionescu battled the future champion Seattle Storm and kept things respectable for a majority of the majority of the game. It was a bit of a humbling experience, as the Storm forced her to shoot 4-of-17 from the field, but she contributed in every aspect of the game with 12 points, six rebounds, and four assists. Seattle eventually pulled away in the fourth quarter of an 87-71 final.
Ionescu’s first professional points came in the first quarter, swiping a rebound from her own miss from Natasha Howard to know the game in an 8-8 tie. Her first assists came in the late stages of the second period on fellow rookie Jocelyn Willoughby’s triple.
“In my first game, 12, 6, and 4 is something I’m going to live with and I’m not going to get too down on myself because we play in a couple of days and I have to continue to grow,” Ionescu said of her first appearance in seafoam. “I think we can definitely refine things in every category…I need to take care of the ball better. But I think we did something really well. We gave them a game, especially through the first three quarters…I think that’s hat’s off to us. We came out strong, we didn’t hold off who they are. I think there’s a lot of positivity in that.”
July 29: Dallas Star
The Liberty’s first tilt against the Dallas Wings in July featured a WNBA record ten rookies, including Ionescu and her fellow former Duck Satou Sabally (the second overall pick in April). Ionescu officially issued a warning to the rest of the WNBA, tallying 33 points, and matching seven tallies in rebounds and assists. Perhaps most encouraging was her improvement in shooting, as she sank 11-of-20 attempts from the field, including 6-of-10 from three-point range.
Alas for Ionescu, her infantile personal history was no consolation for what became a 93-80 New York loss.
“Coming in, it’s going to be a process. Piece-by-piece, we’ve just got to keep building every single game, every single day in practice,” she said. “Obviously, I’m not happy because we didn’t win, so that part still isn’t up to my standard, our standard as a team and an organization. We’re still getting used to each other as a brand new team with a lot of new faces, so it’s just going to take us some growing pains. My teammates know it took us some growing pains at Oregon as well. It’s going to take time, but hopefully, we just keep building and getting to know each other.”
July 31: Atlanta Nightmare
The unthinkable from a basketball standpoint happened to Ionescu during the Liberty’s first showdown with the Atlanta Dream. It was a stage set for Ionescu’s first showdown with third overall pick Chennedy Carter, who was off to a hot start for the Atlanteans.
Ionescu was picking up where she left off from a shooting standpoint, hitting four of her first five shots in helping the Liberty erase an early 12-0 deficit. Disaster struck, however, in the middle of the second quarter, when Ionescu rolled her ankle in transition. She would later be diagnosed with a sprained ankle, one that kept her out for a remainder of the season.
“It actually didn’t really hurt,” Ionescu recalled. “My face was completely straight. I don’t know if it was because I was in shock or because I knew I hurt it really bad and I didn’t want to show the other team I was hurt because I wanted to go back in. My first thought was how I could get this wrapped up and continue to play and finish the game because we would’ve won that game.”
Looking back, Ionescu wasn’t even truly annoyed by her injury…she was more upset she couldn’t contribute to what she felt was victorious New York effort. Sans Sabrina, the Liberty fell in a 93-80 final.
“We were going on the run. I knew we would’ve won that game.”
August 25: Chicago Wired
Ionescu left the bubble shortly after her injury, rehabbing in both New York and California. However, she remained a constant prescience in the New York locker room, if only in spirit.
In her season-ending statements, Ionescu stated that she was in constant contact with Walt Hopkins and the coaching staff as her ankle healed. She was more than happy to “take credit” for the Liberty’s second win of the season, a 101-99 triumph over the Chicago Sky. The Liberty trailed 49-46 at halftime, but Hopkins used intel he gained from Ionescu, watching from afar. Amanda Zahui B played the role of Ionescu with a 22-point, 12-rebound double-double.
“There were a few times that I would actually text Walt at halftime of the game if I saw something,” Ionescu said of the incident. “I was telling him some things that I saw and we ended up winning. I told him that I took that win from back home.”
October 8: The Continuing Adventures of Sabrina
After spending most of her forced time off in relatively secluded rehab, Ionescu met with the media for one final time. She mentioned that the biggest lesson she took away from her 23rd year on the planet was to “cherish the moment that you have”.
“I think (it’s) really just think being present in the moment, being thankful for what you have, because it can be taken away from you at any moment, with my injury I definitely learned,” Ionescu said in her 2020 reflections. “Obviously, I’m going to continue to learn. It’s not going to be the last time I’m going to get hurt, but it’s about finding ways to continue to prepare and put myself in the best situation possible.”
“It’s really given me time to reflect. I’m really blessed to have played three games in the league just to see what it was like, how I need to train, how I need to prepare to play at that level. I can focus on that this offseason, which I’m really excited about.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags