EUGENE, Ore. — Sabrina Ionescu’s best-laid plans went awry.
When the Oregon women’s basketball superstar mapped out her senior season, the destinations included winning the Ducks' first national championship in New Orleans and walking across the stage at the WNBA draft in New York.
Her mentor, Kobe Bryant, and his daughter, Gianna, would have been part of the celebration with Ionescu, who is expected to be taken No. 1 overall by the New York Liberty on Friday (7 p.m ET, ESPN).
But the COVID-19 health crisis forced the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament. Kobe and Gianna Bryant died in a helicopter crash in the middle of Ionescu’s emotional quest to take care of unfinished business during her final flight with the Ducks.
“It’s kind of hard to think about it,” Ionescu said during a pre-draft video conference with the media on Tuesday. “I came back to win a national championship, and then you don’t win it and then you try to see if there was any regret. I would say it was probably one of the best decisions of my life to come back, although there was many ups and downs through the year. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else besides there.”
Ionescu would have likely been the No. 1 pick in last year’s WNBA draft. After the Ducks’ loss to Baylor in the national semifinals, she opted to return to Oregon and is currently finishing her master’s degree in advertising and brand responsibility.
The coursework is already being put to practical use as Ionescu listens to pitches from Nike, Under Armour and Puma. She is hoping to decide this week whether to sign with Oregon benefactor Phil Knight’s company, to follow Steph Curry’s path or blaze her own unique trail.
“The money is important, but I think just the vision and the kind of plan that they have in place for me,” Ionescu said of the factors she is weighing. “In what I can do, not only for the sport, but for basketball and society.
“Whether that’s going to be a shoe down the line or whatever it is, just hoping to get with a brand that can use me on their platform to advocate for something bigger than just basketball.”
As the NCAA’s triple-double queen and the only member of the 2,000-point, 1,000-assist and 1,000-rebound club, Ionescu will enter the WNBA with star power.
Landing in the New York market would only enhance Ionescu’s status.
“Just the marketability that there is in New York and kind of the hustle and bustle is something that I think can be not only beneficial to myself as a person but as a brand and for women’s basketball,” Ionescu said. “If I get that opportunity, I will definitely be excited to try and use that to the best of my ability.”
Helping coach Kelly Graves and his staff build Oregon from Pac-12 bottom-feeder to national powerhouse prepared Ionescu for the on-court challenges that await at the next level.
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The New York Liberty finished 10-24 last season, fifth in the six-team Eastern Conference and 16 games behind the WNBA champion Washington Mystics. The franchise was acquired by the Brooklyn Nets ownership group and will playing in the Barclays Center this season.
“Obviously, they’re not where they need to be, and that’s a learning and growing process,” Ionescu said. “I’ve been a part of that for four years, so I understand really more than anyone what it’s like to come in to an organization and have to believe in the foundation that’s there and the coaching staff there and kind of just ride the wave, the ups and downs, from there.”
Oregon’s “Big Three” — Ionescu, Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard — have already proven they are capable of competing with, and beating, some of the world’s greatest players.
During an exhibition game before the 2019-20 season, Ionescu scored 30 points, Sabally scored 25 points and Hebard added 18 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Ducks to a 93-86 upset of the U.S. national team.
In ESPN’s latest mock draft, Sabally is projected to be the No. 2 pick to Dallas, with Hebard being selected No. 11 by Seattle.
“I think people use it as a measuring stick, and that’s part of the reason for Oregon playing in that game was to allow their players to see how they measure up and that sort of thing,” said Minnesota Lynx general manager/head coach Cheryl Reeve, who coached the national team that historic November night in Eugene. “It was a useful evaluation tool for sure, but I think with or without that game, I think we had an idea how special the Oregon group is.”
Ionescu led the Ducks to a 31-2 overall record and a sweep of the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament championships before the NCAA Tournament was canceled.
During her senior season, Ionescu averaged 17.5 points, an NCAA-leading 9.1 assists and a career-high 8.6 rebounds. Her @By_RyanThorburn and Instagram @rg_ducksports.