The legend began on outdoor courts, over a couple bucks or a Slurpee.

Sabrina Ionescu honed her craft there long before the college basketball world knew her name. The pickup games with her twin brother, Eddy, became her summer pastime. And the first people to witness a special talent were the unsuspecting victims.

“We would stay in the park for hours while our parents worked,” Ionescu told ESPN. “We would get hungry, we’d want some money. Whoever came walking up to the park, we’re like, ‘All right, we’ll pick on this guy.’ “

Ionescu is about to take her game to a much bigger stage. The Oregon guard was selected No. 1 overall by the New York Liberty in Friday’s WNBA draft.

The Liberty have never won a WNBA championship, but Ionescu is the type of player who can change a franchise. She became the first male or female player in NCAA history to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds.

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ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo pointed out that Ionescu could have gone at the top of the draft last year if she declared.

“To me, she’s the perfect fit for New York,” said Lobo, who spent four years with the Liberty.

“She fits in in high-pressure moments. She lives in them. She craves them. There’s nothing bigger than what you see in New York City.”

During the last four years, Ionescu tore through college record books and opposing defenses. And the 18 points a game she averaged doesn’t even begin to measure her impact in Eugene. She redefined the women’s game with 26 triple-doubles, more than twice as many as the previous high. She shattered the Pac-12 record for assists, while finishing fourth in NCAA history.

That list of achievements may have been even longer if the three-time All-American had been able to finish the 2019-20 season and play for a national title.

“She’s really just a phenomenal leader in multiple ways,” Liberty coach Walt Hopkins said. “She’s not somebody who just stands back and says what to do. She’ll come down on teammates 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. You have to be doing everything you’re saying.”

The Liberty will need their top choice to be a leader both on and off the court. The franchise is moving to Barclays Center this season with a new coach, a new owner and a new logo. With Ionescu, they have the chance to boost ticket sales after finishing last in attendance in back-to-back seasons.

Putting the biggest player in the biggest market seems like a match made in heaven.

“Just the marketability that there is in New York and kind of the hustle and bustle is something that I think can be not only beneficial to myself as a person but as a brand and for women’s basketball,” Ionescu said earlier this week. “If I get that opportunity, I will definitely be excited to try and use that to the best of my ability.”

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The WNBA draft will wrap up a year of highs and lows for Ionescu.

It began with the decision to return to the Ducks as a senior after leading them to their first Final Four last year. Then tragedy hit in January with the loss of her mentor and close friend, Kobe Bryant. Ionescu spoke at Bryant’s memorial in Los Angeles and returned to the court hours later, scoring 21 points against Stanford after missing warmups.

That ended up being the final triple-double for Ionescu before the sport was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Obviously one of the worst years of my life but also one of the best,” Ionescu said. “Being able to share that with the community, with the school, with my teammates one last time was a blessing. I don’t regret anything about coming back to school, even though we didn’t end up winning a national championship.”

Ionescu won’t be the only new face in Brooklyn if she ends up there.

The Liberty acquired three 2020 draft picks (No. 9, No. 12 and No. 15) in a blockbuster deal that sent All-Star Tina Charles to Washington. That trade gave the Liberty a team-record six picks in this year’s draft, including five of the first 15.

The next time Ionescu steps on the court, she’ll have a big spotlight and a much bigger playground.

“Obviously, they’re not where they need to be, and that’s a learning and growing process,” Ionescu said. “I’ve been a part of that for four years, so I understand really more than anyone what it’s like to come in to an organization and have to believe in the foundation that’s there and the coaching staff there and kind of just ride the wave.”


2020 WNBA draft


  1. New York Liberty: Sabrina Ionescu, G, Oregon
  2. Dallas Wings: Satou Sabally, F, Oregon
  3. Indiana Fever: Lauren Cox, F, Baylor
  4. Atlanta Dream: Chennedy Carter, G, Texas A&M
  5. Dallas Wings: Bella Alarie, F, Princeton
  6. Minnesota Lynx: Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, F, South Carolina
  7. Dallas Wings: Tyasha Harris, G, South Carolina
  8. Chicago Sky: Ruthy Hebard, F, Oregon
  9. New York Liberty: Megan Walker, F, Connecticut
  10. Phoenix Mercury: Jocelyn Willoughby, F, Virginia
  11. Seattle Storm: Kitija Laksa, G, South Florida/Latvia
  12. New York Liberty: Jazmine Jones, G, Louisville


  1. (13) New York Liberty: Kylee Shook, F, Louisville
  2. (14) Indiana Fever: Kathleen Doyle, G, Iowa