Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu was assumed to be the No. 1 pick in this year’s WNBA draft before her senior season began.
She has talked with Walt Hopkins, the coach of the New York Liberty that gets to choose first on Friday, but Ionescu knows nothing is guaranteed.
“He’s been awesome,” she said of Hopkins, who was named head coach in January after being an assistant to the Minnesota Lynx for three years. “Obviously, they have a new staff in place. I’m just excited if I get that opportunity. I think they have the right pieces in place, and the goals and the vision that coaching staff and the front office has for that team are bright.”
“So I’m excited to see if I’m going to be part of that organization.”
The Liberty is one of the three original franchises left in the league, and is the only one not to have won a Championship. They’ve missed the playoffs the last two years, and have gone 17-51 during that time. This same era also saw plummeting attendance, as games were moved from Madison Square Garden to Westchester County Center in White Plains after previous owner James Dolan announced he was selling the team.
In January 2019 Joseph Tsai bought the team, and after the season announced that Liberty games would move to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn beginning this year. Last fall they won the draft lottery, giving them the top pick for the first time.
Ionescu said Hopkins told her she would be “a piece of the puzzle that would make them go.”
The Walnut Creek, Calif. native came to the Ducks as the No. 1 prospect in her recruiting class, and led the team into the rankings, to elite status and into the Final Four in 2019. She said this experience has prepared her for what might lie ahead for her as a professional athlete.
“Obviously, (the Liberty are) not where they need to be, and that’s a learning and growing process,” Ionescu said. “So I understand, really more than anyone, what it’s like to come into an organization and have to believe in the foundation that’s there. And then try to ride the wave, the ups and downs, from there.”
A year ago Ionescu could have entered the draft, but chose to stay at Oregon and pursue a national title after falling in the semifinals. Though this season began with the Ducks beating the U.S. National Team and ended with Ionescu smashing the NCAA all-time triple-doubles mark, among other records, she has experienced plenty of tragedy over the last three months.
Ionescu’s mentor, former NBA great Kobe Bryant, was killed in a helicopter crash in January, prior to an Oregon tipoff. Last month the NCAA Tournament was canceled for the first time in history due to the coronavirus pandemic, robbing Ionescu and her teammates of the chance to pursue a Championship.
As stay-at-home measures remain in place, the WNBA will have a virtual draft instead of an actual one. There is also the possibility that league play will be suspended this season, as the country works to get coronavirus under control. Then, to top it off, Ionescu’s family dog died two weeks ago.
She has said it will take a while to get over losing the Tournament. But she also said Tuesday that she’s glad she returned to Eugene for one more year.
“It’s hard to think about it,” Ionescu said. “I came back to win a National Championship, and then you don’t win it. And you try and see if there’s any regret. But I have to say it was one of the best decisions of my life to come back, although there were many ups and downs through the year. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else besides there.”
“So obviously, one of the worst years of my life, but also one of the best. And being able to share that with the community, with the school, with my teammates for one last time was a blessing. I don’t regret anything about coming back to school, even though we didn’t win a National Championship.”
The WNBA draft is at 4 p.m. PT/7 p.m. ET Friday on ESPN.