The biggest fish in the early-entry draft sea of prospects discusses how she’ll make her WNBA decision.
GREENBURGH, NY — Watching Sabrina Ionescu, the Oregon junior, play among the USA Basketball and WNBA vets like Stefanie Dolson and Layshia Clarendon, it was easy to see why her future plans loom so significantly in the minds of college and pro basketball minds alike.
She moved effortlessly without the ball. Her shot is pure, and the mechanics of it clean, the release high. She was a relatively rare collegian among the pros assembled, but you wouldn’t have known it.
Her decision-making, paired with the lanky 5’11 frame of the Ducks’ point guard, makes projecting her such a pleasurable pastime for observers of the sport. Katie Smith, the Liberty coach, put a Sue Bird comp on her when speaking to High Post Hoops last month.
And Dawn Staley, in conjunction with the USA Basketball selection committee, kept her around for a round of cuts in national team camp after trimming the roster to 15.
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“The committee decided that she was one that pretty much stood out during our training camp in Columbia [South Carolina],” Staley told High Post Hoops Friday, following practice at the Liberty training facility in Westchester. “Obviously, the point guard position is one that we’re forever in search of. Who will be the next Sue Bird and who will play along with Sue Bird, who can gain some knowledge from playing with her. So she brought that to the table. I thought she played extremely well.”
But while Ionescu is staking a claim on future national team opportunities, along with an almost-certain spot on preseason All-American teams and a chance, with Oregon, at a national title, it is what she’ll do next April that could shape the fortunes of several teams.
Amid a 2019 draft class filled with elite options like Katie Lou Samuelson, Teaira McCowan and Asia Durr, many around the league noticed this special shoutout from Las Vegas Aces general manager Bill Laimbeer, after he learned last month that his team would be selecting first overall.
“And there’s others, too,” Laimbeer said on the ESPN broadcast. “Underclassmen may come out. They may look at the Las Vegas franchise and say, ‘I want to play in Las Vegas.’ So they may decide to come out early.”
No one doubted by “they” Laimbeer meant Ionescu, and she asked her former club team coach, Kelly Sopak, to send over the clip.
“I had seen some comments that he did say that, which I thought was funny,” Ionescu told High Post Hoops on Friday.
She said the decision hadn’t previously been on her radar, but following the draft lottery, she sounded out a number of her USA Basketball teammates on the subject. Helpfully, Kelsey Plum was on hand to provide a window into her own decision.
Like Ionescu in 2018, Plum faced a similar decision in 2016, as a junior who turned 22 the same calendar year as the draft is held. Ultimately, she chose to stay in school for one more season, eventually going to the San Antonio Stars with the first pick in 2017, following her senior season.
“I just told her, ‘Whatever you do, make sure you make a decision before you get into it, just because it can be emotional in the tournament, whether you win or lose,’ Plum told High Post Hoops. “Other than that, just be on the same page with all the people in your corner. And then, do this for you. I know a lot of people have outside influences but if you’re ready and that’s what you want to do, do it.”
A big draw for Plum was wanting to stay in Seattle. Ironically, the Storm held the top overall pick in 2016, but there was little doubt they were selecting Breanna Stewart at that spot.
There’s no general consensus yet about whether the Aces would guarantee Ionescu a pathway to joining Plum and A’ja Wilson as top picks, with one WNBA talent evaluator wondering whether her athleticism will allow for an easy transition to the league, especially against the quicker point guards.
But Plum sees Ionescu as well ahead of where Plum herself was back in 2016 on the court, and no less an authority on WNBA point guard play than Staley agreed on whether Ionescu can make the jump (though it must be said, an Oregon team without Ionescu benefits Staley at her other job, running the show at South Carolina).
“I do think that,” Staley said about whether Ionescu is WNBA-ready. “Part of it is her confidence. She walks around like she belongs. Sometimes that’s half of the battle and she’s very, very talented. That’s the other half. Obviously, she does some things out here veterans in the WNBA do on a nightly basis. So, I mean, the package is certainly there.”
That package, summed up statistically (courtesy of HerHoopStats), includes an assist percentage of 38.7 percent, 18th in the country last season, along with a 43.8 percent mark from three as a sophomore. She also elevated her efficiency from two, bringing her percentage to 49 percent as a sophomore after posting just a 37 percent success rate as a freshman, while her turnover percentage stayed low, at just 15.5 percent. So the decisions and efficiency make for an obvious long-term starter at point guard for somebody, and a hard player to pass up even for a team with Plum and Moriah Jefferson already on the roster.
For her part, Ionescu plans to combine efficiency with decision-making to mirror what Plum did back in 2016, and decide whether she’s returning for her senior season or not long before the deadline for it, which is either 48 hours after the championship game or ten days after a team is eliminated from the NCAA tournament, whichever comes first.
“I know at that point in the season I’m not going to be trying to focus on whether I’m going to make that decision after the Final Four or not,” Ionescu said. “I’m going to be focused on where my team is and what we need to do in order to win. I think by that time I’ll have decided what I’m going to do just so I don’t need the stress during those games.”
That will involve looking at the salary structure—Ionescu didn’t know exactly what rookies make, only that “I know they don’t get paid a whole lot”—along with how a potential opt out of the current collective bairgaining agreement by the players could impact both her eventual salary and freedom of movement if she stays for her senior season.
In the meantime, though, Ionescu said the USA Basketball experience certainly moved her closer to feeling like she is ready, whether she stays or not.
“I think, skill wise, I’m definitely able to hang with them, and play with them,” Ionescu said of her USA Basketball teammates. “I just think I need to get there mentally. I think I just need to feel that I do belong, and I can play with them because I feel like I’m still young.”