“She’s very relentless. Even when you think you have her stopped, she keeps coming at you.” That’s a quote from Sue Bird about the 2020 #1 draft pick.
You might know her from her sneaker deal with Nike, her time playing on the Oregon Ducks, or from her joining the New York Liberty. Regardless of where you first heard of Sabrina Ionescu, as a result of her performances and her WNBA draft spot, she has officially arrived. The recent pops on Google Trends show prove as much.
As Bryan Armen Graham so eloquently put it in The Guardian:
“Sabrina Ionescu became the face of her sport during a sensational four-year collegiate career that saw her break into the American sports mainstream like few women’s basketball players before her. The 5ft 11in pick-and-roll savant became the first ever player – male or female – to surpass 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds, while her 26 career triple-doubles shattered the previous record of 12 held by BYU’s Kyle Collinsworth.”
So today we’re going to take a look at Sabrina Ionescu’s records, signature moves, highlights videos, strengths, and weaknesses. And we’ll cover everything you need to know about how she’s influencing the game on and off the court, and will continue to do so in the WNBA.
Sabrina was around three years old when she first picked up a basketball, and it’s been a love story since then. Her impact on the game already is undeniable.
Sabrina broke a ton of records, and is on her way towards many more. Today, she is the NCAA all-time leader in career triple-doubles, the Pac-12 Conference all-time leader in assists, and the only NCAA Division I basketball player to record 2,000 points, 1,000 assists, and 1,000 rebounds in a career – just to name a few.
Other records Sabrina broke include:
So it’s safe to say she’s accomplished a few things. Just kidding, she’s smashed so many records in the books. It’s truly astonishing what she’s been able to accomplish in her college career.
Sabrina’s career statistics show a lot of consistency, while also revealing an improvement in points scored since her freshman year. She ended her Oregon Ducks college career with an astounding 2,479 points, 1,008 rebounds, and 1,053 assists.
In later years it’s clear she became more skilled at elevating her teammates’ level of play, as her assists per game ticked upwards from 5.5 to 9.1. Meanwhile her steals per game increased each over the course of four years from 1.3 to 1.5, as she became more attuned to the attack defensively, learning how to strategize with her body placement and feet to make angles work in her favor, dictating the offense’s movement.
Sabrina has always been a shooter, and she’s nearly equally lethal from the mid-range as she is on the deep-three. Her senior year efficiency shows 48.6 points created per 40 minutes according to Synergy Basketball. With incredibly high efficiency from the majority of the right side of the court, except for a little mid-range pocket by the basket where it’s likely a big was able to beat her to the spot off the roll.
One of the most amazing things about Sabrina’s game is how well-rounded she is. Sabrina is and has always been a shooter — and that started at a very young age for her.
In a 2019 interview with Ava Wallace of The Washington Post, Sabrina Ionescu admitted to being a “natural scorer”, but said that much of the rest of her skill set came from playing alongside both boys and older girls in her childhood.
“When I was younger, I was always playing with the guys, and I had to find ways to get the ball, because they never wanted to pass to me. So I figured that if I could rebound, I would be able to get the ball myself. Then passing-wise, when I was in sixth grade playing with the eighth-grade team, I was obviously a lot shorter, skinnier, smaller than they were. I would just have to find ways to impact the game other than shooting or scoring, and that was passing.”
So along the way Sabrina refined her ability to crash the boards and set her teammates up with strong passes. She also had to learn how to run plays, specifically pick and rolls.
“Coming into college, I never ran a ball screen in my life, and that’s what our entire offense was,” Ionescu said. “And so I had to learn how to use the ball screens and all the frustration that comes with that.”
As a result of her dedication, Ionescu’s name is now nearly synonymous with the words “triple-double” — she’s a game maker. And she’s even begun to use her voice to extend the impact of her game beyond the court.
Sabrina made the unique choice to play collegiately at Oregon, over schools with far richer women’s basketball traditions. But she made the decision because she wanted to be a part of building something incredible.
In the letter she penned in the Players Tribune after her junior year she wrote, “Because those people saying we’ve peaked — they don’t know this program and they don’t know me. And they don’t know the mission we’re on, together, as a group. The mission that we’ve been on. Something is happening here. We’re building a program — and not just any program. We’re building a program that wins national championships.”
