EUGENE As soon as they won the WNBA draft lottery, it was a foregone conclusion the New York Liberty were going to select Sabrina Ionescu.
But during the course of Oregons season, it wasnt only Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb and new coach Walt Hopkins who attended Ducks games to watch the future face of their franchise. Numerous members of the Libertys front office, including COO Keia Clarke, vice president of marketing Shana Stephenson and later owner Joe Tsai, came to watch Ionescu play in either Eugene, Stanford or Las Vegas and saw the atmosphere she helped create at Oregon to get a sense of what might be possible in her new home in Brooklyn.
It was a great kind of endeavor for the entire organization, Kolb said on The James Crepea Show on 1050/95.7 Fox Sports Eugene. "Walt and I were out there in Eugene witnessing the (Team) USA game that Oregon had and when we got back to Brooklyn, our COO Keia Clark and our marketing head Shana Stephenson really wanted to get out to Oregon to see it for themselves. Shana went out and she spoke to a lot of people out there and they really wanted to get a feel for the environment, which is really magical out there in Eugene especially at that arena. Its something that was really specially created over the past four years there and in part obviously to Sabrina.
They came back in awe and really spoke really highly. I think they put together some wonderful content for that that will come out here in the next couple of weeks. The finishing touch on that would be our owner, Joe Tsai, also the Brooklyn Nets owner. He accompanied us to the Stanford game where Sabrina - it was the Kobe (Bryant) memorial night and then she made history there with her triple-double and her rebounding record and he was there too. Everybody knew and felt the momentum that Sabrina was bringing with her and wanted to see it first-hand.
The Liberty got an early glimpse at Sabrina-mania after drafting her No. 1 overall during Friday nights draft. An early edition Liberty T-Shirt with Ionescus name and No. 20 on the back sold out online almost instantly. Pre-orders for her official jersey, which wont ship until September, are piling up.
So business is booming around Ionescu, who signed endorsement deals with Nike and Beats by Dre, even as basketball activities are in flux due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The WNBA indefinitely postponed the start of its season, which would have been May 16 for the Liberty, and there is no clear timetable for when it will begin.
But once it does, Ionescu will be the centerpiece of a rebuilding team and running Hopkins pick-and-roll offense.
I think Ducks fans are really going to enjoy what they see, Hopkins said. Its going to be a fast game. Theres going to be a lot of three-point shots. Theres going to be a lot of driving and kicking. Youre going to see a lot of people who like to share the ball and play for one another.
Leading up to the draft and in the days since, Ionescu has repeatedly been asked where she feels she needs to improve her game in transitioning to the professional level and she is all-encompassing.
Im looking to do everything that I possibly can to get better in every aspect, whether thats scoring, defending, rebounding, passing, she said. Im really just excited to be playing against professionals and learning from them and just seeing where that takes me.
RELATED: What Sabrina Ionescu said about being drafted No. 1 in WNBA Draft by New York Liberty
Its not lip service either. Ionescu doesnt hide from the fact that shes not the strongest, fastest or most physically gifted player. What separates her are intangibles; game IQ, court vision, work ethic and competitiveness.
The interesting thing is that she doesnt do it with tremendous foot speed, UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. Like she doesnt run by you and she doesnt jump over you. She does it more old school basketball-wise. Those players are few and far in between. She beats you with her head, her eyes and she beats you with her relentlessness and how tough she is. I just said like four of five things that maybe two or three players in the country have and she happens to have all those things. If youve got those things and youre living in a world where the people youre playing against have even one of those things or two of things, you got a huge advantage every night you step on the floor, and thats where she is.
To Hopkins, it only underscores exactly the magnitude of Ionescus intelligence and understanding of the game that she was able to garner such accolades, sweep the national player of the year awards and compile such absurd statistical measures without being a physical phenom.
It kind of amplifies the importance of that and it brings so much attention to the fact that that must be an elite trait, for her to be as good as she is in spite of the fact that she doesnt really have any real genetic gifts other than her size," Hopkins said. "She has elite size for a point guard; so she does have that at 5-foot-11 and strong. ... The most exciting thing for me as I watch, is the pick and roll has kind of been my forte; its been how Ive worked my way up in player development. Really studying and understanding the nuances of pick and roll and I watch Sabrina and I see a ton of room for growth. Its not something where I see a finished product out there. I think from a farther away view it looks like Sabrina has mastered the pick and roll, but I can assure you she hasnt and thats scary because shes got a lot of room to grow.
"There are a few little tricks that shes going to pick up that are going to kind of I guess expand what she can do within pick and roll, which is already pretty amazing. Thinking of that and using her body around the rim more, using her body more in pick and roll. She does have that size and she sometimes goes away from contact in the pick and roll or off the handle where she can be taught to keep ball security and create contacts when all these teams are coming after her like they will because shes going to have a target on her back at first. Shes going to be able to weather that by knowing how to use her body and drawing fouls. She can make people pay.
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