The WNBA draft is a week away, and one college coach who had plenty of experience trying to slow down Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu thinks the projected No. 1 pick’s game will translate well to the pros.
Adia Barnes’ Arizona Wildcats lost to Oregon three times this past season, including in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals. Barnes also played seven seasons in the WNBA, winning a league championship with Seattle in 2004, and has a good perspective about what Ionescu will face in the WNBA.
“She’ll have some adjustments, and it’s going to take a little time,” Barnes said. “But I think Sabrina is going to be big, because of her work ethic and mentality. She’ll have to adjust defensively, especially to the quickness. But she’ll learn to play angles; she’s smart. She’s really an efficient scorer and a great passer. She’s hard to guard.”
Oregon’s Ionescu, Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard are all expected to be first-round picks in the April 17 draft (ESPN/ESPN App, 7 p.m. ET). The New York Liberty are expected to take Ionescu with the top pick, Sabally is projected to go second to the Dallas Wings and Hebard 11th to the Seattle Storm in the latest ESPN.com mock draft. It would be the fifth year in a row — and the ninth time overall — that at least three college teammates were all picked in the first round of the same WNBA draft.
“These guys, I’ll tell you, it’s a pretty damn good group,” said Oregon coach Kelly Graves, who thinks Oregon graduate transfer Minyon Moore might be picked later in the draft, as well. “They’re fun to coach and fun to be with each and every day.”
If Ionescu, a point guard, and Sabally, a forward, go 1-2, it would be the third time teammates were selected with the top two picks in the draft. UConn point guard Sue Bird and forward Swin Cash went 1-2 in 2002, and UConn forward Breanna Stewart and point guard Moriah Jefferson were the top two picks in 2016; UConn’s Morgan Tuck followed them at No. 3.
Seniors Ionescu and Hebard came to Eugene for the 2016-17 season, and Sabally, a draft-eligible junior, joined them the next season. They helped lead Oregon to an unprecedented level of popularity and the program’s first Final Four, in 2019.
Ionescu could have been the WNBA draft’s top pick in 2019 by Las Vegas — she was draft-eligible as a junior — but returned for her senior season. Barnes said there is a learning curve for even the best guards going into the WNBA and cited 2017 No. 1 pick Kelsey Plum of Washington as a recent example. Plum is the all-time leading scorer in NCAA women’s history (3,527 points) but had to get used to not being a primary scoring threat in the WNBA.
Oregon’s Satou Sabally discusses with Holly Rowe what it was like to play against Team USA and how she’s getting her work in during the quarantine.
Ionescu made history this season, becoming the first player in men’s or women’s NCAA basketball to hit the 2,000-point/1,000-rebound/1,000-assist mark. She averaged 17.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists. She also holds the NCAA record with 26 career-triple-doubles and is used to impacting the game in many different ways.
WNBA scouts praise Ionescu’s tenacity. As one scout put it, “She’s just one of those players you know that whatever she might struggle with, she’ll figure it out. She’s just too competitive not to.”
Ionescu said what she has learned about leadership at Oregon will also help her in the WNBA. Her Ducks teammates agree.
“She pushes other people but pushes herself, too,” Sabally said. “People look up to her.”
In Sabally’s case, her size and offensive growth potential make her a very appealing player, one who could be a franchise staple for Dallas. Sabally averaged 16.2 points and 6.9 rebounds this season.
“Satou will need to get a little stronger and better with her inside game,” Barnes said. “But she’s 6-[foot-]4 and pretty good with the ball. She shoots the 3 really well. And I think she can develop a little fadeaway jumper inside. She has one of the highest ceilings.”
Graves agreed, saying Sabally also can make big strides in facilitating others’ success.
“I still think that’s an area she’s going to have to work on,” said Graves, whose Ducks won the Pac-12 regular-season title for a second year in March. “She’s such an elite talent that she draws help [defense]. I think she has the opportunity to be a big playmaker for others.”
Holly Rowe is joined by Oregon’s Ruthy Hebard to discuss how Hebard will be partaking in the WNBA draft in these times of social distancing.
Talking to pro scouts, there seems little doubt that Ionescu and Sabally are the top two picks. There is more uncertainty about where Hebard will be selected. If she ends up with Seattle, she would have time to develop there, as the Storm have a powerful post game led by Breanna Stewart and Natasha Howard.
“Ruthy is going to be good,” Barnes said. “But she’ll need to get bigger and stronger.”
Hebard is also 6-foot-4 and averaged 17.3 points and 9.6 rebounds this season while shooting 68.5% from the field. She never attempted a 3-pointer while at Oregon; her offense mostly comes very close to the basket. But she is a consistent finisher, as her career 65.1 shooting percentage shows.
Hebard said she has worked on her strength at Oregon and also feels her basketball IQ has improved. Graves thought Hebard played as well as anyone this season for Oregon, and that her dependability is a major asset.
“Coaches love that,” he said. “The player who gives you the same thing every game. It’s those players who give you 18 points one night and six the next — you just don’t know what you’re going to get — that drive you nuts.”