Reflecting on Sabrina’s four years, she’s certainly helped grow the university into something new. She, along with her teammates, put it on the map. In their final regular season game they had sellout crowd of 12,634. “‘Wow, the house that we built. This is crazy!’ she told fans. Indeed, she and her teammates – she always mentions teammates – took a not-very-good women’s team four years ago, and made it elite. This season, the women’s team averaged just under 11,000 fans at home games in Matthew Knight Arena. On the road, according to Oregon head coach Kelly Graves, the team boosted attendance in their opponents’ arenas by 75%.” according to NPR. The program now delivers game after game of amazing women’s basketball, and many of her teammates this year also entered this year’s WNBA Draft. Together they’d grown a program and the university.
“Hopefully our legacy is we’ve created something bigger than just basketball in Eugene. It’s kind of a program that’s going to be really good for years to come. So hopefully just creating that opportunity for girls in that community and around the world to be able to watch us and inspire them to be like us.” Sabrina further elaborated on Kevin Durant’s The Boardroom with Ros Gold-Onwude .
Ionescu’s been recognized by NBA superstars Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, and Steph Curry. “She’s changing the game,” says Oregon Coach Kelly Graves to NPR. “There’s no player in the history of college women’s basketball that’s getting the attention she is.” Graves says it’s “not just because she’s a great player. She’s getting crossover support from some of the greatest men’s basketball players in the world. Icons…and that just does not happen,” he says. “So she is, I think, making an impact for our sport that I think will be long lasting.”
Sabrina got her first triple-double in a tournament game in the second round of the NCAA tournament, a 91-68 win against Indiana. In the postgame interview, she called out ESPN: “It probably still won’t get recognized because ESPN never recognizes women’s sports.”
Later Sabrina said of ESPN to ESPN, “They had posted something about Ja Morant getting one and said that there were only eight or seven people that ever got one in the NCAA tournament, and they listed all the men that had gotten a triple-double. And so I was like, “All right, well this is my chance, I’m going to say something. Just being able to, you know, have that platform now at Oregon is something that kind of sparks me to try to just voice my opinion on social media.”
And that isn’t the only time she’s highlighted the disparities between men and women in the sport she loves. “It’s crazy how much negativity just goes into the game of women’s basketball, regardless of what you’re producing,” she says. “I could have 30 points, and Zion Williamson could have 30, and his is published and not mine. It’s the same thing,” Ionescu says. “It’s the norm, and now we’re breaking norms, and it’s gonna take a while for people to get used to it.”
Now that her college career is over, Sabrina continues to aspire to permanently alter the way people view women’s sports, by following in the steps of Megan Rapinoe, Diana Taurasi, and Sue Bird. “There are so many in women’s sports that have been using their platforms and it’s been inspirational to be able to see that,” she says. “I see myself jumping on board and doing the same thing.”
As for how joining the New York Liberty will impact her mission she shared with The Guardian, “I’m excited to stand for something more than just being a basketball player in that city and using it for a bigger purpose. I want to be able to use my platform and voice to stand for something more. We’re already at a disadvantage as it is. Hopefully I can help bring appreciation and value into the game regardless of your gender. Trying to use sport to change the way society views us as a whole.”
Sabrina is a natural scorer. Today she’s probably best known for her work off pick and rolls, but that wasn’t always the case. In Kobe’s Detail he breaks down Sabrina in an Oregon game, and touches on many of her signature moves. Some of her go-tos are:
This is probably my favorite move in her bag, and I’ve seen her execute it flawlessly. It draws the defense out to guard her higher, making more space on the floor. She’s usually pretty sharp at getting her head and elbow down into the defense’s stomach to create that critical separation.
Example: Minute 0:31
Because Sabrina makes herself a threat even steps behind the arc, as well as driving to the basket, the pick and rolls that get set for her are deadly. She typically goes off the screen to her left and does a pull up floater. In this case she goes to her left but because of where she starts she’s able to get the shot up from within the foul lane.
Example: Minute 1:59
Similar play here, just with a faster pull-up closer to the foul line, on one corner. She’s got a great shooting percentage on these ducks! While left seems to be her preference, in this example she goes right. Notice how she uses her arm to tie the defender up into the screen and cuts a tight left angle, leaving her in the dust (and also getting fouled!).
Example: Minute 1:20
This is basically a smooth, quick dish to a big down, typically down low. Because she’s such a good shooter and has trained them to expect her to score off screens the defense has all eyes on her, leaving her bigs open often. She’s great at getting the surprise bounce pass through right to them so that they can take it and put it up in one motion.
Example: Minute 0:49
I mean, isn’t every Sabrina video a highlight video? Anyhow, here are a few of the best examples of her bringing her A-game over the years.
