Coming off a whirlwind of a couple of weeks, what are the goals of the Liberty’s first-ever number one pick?
Filmmaker Spike Lee, shoe designer Tinker Hatfield and Nets point guard Kyrie Irving all have something in common. Aside from their love of basketball, all three congratulated New York Liberty rookie Sabrina Ionescu on being drafted number one overall in the 2020 WNBA draft.
Ionescu had over 200 messages to respond to following the evening. But for Sabrina, all of that pageantry was a bit exhausting. Was it surreal to converse with Lee? Sure. As a fellow graduate of Oregon, she gets along well with Hatfield, and looks forward to working alongside him following her signing with Nike. And Irving has become a captain of Ionescu’s welcoming committee to Brooklyn.
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She’ll have to adjust to all of the glamour of New York. Is it a fervor of hers, not necessarily, or better yet, not yet.
But right now, what is she yearning for? What has received her undivided attention?
An online playbook.
Following New York’s selection of the triple-double queen, head coach Walt Hopkins received a text from his rookie point guard. She wanted a username and password for the digital playbook that he and his staff had put together. She wanted to get familiar with the “New Era” Liberty offense which she said is very similar to the motions and actions within Kelly Graves’ playbook.
According to her new coach, she first thought it was some sort of blunder. “And she was like, ‘coach is there some kind of mistake, this is a lot of the stuff we ran in college’,” Hopkins said in an interview with YES’ Michael Grady. “And I’m like: no Sabrina, that’s not a mistake, that’s intentional.”
As a high achiever, Ionescu’s sight is set on scoring 100 percent on all of the quizzes that Hopkins and his staff have prepared for the entire roster. In addition to acquainting herself to the Liberty’s digital playbook, she’s starting to get to know her new teammates.
Candace Parker asked Ionescu on NBA TV’s Gametime at the end of April about what exactly she’s done so far with New York and how they’ve begun to bond virtually.
“We’re starting to get on Zoom, starting to talk to each other,” she said. “And I know we are going to do it based on positions at first and then branch out and start connecting with everyone.”
Aside from Asia Durr, whom Ionescu has played alongside and has spoken to throughout the year, and Kia Nurse, whose game she’s very familiar with, the former Oregon Duck is getting her bearings with her other new teammates.
Leave it to the former Cal Bears to get it done. Reshanda Gray and Layshia Clarendon reached out immediately. They wanted the number one pick to feel welcomed. While social distancing has presented some challenges, Ionescu got a head start after a short six-foot-apart visit from the resident veteran Clarendon.
As for some of the other rookies in this deep 2020 New York draft class, Ionescu remember what it was like to play against some of them. Louisville Cardinals and respective 12th and 13th picks overall, Jazmine Jones and Kylie Shook, were instrumental in giving Sabrina’s Ducks their first of two losses in the 2019-2020 season.
“Yeah, I try not to remember that matchup because we lost, but they’re great,” she said. “I mean they’re great players.”
But amid some playful bitterness from a November loss, Ionescu knows their value and that’s what makes her excited. She’s confident that “warrior” Jazmine Jones will challenge her in practice, as she remembered how difficult it was to score on her.
In a sentence, she uttered exactly why Shook was such a steal right outside the first round. “It’s gonna be huge for us at the Liberty. I mean [Shook’s] ability to pick and pop and have to drag the defense out just because of how long she is and how she can shoot and set good screens and roll.”
Her ambitious future on and off the court
For Ionescu, there are some benefits to life being on hold, and that could include battling it out for a spot on Team USA’s Tokyo Olympic squad. She beat them, so she can join them as well.
With the 2020 games now scheduled for 2021, she has time to be able to evaluate and improve her game as she looks to become an Olympian. The (potential) 2020 WNBA season will only benefit the rookie.
“I think just the fact that I’m going to be able to play in such a competitive league against such competitive players, and then see where I stand against that,” she said. “I think it’s going to give me a better chance at the Olympics, hopefully, the 5 on 5 team or the 3 on 3 team.”
Imagine Sabrina playing alongside fellow number one pick Breanna Stewart in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Who knew there were benefits to COVID-19?
Speaking of Stewie, the two caught up live on Nike Basketball’s Instagram page. While draft day officially put a close to Ionescu’s decorated career at Oregon, she still longs for what won’t be: another chance to compete for a National Championship in green, white and yellow.
But, this isn’t only about winning and advancing her likeness. While that’s par for the course, Ionescu spoke of the bigger picture. While a signature shoe is an idea that looms, she noted that it isn’t the “end all be all with Nike.” She appreciates that they are a company that’s “bigger than just sports.” They stand for something.
And in response to the global pandemic, Nike has kept its word. The company announced that it’s donating 32,500 total pairs of the Air Zoom Pulse to “healthcare athletes” across Europe and the United States, including workers Chicago, Los Angeles, Memphis, and New York.
Even so, women athletes face unique challenges. What does she have to say to teenage hoopers who continue to feel disrespected by their male counterparts? She first noted the obvious: there’s going to be that level of disrespect until greater society shifts its view.
“I’ve always used that as motivation and I’ve always tried to not prove them wrong, but just try to prove the people that did believe in me right,” she said. “To all those players that are facing some level of kind of discrimination, so to say, you know, based on their gender, I would just say use that as fire and use that to kind of make those people look bad because they are very inconsiderate and don’t really understand the power of females.”
At the end of the day, Ionescu aspires to show “every young girl” that their gender shouldn’t halt their own “vision” and ambition.
Sabrina is “excited to bring life back in New York” and meet her fans
On April 21, Ionescu appeared on ESPN First Take. In her five and a half minute segment, Stephen A. Smith asked a question that you knew he would. How would Sabrina adjust to the “animal” that is the New York fan base?
“I have for sure, I’m honestly really excited to get there and grow the fan base,” she replied. “I mean I want more and more players to reach out to the fans and try and get them as part of our family and so, hoping that we can continue to grow the fan base, but I’m excited. I’m excited to get to know the community and to reach out in that community.”
Then Max Kellerman swooped in with a question that made Ionescu giggle with a little twinkle in her eye. He mentioned how starved New York has been for some sort of basketball championship. The stars are there, just not on the Knicks.
Ionescu also wants to “shock the world,” which obviously is nothing new for her. She’s been following the media closely, and the ESPN WNBA power rankings sounded like a point of contention.
“I know today I saw that we are projected to finish last in the league, and so using that as fire, I love that stuff,” she told a group of reporters on Zoom. “I take it all in. I love that they have, you know, [us] projected to finish last.”
Attracting a magnitudinous fan base. Bringing a championship to New York. That’s a lot of pressure for a 22-year-old, no?
But according to Sabrina herself, there’s no pressure. She’s been running at her old high school’s track and has been “doing everything that” she can to make sure that her body and her mind are at the ready for whenever the crisis subsides.
“It’s always been me versus me so you know whatever I do, it’s me just trying to be the best that I can every day, regardless of if we’re in the coronavirus situation or not,” she said.
This situation, taking a younger program and giving it legs, is something she’s familiar with. A tree has been planted in Brooklyn, and it might need time to germinate.
Internal pressures or not, Sabrina is ready for it. She’s ready to grow.
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