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Player of the Year candidate Ionescu much more than a triple-double queen

Sabrina Ionescu. Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.
Sabrina Ionescu. Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.
Sabrina Ionescu drives into the paint. Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.

One of the best overall players in the country, Oregon junior guard Sabrina Ionescu, is known to casual fans almost exclusively for a single statistic: triple-doubles.

Her dominance in notching 10 or more in three different statistical categories in one game is unprecedented and astonishing. Just 96 games into her time as a Duck, Ionescu has 16 triple-doubles, which is more than twice the previous NCAA women’s career record of seven, and more than any man has ever earned in the college ranks.

The down side of her dominance in this rare feat is that it threatens to define her. Instead, it should be seen as an indication of her versatility, unselfish approach, leadership, and consummate basketball skills.

A balanced threat

Ionescu’s overall talents have been acknowledged more often this season than last, and ESPN named her the preseason Player of the Year. So far her performance this year has lived up to that prediction.

Through 25 games, she has averaged 8.2 assists per outing (second in the nation), 19.7 points, and 7.2 rebounds. She also is the overall leader in total assists (205), and is eighth in assist/turnover ratio (3.31). (Oregon’s point guard, senior Maite Cazorla, is sixth nationally in assists/turnover ratio at 3.59, with 122 dimes.)

But it doesn’t stop there. Ionescu ranks sixth on three-point percentage list (.467), 26th in free throw percentage (.871), and 28th among guards in rebounds (181).

No player is more essential to the success of her team – currently ranked No. 2 – than Ionescu. No player’s game is more multi-faceted, and only a few others have her competitiveness and leadership ability.

Head coach Kelly Graves sees a basketball impresario in his star.

“I liken her to a conductor,” he said. “She is in complete control of every possession on the court. She’s conducting the musicians out there, and keeping everything together. And yeah.. . . her court awareness is incredible.”

Make no mistake. Court awareness, not court vision, is the term to describe the Northern California standout’s unique gifts. At 5-11, Ionescu is a tall guard, but not overwhelming. She is not a phenomenal pure athlete. She does not have outstanding foot speed, but she has an uncanny ability to visualize the movement of all 10 players on the court.

With a basketball in her hands, or falling off the rim, she finds a way to be in the ideal place for the pass or rebound. Watching her play, she appears to intuit the position of both teammates and opponents on a continuous basis, moving to the best position to be most effective.

Sabrina Ionescu drives to the rack. Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.

She excels because she is constantly aware of where both her teammates and opponents are on the court, and has the basketball IQ to know – usually before the player herself – where everyone will end up next. This allows her to rifle passes (right or left-handed, equally) into tiny passing tunnels, more often than not hitting a teammate in the best spot for her to complete the play.

Ionescu is also a team player with a refreshing humility, which Graves labels as “grounded.” She doesn’t pay attention to award lists.

“I don’t even know what a lot of that stuff is. But if I get (player of the year), I get it and if I don’t, I don’t,” she said. “That’s perfectly fine. There’s probably someone who’s really deserving, as well. But as long as we’re winning, that’s all that really matters.”

That team focus may well have limited her already-stratospheric number of triple-doubles. Just because she could get one during most games doesn’t mean that she will. Graves said her value to the team is that she can focus on whatever they need done on a particular night.

“It’s just the completeness of her game, number one,” he said. “I think the understanding of the moment, and the situation, number two. You know there are games when we might need everything. Or there are games when, hey, we just need her to score, to shoot. Or maybe she’s going to have to distribute tonight. Or we actually need her on the boards.”

“She’s smart enough to know what the team needs at that time, but skilled enough, and athletic enough, and competitive enough, to be able to do all of them at the same time, like she’s done 15 times. . . .What she’s doing is unprecedented. It’s crazy incredible.”

Graves said Ionescu’s forward-thinking helps propel her past many foreboding opponents.

“She just knows where the ball’s coming off, and she is relentless in her pursuit of it,” Graves said. “In the assist area, her vision with the basketball is incredible. She’s a step ahead of everybody, and you know, she knows her teammates are open even before they know they’re open.”

Ionescu also has the drive to be the best.

“(Her) shooting the ball and scoring and finding ways to score is uncanny, too,” Graves said. “Because she’s not the quickest, she’s not 6-5, she’s not jumping out of the gym, she’s not the fastest up and down the court. She’s just relentless in what she does.”

Ionescu’s intensity is well-documented. She has admitted to thinking exclusively about the game for a day before, and a day after each contest. Such focus could be a detriment to meshing with her teammates, but the Ducks have made it work.

Junior center Ruthy Hebard, a Fairbanks, Alaska native, didn’t know Ionescu before they became freshman-year roommates.

“I remember just like her in open gym freshman year, her going in, yelling, so intensely,” Hebard said. “But now I’m used to it, now I know that’s just her personality.”

“She definitely is very vocal out on the court. I think we all pick up on that. And she’s a player that you don’t want to upset or anything, so you try to follow her example and just trust her. I listen when she tells me something, so those are all examples of her great leadership.”