As you can see during her freshman year she already had a strong three-point shooting range, and was able to connect the ball to her bigs down deep. She was also able to take the pressure of hitting a game winning shot and knock it down at the buzzer. So her mental game was already on point.
While tallying 21 points, plus six rebounds and seven assists, Ionescu helped Oregon to the program’s first Elite Eight appearance.
Ionescu set the program’s record after dishing out 17 in a win over Long Beach State.
During her junior year Sabrina further developed her lethal inside floater. And she continues to like to go left. One other thing you’ll notice throughout is her strong movement without the ball. Because she’s such a threat, she can get all of the defensive team’s eyes on her, creating space and open looks for her teammates.
I mean here we see more of the astounding feats that are by now Sabrina norms. Lots of deep mid-range shots going in, strong screens with mid-range pull ups, and exceptional shooting beyond the arc. And her passing has gotten even more creative. She’s stil not using the backboard on her shots close to the basket though.
Check out even more of her college career highlights here with the NCAA’s roundup of 18 of the best moments.
Sabrina has a ton of strengths, as she’s well-rounded in the fundamentals. Sabrina can move off the ball, she can catch and shoot, and she can pass. Plus, she has a certain physicality to her game, and she’s not afraid to push into defenders to earn those inches she needs to fire off a shot. And while not flashy, she’s a workhorse.
“She reminds me a lot of Sue Bird,” says Connecticut Sun star and 2014 No. 1 overall pick Chiney Ogwumike. “Excellent feel for the game, plays her own tempo, and as a passer she has the That’s So Raven ability to see the future.”
She racks up double-digit rebounds because she’s relentless and because she’s a strong shooter. Her creative IQ is high: she’s a mastermind of angles. And her mental game is strong: she’s a firm believer in outlasting everyone. As Oregon associate head coach Mark Campbell said, “She could pass and score and rebound and defend—not because she was athletic but because she was the total opposite: patient, cerebral, instinctual. The best part? She had no backdown in her bones.”
I mean we have to start here, because, duh. Ionescu’s ability to score from all three levels – 3-point, mid-range and at the basket – make her such a difficult cover in pick-and-roll sets. According to her WNBA resume, while she’s a threat from all over the court, Ionescu was at her most efficient with high pick-and-rolls, which accounted for 68% of her total pick-and-rolls. And, Ionescu shot 42.2% (329-779) from beyond the arc during her Oregon career. She’s also a strong free-throw shooter. And she’s also comfortable carrying the weight of a big deep buzzer beater.
Campbell sat in the stands—some creaky, some without backs—for about 200 of Ionescu’s high school games for Miramonte High in Orinda, California. He even followed her to Pilsen in the Czech Republic for the 2014 FIBA U17 World Cup, where she helped the U.S. team to gold. And now he’s watched her play 89 games for Oregon. “For all of those games,” Campbell said to Bleacher Report, “I’ve never seen her have an off game.”
Sabrina has never been hesitant to speak up on the court or in huddles. For example, at the end of the McDonald’s All-American Game, according to her mother, Liliana Blaj, she snatched the clipboard from one of her coaches and began diagramming a play. Not to be disrespectful—but because her team needed a bucket, and when there is a bucket to be gotten, Ionescu will get it.
Sabrina also has an ability to push her teammates. She doesn’t back down from yelling to either encourage them to step it up or to build their confidence. “Sabrina has that ability to push kids,” says Sopak, who was also Ionescu’s coach at Miramonte. He’s her mentor, having coached her since she was in the third grade.
If there is one skill she possesses that stands out above the rest, it would be her passing. And Ionescu agrees, calls herself a pass-first point guard – similar to Sue Bird. She has the combination of vision, timing and instincts to get her teammates the ball in exactly the right spot, at the right time, so that her teammate can catch and shoot without needing a step to gather.
During her senior season, pick-and-rolls accounted for 40.5% of Ionescu’s offensive possessions, according to play type data tracked by Synergy Sports. She put a lot of work into learning how to be good with a screen, especially how to hit the right angle by walking players down. For example Kobe Details her here. Though, she could stand to be tighter to the screener on pick-and-rolls by using her arms to lock in defenders’ elbows.
You don’t want a guard getting caught up down low, but by getting in there a similar style to Michael Jordan she can ramp up her team’s energy. Ionescu’s rebounding rose during her tenure at Oregon from an average of 6.6 rebounds as a freshman to setting a career-high with 8.6 as a senior with 12 double-digit rebound games in her 33 games in 2019.
