Ionescu on embracing the pressure, her mentor Kobe Bryant and her legacy

Sabrina Ionescu waits to be introduced before playing Washington. (Thomas Boyd/AP)

While plenty in the basketball world remains up in the air, on hold for the time being until the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, one thing remains undeniable: Sabrina Ionescu is ready for her WNBA takeover.

The 2020 No. 1 pick, who leaves the University of Oregon as the most dominant college basketball player in the country, will join Canadian Kia Nurse and the New York Liberty next season, beginning a WNBA career that prognosticators throughout the sports world believe will have an immense impact on the growth of women’s sports in the United States.

Joining Sportsnet’s Tim and Sid on Tuesday, the 22-year-old said she’s embracing the pressure that comes with those lofty expectations.

“I kind of like the pressure,” Ionescu told Tim Micallef and Sid Seixeiro. “I like feeling that it’s me that has to come in and help this program and help this team. And not only for us, for women’s basketball as a whole. I definitely don’t let it consume me and don’t overthink about it — I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing and everything else just falls into place.”

While her ascent into the professional ranks has already come under bright lights, which figure to only get brighter, Ionescu leaves behind a dominant college career that ended far too soon.

With her Oregon Ducks ranked No. 2 in the country and Ionescu — the NCAA’s all-time leader in career triple-doubles, and the NCAA’s first baller to amass 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds — in peak form, the team was forced to relinquish its hopes of ending with a title as the COVID-19 pandemic forced a cancellation of the NCAA tournament.

But running through the hypotheticals, Ionescu said she has no doubt in her mind that her squad could’ve earned Oregon its first women’s basketball title had they gotten their shot in 2020.

“We were playing our basketball at that time and we were still going up and still ascending. So obviously [we were] very saddened to hear that we couldn’t continue that and continue to see where that could’ve led us. But I definitely didn’t see us losing to anyone any time soon, for the rest of that season,” she said.

“So, you know, thinking about what could’ve been is always difficult, but kind of understanding that there’s so many bigger problems in the world right now than just basketball.”

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Set to begin the next chapter when those bigger problems are eventually solved, the Walnut Creek, Calif., native will do so carrying the many lessons learned from her mentor, the late Kobe Bryant. Posting a touching note to Bryant after his passing earlier this year, and another after going first-overall in the draft, Ionescu reflected on some of the wisdom Bryant imparted during their time together.

“We definitely just talked about pressure — he kind of just said, ‘Be you. It’s been good enough and that will continue to be good enough.’ And that’s what he always told me,” she said of Bryant’s advice.

“…He was obviously such a big supporter of the WNBA and just women’s basketball. So, he probably would’ve been sitting at the table with me if he was here, and same with Gigi. So I obviously thought about it a lot, but know that they were watching from a better place.”

One of Bryant’s lasting legacies in the sport was his support for women’s basketball, another step towards unity between the NBA and WNBA families. Asked about the relationship between the two leagues, and the importance of the former in helping the latter get off the ground and continue to grow, Ionescu said there’s no question the NBA has been instrumental for the WNBA — but the relationship is beneficial for both leagues.

“They’re where we’re striving to be. I mean, those arenas fill up. Everyone’s watching those games, everyone’s buying those jerseys and buying those shoes, so I think the WNBA does need the NBA. But I think the roles can also be switched — I think the NBA needs the WNBA as well,” she said. “Because I think those men end up finding a lot of inspiration and a lot of support through the females that they’re watching. And it kind of just unites us.

“So, I think that’s something I’m excited about with playing in Brooklyn — we’re going to kind of build that family with the NBA team that we’re sharing an arena with. And I think many, many teams are going to follow in that direction, just because I think it’s huge not only for basketball but for our society.”

She’ll get her chance to begin building that sense of camaraderie when the impact of the pandemic finally lessens and she can make the journey to Brooklyn. And all things considered, with the arrival of the college phenom from Oregon and the recent addition of some marquee names on the NBA side in Brooklyn too, it’s going to be an eventful 2020-21 campaign for the borough.

If it’s as eventful as expected for Ionescu, the near future could bring another groundbreaking chapter to add to her legacy in the sport — the first signature shoe for a WNBA star, something that’s rumoured to already have been in discussion, with the Ducks standout recently signing a multi-year endorsement deal with Nike.

“It’s crazy to think about that,” she told Tim and Sid. “I mean, I’ve always worn KDs, Kobes, Kyries — I’ve always worn men’s shoes and how we talk about it, it’s like, ‘Oh whose are you wearing?’ To try and think about the fact that there’s going to be girls and boys out there that are talking about my shoes is crazy.

“But there’s so much work to do before then — I’m excited to have to go out there and kind of prove myself to make that dream become a reality.”

Listen to the full interview with WNBA No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu on Tim & Sid via the audio player embedded within this post.

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