Brooklyn bound: Ionescu goes No. 1 to Liberty

    Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

Sabrina Ionescu will take her triple-double mastery cross-country.

The Oregon guard was selected No. 1 overall by the New York Liberty in the WNBA draft Friday. Ionescu, who has been the presumptive top pick in the 2020 draft since she returned to Oregon for her senior year, was selected as the league did a “virtual” draft on ESPN; draftees were in their homes, as was WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert while announcing the picks due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ionescu had an NCAA-record 26 triple-doubles in her Ducks career, and became the first player in men’s or women’s basketball to hit the 2,000/1,000/1,000 plateau in points (2,562), rebounds (1,040) and assists (1,091).

Ionescu reached the final milestone, in rebounding, in a Feb. 24 victory at Stanford. Earlier that day in Los Angeles, she spoke at the memorial of her mentor, former Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who was killed along with his daughter and seven others, in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26.

“I think you need to look no further than the way that she’s handled herself in times of crisis to know what type of a leader she is,” said new Liberty coach Walt Hopkins, who was hired in January. “And what type of leader she could be at the next level.”

Ionescu’s teammate at Oregon, forward Satou Sabally, was selected with the second overall pick by the Dallas Wings on Friday.

This past season, Ionescu averaged 17.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists while shooting 51.8 percent from the field, 39.2 from 3-point range and 92.1 from the line. She started every game for the 31-2 Ducks, who won the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles. She led Oregon to two Elite Eights and one Final Four appearance during her four-year career there.

Ionescu is the first player from Oregon selected No. 1 in the WNBA draft, and the fifth player from the Pac-12 dating back to the first No. 1 selection, USC’s Tina Thompson in 1997 by Houston. The others were Stanford’s Ogwumike sisters Nneka (2012, Los Angeles) and Chiney (2014, Connecticut) and Washington’s Kelsey Plum (2017, San Antonio, now Las Vegas).

It was the first time the Liberty, one of the WNBA’s original franchises when the league launched in 1997, have had the No. 1 selection.

The franchise was owned by MSG Company’s James Dolan before it was put on sale near the end of 2017. Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai bought the Liberty before the 2019 season, and they are scheduled to play in Barclays Center this season. The Liberty also underwent a logo redesign this week to more closely resemble the Nets.

Ionescu quickly becomes their signature player, as former UConn star Tina Charles, the 2012 WNBA MVP, was traded Wednesday to Washington. That three-team deal, which included the Dallas Wings, boosted the Liberty’s number of picks Friday to six: 1, 9, 12, 13, 15 and 26.

There was little doubt Ionescu would be the top pick; she was also projected to go first as a draft-eligible junior in 2019 before opting to return to Oregon in pursuit of a national championship. The Ducks didn’t get that chance because of the NCAA tournament’s cancellation. It was a crushing blow to seniors across the country, but the draft allowed for an opportunity to look forward — even though it’s uncertain when, or if, the WNBA will be able to have its season in 2020.

The league’s 24th season was scheduled to start May 15, but has been postponed.

Ionescu got a taste of playing against the pros in November, when the Ducks beat the U.S. national team 93-86 in an exhibition in Eugene, Oregon. While the U.S. didn’t field its full national team, it was still a collection of some of the WNBA’s best players, against whom Ionescu had 30 points and seven assists.

She said she knows as a No. 1 pick, she’ll have a lot of eyes on her, and veterans looking to challenge her.

“I’ve had a target on my back for the last four years, so it’s not going to be anything new,” Ionescu said in a Zoom teleconference before the draft. “I’m just excited to learn from [veterans] and make some friendships along the way. I do know that it’s going to be difficult, but I’m excited for the challenge to go against some of the best players in the world.”

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