Her basketball mentality is nicknamed Bazooka Mode and she has an obsession her coach Campbell compared to that of MJ, Taurasi and the drummer from Whiplash.
She usually defaults to driving left. Sabrina told ESPN, “I remember I was in the front yard with Eddy, and he was like, “My left hand’s better than yours.” That was the only thing he said, and I was like, “All right.” And so for days on end, I didn’t use my right hand once. I shot 3-pointers, free throws, everything left-handed. I definitely loved working with my left hand. And now I use my left hand more than my right.”
Sabrina knows how to back off the player and get her angle right to pick up the steal as she’s passing the ball. Here’s a great example at 0:23.
She’s great at reading how the driver is going to raise the ball up to the basket, and can oftentimes get in and block the ball while it’s still around waist height. Here’s an example at 1:16.
Because Sabrina has the fundamentals down (i.e. it’s not like Kawhi Leonard where she’s obviously got to improve shooting), Sabrina’s biggest weaknesses today have to do with the mental side of her game, as well as continuing to develop her overall athleticism for the next level. Though there are a couple of specific moves she could work on, so we’ve called those out last here.
She’s not all that quick, and she’s not that tall. Oregon coach Kelly Graves has regularly noted that Ionescu is not the fastest player on the floor and not the strongest. She’s certainly found ways to make up for it, by playing smart basketball. But, if she’s able to develop quicker first-moves, and the strength to drive forward on her legs to push bigs out of the way, while also raising up and twisting her upper body to get off the floater, she’ll be even more dangerous.
Sabrina gets very nervous before games, and has found a way to address it with a sort of compulsive pre-game routine, getting in early and getting shots up. “I’m just super nervous before games,” Ionescu says. Though that’s fairly common for athletes. However, shot nerves over the long run are not good. And, revealing that type of mental doubt for competitors to read about could potentially lose her the upper hand. As I’m sure there are a bunch of vets eager to make their mark by tripping up the newb in some way.
Emotional intelligence is a big part of helping your team succeed. Knowing how your teammates respond to criticism best, what they need to hear to succeed, and how to best support them are all critical. While she’s made improvements, that’s an area Sabrina still has an opportunity to grow in.
Oregon head coach Graves told The Athletic, “She was a tough teammate early on. If someone didn’t have the same level of commitment she did, she couldn’t understand why.” Even last season, during Oregon’s run to the Final Four, Ionescu snarled at a teammate during a loss late in the regular season. The following day, the team met with a leadership expert and that reportedly helped smooth the rough edges.
Kelly Sopak, her high school coach, said of Sabrina, “The biggest challenge she has now is overcoming losing. We lost nine games while she was in high school. I really don’t know if Sabrina cares about winning. I just know she doesn’t like to lose, and that’s, you know, it’s her biggest strength, but it’s also her biggest weakness.
And Dan, Sabrina’s father brought the point home sharing, “Here’s one thing that I’ve learned through the years with Sabrina. When she’s losing a game, you do not talk to her. You just walk away, you mind your own business.” A fiercely competitive attitude is what has propelled Sabrina to greatness. The key will be her ability to let those moments go so she can find confidence before future games, and to hold onto the memory just enough to push herself even harder in training.
As Kobe called out in his Detail of Sabrina, on her drive finishes, rather than stopping dead with two feet, she could save time by scoop and pizza-ing the ball with her left for layups in two steps.
This will come as she develops more speed, but Sabrina needs to be lighter on the toes of her feet, as well as more confident in her ability to bring that ball around with her. This is key because she could be getting even more off screens if she can lock in the big and then spin around for the mid-range.
Sabrina is a cross-over queen but she rarely goes behind the back or between the legs. It’s OK to play without a lot of flash, but this feels limiting to me and is something she could invest time in building out. Teams will play her for the front-cross. Better to proactively add the unexpected to her toolkit, even if she doesn’t need it.
Based on her strengths and weaknesses there are a few techniques defenses can use against Sabrina.
First, push her right from the start. Dictate which way she’s going to go by slanting with your body, and bump checking her. Study plays so you know which way to expect the screens to come and when. Her man should go above and fight through the screen by flattening to be as thin as possible, rather than staying down in a defensive stance. That way she doesn’t get the open three look.
Second, on defense play her hard, hard, hard with contact and then on the floater totally back off. She’ll be expecting some degree of contact, and by giving her none, that could throw off the floater. Since she doesn’t use the backboard she’d have to get the pressure just right, not realizing you’re not going to push on her.