Hebard said she and her teammates try to live up to their leader’s expectations.

“I always try to give her 100 percent, because she’s always giving us 100 percent,” Hebard said.

No player can excel as Ionescu has done without a good squad around her, and racking up assists is easier when a team of finishers receives those passes. Hebard is second in the nation in field goal percentage (.698). Four other Ducks shoot over 50 percent, and Oregon is tied with Iowa for first in field goal percentage (.524) and first in points per game (89.7).

Sabrina Ionescu. Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.

The skills of her teammates also protect Ionescu from a constant double-team that could otherwise plague her. All five starters average double-figure scoring, with Hebard and Satou Sabally (both 6-4) each over 17 points per game. When opponents are deciding whom to defend, Ionescu roams the court to score or dish at will.

Graves does not suggest that he predicted Ionescu’s brilliance at the college level while recruiting her. But he believed that the Ducks could build a program around her, and said he and his assistant coaches “worked their butts off” to gain her commitment.

“[Y]ou could see, right from the get-go, that this kid was different, and special,” Graves said. “[It was] just her drive. Just who she was each and every day.”

Ionescu doesn’t take any plays off, whether the end result will count, or not.

“She competes in every drill, every sprint, every practice, every game,” Graves said. “Whatever we do, she plays to win. And not a lot of people do that. That’s what sets the great ones apart from those that are very, very good. She pushes herself.”

And that means every day.

“Let’s say, (we’re in) a shooting drill,” Graves said. “She wants to beat her best, her personal best, every day. And if she doesn’t, she takes it hard.”

Ionescu’s leadership of the team is obvious, and has been accepted by older teammates. While she did not assume that role immediately, by the end of her freshman year it was obvious who ran Oregon on the court.

“[S]he quickly moved into the role, with some time,” Graves said. “She had some typical freshman up and downs early on. It was the second half of league play where she really took off and ended up carrying us to what ended up being a heck of a finish. Her leadership has evolved even further as she has gone on.”

Now, in a year when many are tabbing the Ducks for the Final Four, the team seems to match her personality.

“She’s learned how to [make everyone better],” Graves said. “We’ve had some personnel changes in the program….but it seems that group we have now, they all share in her same kind of nature. You know, her same ability to compete.”

“And so, now, she can take this team and elevate them in their preparation, communication, and everything else that those great ones do, that maybe she didn’t have the capability of doing before. Because we didn’t have all the players to sense that. Or her ability to communicate that wasn’t as good as it is now. So . . . it’s a treat.”

Hebard, who is both Ionescu’s best friend and a teammate, agrees that everyone on the team is better when the human stat machine is on the court.

“She definitely can always make everyone look good,” Hebard said. “She trusts us enough to give us the ball, make us have open shots, and that’s not easy for some people. And she also just talks to us individually. So that shows that she cares. It really nice.”

Incredibly, Ionescu is also unselfish.

Sabrina Ionescu. Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.

“She takes her shot – coach is telling her all the time to take her shot – but she’s always looking for someone else to get the ball to,” Hebard said. “And she’s always so proud and happy to see Satou becoming such an astonishing player, even….the other freshman, making great plays.”

“If she sees someone messing up, or she sees someone needs help. She’ll definitely go to talk with them and help them out.”

Ionescu has been yelling at teammates her entire basketball career, and Hebard concedes that she is still somewhat daunted by it. But her reaction has matured.

“Oh, [she] always [yells]. Yeah,” Hebard said. “It’s when she stops yelling that there’s a problem. So it’s great when she yells at me. I love it”

If there is a relative weakness to Ionescu’s game, it is on defense, which doesn’t come close to matching her offensive prowess.

Outside the game, Ionescu has a great sense of humor.

“Off the court she just a goofy kind of girl,” Hebard said. “On the court, serious and competitive. Off the court, she’s funny, loves to read, loves to eat. She’s just like a normal person, a normal college student. Off the court she’s a great friend, a great person, a great individual.”

Leaving a legacy

Ionescu is currently deciding whether or not to leave Oregon and enter the WNBA draft in April, or stay for a fourth year. Whatever she decides, her place in the program’s record books is guaranteed.

She notched her eighth triple-double Dec. 31, 2017, breaking the previous women’s NCAA career record in just her 48th game. Last Dec. 12 she earned her 13th, surpassing the NCAA men’s record held by Kyle Collinsworth of BYU, who garnered all 12 of his in his junior and senior years. With her 16th triple-double Jan. 20, Ionescu had averaged one every six post-high school games.

In the end, however, all that matters to her is how the team does.

“I just try to do everything I can in order for us to win,” she said. “All the credit (goes) to my teammates and coaches for putting me into a position to play.”

Ionescu has a nice Player of the Year resume, as her individual and team numbers compare favorably to other candidates. What sets her apart are the intangibles: her relentlessness, her work ethic and her will to win.

All will be tested tonight, as the Ducks take on rival Oregon State after winning the first game of the series Friday, behind Ionescu’s 29 points. Game time is 6 p.m. PT on ESPN2.

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