Liberty select Sabrina Ionescu first overall in 2020 WNBA Draft

Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu (20) reacts after her team scored against Stanford during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the final of the Pac-12 women's tournament Sunday, March 8, 2020, in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)

Sabrina Ionescu, the Oregon Ducks star who was the first person in NCAA history — man or woman — to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 assists, and 1,000 rebounds in a career, has been selected first overall by the New York Liberty in the 2020 WNBA Draft.

“I’ve been working for this for my entire basketball career and super excited to see that come to fruition,” Ionescu said. “I just say I’m very humbled and excited for the opportunity.”

Because she turned 22 in 2019, Ionescu was draft-eligible last year as a junior, and would have been the presumptive No. 1 pick then as well. With Oregon coming off a national semifinal loss to Baylor in its first-ever Women’s Final Four appearance, Ionescu decided to return to the Ducks instead of declaring for the draft to take one last run at an NCAA title.

“I won’t predict exactly how far we’re going to go…but I’ll just say this,” Ionescu wrote in a Players Tribute article. “We have unfinished business.”

She went on to win the Wade Trophy, given to the best women’s basketball player in NCAA Division 1 competition, and the Naismith Player of the Year award. She led Oregon to a 31-2 record and the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles while averaging 19.6 points 7.4 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game, and the Ducks would have entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed.

Ionescu and the Ducks never got their chance to make a final run at an NCAA Championship, however, as the tournament was cancelled due to the COVID-19 crisis.

“This year has been the toughest year of my life, and I wasn’t expecting to have to end my senior year like this,” Ionescu wrote on Instagram. “Although our unfinished business will remain just that, I have been blessed to be a part of this journey. Thank you for all the memories, that I will forever hold close to my heart.”

It being the “toughest year” goes well beyond her season being cancelled.

When Ionescu hit her historic 2,000/1,000/1,000 milestone by recording a triple double against Stanford — her NCAA-record 26th of the season — on Feb. 24, she was in Los Angeles earlier in the day delivering a eulogy for her friend and mentor Kobe Bryant, and his daughter, Gianna.

Ionescu grew up watching Bryant play. She recalled seeing the intensity she felt mirrored in him, and later in Gianna, too, when they worked out together over the summer. And as time went on, Ionescu and Kobe exchanged texts. Even after his passing, Ionescu sends them.

“I still text him even though he’s not here,” she said during the eulogy. “‘Thank you for everything. The rest is for you. Rest easy, my guy.’”

At the beginning of tonight’s WNBA Draft, Gianna, along with Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester — who tragically passed away in the helicopter crash as well — were announced as honourary draft picks.

This year’s draft was held remotely due to the COVID-19 crisis, with WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert announcing teams’ selections and players being shown receiving the news at home.

The WNBA tried to create a draft-like experience for its incoming players, sending them a care package that included hats of all 12 teams, a WNBA sweatshirt and confetti. Coaches and general managers were spread throughout the country and world, and set up virtual war rooms to determine draft-day strategy instead of gathering in their own team facilities.

Ionescu’s Ducks teammate, Satou Sabally, went second overall to Dallas, marking just the third time in the history of the draft that the top two picks came from the same program.

“To go 1-2 with Satou is a really cool feeling and shows all the hard work we went through this year paid off,” Ionescu said. “Really proud of her and what we were able to do as teammates and excited to see her future in the pros.”

Lauren Cox went third to the Indiana Fever and Chennedy Carter was the fourth pick, taken by the Atlanta Dream. Dallas took Bella Alarie with the fifth pick, making her just the second Ivy League player to be drafted that high — and the first since 1998.

Ionescu now joins a rebuilding Liberty team that held five of the top 15 picks in this year’s draft — the first time in WNBA history a team has had that many.

The Liberty selected Megan Walker, a forward from the University of Connecticut who averaged 12.5 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, ninth overall. New York completed their first-round picks by taking Jazmine Jones — a guard from the University of Louisville who averaged 8.6 points and 2.3 assists per game this season — 12th overall.

In the second round, New York drafted Kylee Shook and Leaonna Odom with the 13th and 14th overall picks, respectively. New York also made two trades after the draft, acquiring Jocelyn Willoughby for Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. New York also traded Erica Ogwumike, who they drafted in the third round, to Minnesota for Stephanie Talbot.

Liberty’s influx of young talent will play alongside Canadian star Kia Nurse when the WNBA resumes from its COVID-19-induced pause.

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