Finally, when she’s on the drive, bigs could try to set the pace by stunting up at her early closer to the middle of the lane. Then they could hustle back to their mark by the basket while being conscious of the passing lane, looking to anticipate the dish. It’s risky but could probably throw her off the first time, making her more likely to switch to the mid-range pull up. Which the man being screened should be able to anticipate and beat her to her spot on.
Sabrina found herself preparing for the draft before she’d anticipated having to, due to the NCAA tournament being cut because of Covid-19. Ashley Adamson caught up with Sabrina on her thoughts ahead of the draft and dug into what her properaration process was like. Sabrina shared that it was nice that she’d had more time to talk to the coaches on Zoom. And that she was glad her family would be able to watch the draft and that it was on ESPN so everyone could watch. But, she wasn’t sure she wanted to get dressed up for it – “maybe jeans and a nice shirt, and some make up, but not a dress!” said Sabrina.
Turns out she had bigger things to worry about than just her wardrobe though. As ahead of the draft she also needed to lock in her team. Sabrina signed with agent Bill Duffy (she grew up playing basketball in his backyard) and WME Sports. Going forward, WME will work on Ionescu’s off-court activity such as her marketing and sponsorship portfolio, while also exploring other opportunities across non-scripted TV, digital, literary and lectures. And Bill Duffy, chairman and CEO of BDA Sports Management, will serve as Ionescu’s on-court basketball agent and adviser.
With her agent and agency settled, Sabrina was able to turn her attention to the league’s first ever virtual draft. Before the start of the draft, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert named Alyssa Altobelli, Gianna Bryant and Payton Chester as honorary draft picks. The WNBA also introduced the Kobe & Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award, a new annual honor that will recognize an individual or group who has made significant contributions to the visibility, perception and advancement of women’s and girls’ basketball at all levels. Then Sabrina was selected by the New York Liberty with the first overall pick of WNBA Draft 2020 presented by State Farm®.
Sabrina earns $68,000 as her WNBA salary, as a result of the WNBA’s new collective bargaining agreement. Plus, she’ll bring in additional money from her endorsements, such as with Nike and Beats by Dre.
She could also make additional money playing overseas during the offseason. After her season-ending ankle injury, and with plans for the 2021 WNBA season still unknown, she’s weighing her playing options.
“I’m still deciding if I want to go overseas for the second half of the season, maybe go out there in January or February and play a couple of months before the (WNBA) season starts, just kind of get used to playing. There are a few teams that I was talking to before the WNBA season started, so I’ll still be talking to them.” she said.
The sky’s the limit for this woman, so what’s on her to do list? Learning the basics with the New York Liberty, growing her personal brand, and…lifting pots?
Following New York’s selection of the triple-double queen, head coach Walt Hopkins received a text from his rookie point guard, according to High Post Hoops. She wanted to access the digital playbook that he and his staff had put together to get familiar with the “New Era” Liberty offense.
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.
Sabrina’s jersey was consistently sold out at the Pac-12 tournament. Her marketability continues to grow, and she even signed a deal with Nike. In addition to being a role model on the court, she’s also very well spoken when conversing with the press. When asked about her brand by Ros Gold-Onwude, Sabrina shared she’s trying to stand for something bigger than herself. “Girls in sports and women in sports is really important to me, just because I didn’t have an equal opportunity that my brothers had growing up. Using my platform I want to make girls playing sports a norm.”
Sabrina shared on With Authority that she’s reading, and doing really anything she can to stay mentally and physically sharp. It turns out when sheltering in place started she had no equipment to work out with. Her mom had some pots of plants so she was using those to lift, do some RDLs, and some squats. Luckily, now she has a medicine ball and some other things so she’s using those instead.
Overall Sabrina is excited for the new challenges ahead: a new league, an entirely new way of living that will come with new highs and lows. She knows she needs to weather the storm of growing pains, and will need to have confidence. When women’s basketball returns, she’s ready to go. In the meantime she might just have a little more fun.
You pronounce Sabrina Ionescu: Sab-rine-ah YO-ness-coo.
Sabrina Ionescu knew Kobe Bryant as a mentor both on and off the court. His daughter Gianna and him used to attend many of her games, and he helped her train.
Sabrina Ionescu has a twin brother Eddy Ionescu.
Sabrina Ionescu is 5’11” tall.
Up next, go deep into the obnoxious question: “Why does nobody watch the WNBA?” Which, for the record, is categorically untrue. Find out what 6.5 million viewers have to do with it.
Written by Megan Mitzel, youth basketball coach, and Founder of Queen Ballers Club.
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