At least one WNBA rookie will enter the league this summer with a resume full of professional playing experience.
Satou Sabally’s decision to forego her final season at Oregon and enter April’s draft was not met with surprise last week. Many expected the prolific forward to make the move, as she had already played professionally in her native Germany before coming to the U.S.
But what is less known is that Sabally’s versatility on the court is matched by her depth and perspective as an individual. And being a Duck has prepared her for the WNBA better than any other playing field could have.
Before she leaves the program, however, this member of Oregon’s “big three” has unfinished business to address.
Coming off of a program-first Final Four appearance the previous spring, the Ducks entered 2019-2020 as National Championship favorites. Their first game was against the Women’s National Team, as part of their pre-Olympic qualifying exhibition tour. And despite Oregon’s No. 1 ranking, no one expected them to beat the all-veteran squad, 93-86. It was the first time a college team had had pulled off that feat in 20 years.
Sabally was a fountain of confidence in the match up, queuing up 25 points and grabbing six rebounds in just under 29 minutes of play. It was a significant marker for a young woman who arrived on campus in 2017 with a lot of worldly experience, but who needed to step up to match the physicality of NCAA play.
As a freshman, Sabally was thrust into the limelight with super-sophomores Sabrina Ionescu, who has become one of the best players in NCAA history, and Ruthy Hebard, the nation’s second-most efficient scorer this year. In a season that ended with a trip to the Elite Eight, Sabally averaged just 10.7 points and 3.8 rebounds, as she worked to adjust to her new life.
“I changed how I worked out, getting into the gym more,” she said. “Often in Europe the gym is an hour away, so you go to school all day and then do sports after that. Here it’s about managing school and sports together. And I got better at English by going to classes (at Oregon).”
Sabally emerged the following year, upping her scoring to 16.6 and her rebounding to 6.2, and becoming the third-most efficient player in Division I. But it was her versatility that was most noticeable.
“Her combination of size and skill is unique – it truly is,” coach Kelly Graves said. “She can score at every level, she can shoot with range, she can get to the basket. She has a great mid-range game, she can post up and score off of offensive rebounds.”
It is not uncommon for Sabally to bring the ball up court while Ionescu fills up a wing spot. It stymies defenders, who can’t tell whether she will drive to the basket, pass or pull up for a three-pointer. Hebard said that benefits the team on both ends of the floor.
“She’s such a good basketball player in general – she can drive, she can shoot, she can post up,” Hebard said. “It’s hard for people to match up with her defensively, because she can do so many things, and shes’ good at all those things. There’s not one thing she struggles with. that’s what makes her a special player.”
Sabally’s skill set also puts her in the spotlight on a team full of high-caliber athletes.
“Satou would have many more double-doubles if it wasn’t for the talent around her,” said longtime Oregon women’s basketball season ticket holder and former Duck player Peg Rees. “Imagine what it takes to stand out on a team with Ionescu and Hebard tearing it up regularly – and yet Satou often finds a way. That takes a real combination of skill and confidence.”
“Like Sabrina, Satou has spoiled the fan base with her range of effectiveness from anywhere.”
Sabally began playing basketball at nine years old, and her training was unorthodox.
“My coach in the past would always let me play point guard back home,” she said. “I was always really tall, but he wanted me to handle the ball well, and I’m grateful for that. He didn’t put me in the post, even though I was tall.”
By age 15, Sabally had been playing professional basketball in Germany for a few years – without pay, to preserve her amateur status – and she had become well-known. It was then that U.S. colleges began showing interest.
“When coaches started calling it was crazy,” Sabally said. “I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know a lot about the teams in the United States.”
Duck associate head coach Mark Campbell made several trips to Germany to court the young star, and she signed with Oregon after visiting. That fall the more laid-back Sabally was on the practice court with Ionescu, known for her intensity that is sometimes directed at teammates.
“I had to get used to it at first,” Sabally said. “It was the typical ‘ball is life’ approach, but it was perfect for me because it put more focus and attention on the seriousness of it all. (Working with Ionescu) helped me to be more aggressive and competitive.”
Graves said Sabally improved incrementally.
“With her it’s a mind set: ‘I’m going to be aggressive,'” he said.
