The three Oregon basketball stars who have dominated the Pac-12 most of their collegiate careers took control of the WNBA draft Friday.
All three were selected in the first round: Sabrina Ionescu at No. 1, Satou Sabally with the second pick, and Ruthy Hebard at No. 8. It was the first time in school history that a trio had all been chosen in round one.
The New York Liberty scooped up Ionescu, who finished her college career with an NCAA-record 26 triple-doubles and a Division I record 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds, as anticipated. Sabally, who played professionally without taking pay in Germany as a teenager, was the expected choice for the Dallas Wings.
The Chicago Sky took Hebard with their eighth pick, preventing a reunion with Ionescu in New York, which held the ninth pick. The Liberty and Dallas had 10 of the draft’s 36 picks between them.
The event capped more than a week of hype and anticipation in which Ionescu was heralded as a savior for the struggling New York franchise. After her selection, she was visibly more relaxed – and grateful.
“Yeah, it is really relieving,” Ionescu said of the process being over. “It is really a blessing to be able to go 1.”
The Liberty have struggled to win and to retain fans the last two years, as their playing venue changed and the organization was sold. The trade of marquee center Tina Charles earlier in the week signaled that the new ownership group is ready to rebuild around their young star. Ionescu, who used her steely will and fiery determination to lead the Ducks to the Final Four last year, is ready for the challenge.
“I know that there is a lot of pressure, but I think I’m really just excited to take that on and see where it takes me, and (I’m) just excited to use that as motivation to continue to get better in all aspects of my game,” she said. “I’m really just seeing the positive side of all of that, and just excited for the next opportunity.”
The Liberty also drafted Connecticut forward Megan Walker, Louisville guard Jazmine Jones, Louisville forward Kylee Shook, Duke forward Leaonna Odom and Rice guard Erica Ogwumike. Then they traded Ogwumike to Minnesota for Stephanie Talbot and acquired draftee Jocelyn Willoughby from Phoenix for Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.
Ionescu said she is already familiar with a few of the team’s returnees, and looks forward to playing at the team’s new home in the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn.
“I’ve been on the West Coast for my entire life,” said Ionescu, who grew up in Walnut Creek, Calif. “I think just being able to leave and go there and be excited by all the new things I see and everything that I learn in the city. Then obviously just playing in Brooklyn, where everyone loves basketball, and being able to be a part of that organization is really exciting.”
Earlier in the day, Ionescu announced she was signing a shoe deal with Nike, and that she also had an endorsement with Beats by Dre.
Sabally joins a Wings team that traded players earlier this year in anticipation of rebuilding, like New York. She said the situation resembles her experience in a group that helped grow the Ducks to elite status.
“It really reminds me of Oregon and starting a program from new, setting a new culture, so I’m really just excited,” she said. “I’m really excited to play with young players. I feel like we can really build something great.”
The versatile forward opted last month to forego her senior season at Oregon and enter the draft, but she balked when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the NCAA Tournament and postponed the WNBA season. After her selection, she said she was glad she decided to stick with her original decision.
“It does validate (the move), but I still think I need to prove myself,” Sabally said. “And I’m going to celebrate. I’m excited that I got drafted second, but I’m not going to settle on that, and I’m going to keep going hard and really try to prove myself. I am aware that maybe it was the right decision and going to Dallas is just amazing, but I’m going to celebrate and rest some but not for too long.”
Sabally and her sister Nyara, who is also on the team, opted to stay in Eugene as the pandemic grew. The draft this year was remotely broadcast from the homes of each athlete, who was surrounded by their families as they were picked.
Duck associate head coach Mark Campbell was on hand with the Saballys, who also had their parents virtually with them via a Zoom meeting. Campbell is the coach who recruited Sabally to the school, making several trips to Germany in the process.
“He’s been a mentor to me. He’s really been a lot more than a coach, so it was awesome that he was able to be there,” she said.
Hebard was surrounded by family in her native Alaska when the Sky called her name. She said she was excited because she had spoken with coach James Wade, and because their star point guard, Courtney Vandersloot, had also played for Oregon coach Kelly Graves when he coached at Gonzaga. Chicago is also where Hebard was born.
“I’m really excited that Chicago picked me, and I can’t wait to work with my new teammates,” she said.
Hebard said her experiences in big games, and in making it to the late rounds of the NCAA Tournament the last three years, taught her a lot for the future.
“I think I just know about the bigger stages, which is really a blessing, to be able to know what it’s like, what an ESPN game is like, what like a top Friday night game is like,” he said. “And that’s going to hopefully be able to transfer well, and hopefully I’ll be able to be comfortable right off the bat playing in games with these great players.”
As the highest-drafted player from her state, Hebard said she wants youth to know they can follow in her footsteps.
“I would just say keep grinding,” she said. “You know, it’s always hard, or you hear it’s hard to be from Alaska and all that, but I think if you put your mind to it and put your heart into it that no matter what people say, I’ll tell you that you can do it. And as long as you’re having fun, I think everyone will go far.”
Two other Pac-12 players were drafted, in the third round: Oregon State guard Mikayla Pivec, taken by Atlanta, and UCLA guard Japreece Dean, selected by Chicago.
Training camp, originally scheduled to begin April 26, has been postponed due to the pandemic. WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said prior to the draft that decisions about the season will be based on science and data around the containment of coronavirus.