2020 WNBA draft — How projected No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu redefined NCAA basketball

Apr 15, 2020

Graham HaysESPN.com

CloseGraham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

Sabrina Ionescu is about to become the face of a rebuilding project. It’s a role the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2020 WNBA draft is almost uniquely qualified to play.

Oregon wasn’t much in women’s college basketball when Ionescu arrived. It wasn’t the kind of program capable of filling Matthew Knight Arena back then. It was one of the sport’s toughest tickets by the time she finished. She didn’t just make the Ducks competitive; she made them matter.

But Ionescu’s style was always rooted in substance. Oregonians, NBA stars and basketball connoisseurs alike didn’t gravitate toward her simply because she made flashy passes. It wasn’t cool factor that transformed Oregon from postseason afterthought into championship contender. The numbers tell the story. The first player, man or woman, to accumulate 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds in NCAA history, Ionescu was as complete a guard as college basketball has ever seen.

And that’s something to build around.

Ionescu redefined how we measure versatility in college basketball

What Babe Ruth did for home runs? That’s what Ionescu did for triple-doubles in college basketball. Sure, they existed before she came around, but we didn’t see them very often. Then she went out and put up as many in her junior season alone as any player had accumulated in a career before she arrived. She finished her career with more assists than all but three players in NCAA Division I history. Yet she also had more rebounds than the men’s and women’s career assists leaders combined. And still Ionescu found the time to average 18 points per game. “She’s kind of the golfer who can hit the long drive, has the midrange game and can putt,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “She has it all.”

She made the pick-and-roll an impossible choice for defenders

Oregon didn’t worry about sign stealing. Opponents knew what was coming. It didn’t help. The Ducks loved to run when they could. Ionescu was a maestro in transition. But slowing her down did defenses no favors. Running the pick-and-roll with Ruthy Hebard or Satou Sabally, Ionescu had the vision to pile up assists if defenses overcommitted to stop her. But they almost had to do just that because there wasn’t anywhere inside the 3-point line where she struggled to make shots. Someone was going to score off the pick-and-roll. She only let you choose who it would be.

She didn’t defer to anyone when it mattered most

She left Oregon without a national championship, but it is a better measure of Ionescu’s postseason performance that she cut down the nets after her final college game. That win in the Pac-12 tournament was Ionescu’s 20th in the conference or NCAA tournaments. Which is 20 more than Oregon had in those settings the four preceding years. “We all thought she was going to be a special player,” Oregon coach Kelly Graves said, “but I’m not sure anybody anywhere anticipated she was going to have the impact she’s had on the college game.” A surprise Elite Eight run as a freshman. Her first Pac-12 tournament title as a sophomore. The Final Four as a junior. Ionescu was best in the games that made good on her pledge to lift Oregon to new heights.

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