She has had her starring moments this season, including 17 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in a win over former national champion Connecticut earlier this month. Graves sees her growth.
“When she first got here she was a catch-and-shoot player who would once in a while try to get to the basket, but that wasn’t her game – she was tentative,” he said. “Now she’s getting to the line a lot more, being aggressive and getting to the basket.”
“She’s doing a good job not just scoring for herself…..(but) creating for her teammates. She’s not always driving for herself, but she can more willingly kick to an open player.”
Off the court, Sabally is as worldly as her game. She is studying social science at Oregon, with a focus on crime, law and society. She is minoring in legal studies, and wants to go to law school.
“I don’t know what kind of law yet,” she said. “In recent months I’ve been looking into different kinds of juvenile law.”
Sabally is serious about her studies, and she reads books on her own time. Her favorite subject is politics.
“Politics rule the world,” she said. “It’s a cliché phrase, but it’s important to know and be aware of things that are going on, and I try to do that. I try to extend myself because it’s easy to read things that satisfy your knowledge and your opinion. I like hearing from other people so I can build my own opinion.”
Living in the U.S. has taught Sabally much about law and justice in the world.
“There’s racism in Germany too, but I feel like it’s different here because America has such a crazy history of slavery, which we don’t have,” she said. “I feel like the slavery aspect here is deeply-rooted into law, structures and consequences.”
“Germany has a lot going on with immigrants of Syria, and Africans coming over the ocean as political and economic refugees.”
Campbell, with whom Sabally has remained close, has called her “21 going on 40.” Graves said she is fascinating.
“She’s one of the most interesting players I’ve ever coached,” Graves said. “She’s brilliant, a great student, is socially-aware of what’s going on in the world, and she’s not afraid to comment on it. She understands civic rights and social justice, and she puts herself out there not on a whim, but because she’s thoughtful about it.”
He has no doubt she will fulfill her law dreams, and maybe more.
“She could be the chancellor of Germany someday,” Graves said. “She’s got that kind of presence, that kind of awareness. She’s special, she truly is.”
Family is also important to Sabally, as she remains close to her six siblings and her parents. Last March when Oregon hosted NCAA Tournament rounds one and two, her older brother came to visit she and her sister Nyara, who has been sidelined for two seasons with injury. In making her decision to declare for the draft, Sabally consulted her family. Ultimately, they are the wind beneath her wings.
“In terms of what motivates me, my mom sacrificed a lot for us to be here,” she said. “She got (her and Nyara) to practice every day, and we didn’t have a car back then. She was just sitting there waiting for us.”
When Germany was not named to the 2020 Olympic pool three weeks ago, Sabally’s path was cleared to head to the WNBA. She told ESPN that her decision was “very hard, but it was also a decision that came from the heart.”
With that pressure gone, Sabally is now focused on finishing her collegiate career with Ionescu and Hebard the way they want it: with a national title.
The road begins tonight, as the No. 3 Ducks take on No. 4 Stanford in Palo Alto in a nationally-televised, high-stakes Pac-12 match up. Oregon won the previous game between the two teams in January, and a win tonight would guarantee them at least a share of the conference regular-season title. It would also put them one win away from capturing that title.
Both teams have had their ups and downs this season, with the Ducks losing their top ranking in December after falling to then-No. 8 Louisville. Sabally said that ultimately, the loss was beneficial.
“I feel like….it was right that we lost because it helped us realize that we’re not unbeatable,” she said. “Everyone has vulnerable phases in the season, and maintaining composure is important. We learned that.”
Since their second and last loss to Arizona State Jan. 10, Oregon has won 13 straight and has beat eight top-18 opponents. Graves said his team was “regalvanized” in losing to the Sun Devils. Sabally said they have a stronger roster than last year.
“We definitely have more depth, with the bench being more ready than the year before,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
It is ironic that the 6-4 player who is projected to be picked fourth in the WNBA draft says that taking more jump shots, being more controlled and continuing to develop a post game are the areas in which she strives for improvement.
But for Oregon to get to the round of four in New Orleans, Sabally is in the driver’s seat.
“She’s the key (to getting back to the Final Four),” Graves said. “No one has a player like her. She’s a match up advantage for us on any given night.”