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Sabrina Ionescu: Rebooting Superstardom

Last Updated: March 23, 2023
A Boardroom Cover Story conversation about the key moments and challenges that shaped Sabrina Ionescu’s evolution from Oregon stat-stuffer to WNBA phenom

New York Liberty All-Star point guard Sabrina Ionescu is redefining what’s possible in the WNBA.

On July 7, the 24-year-old became the first player in the history of the W to record a 30-point triple-double. It was her second of the season and third of her career, tying her with the immortal Candace Parker for the most all-time. On July 31, Ionescu set a franchise record for assists in a game with 16 in a win over the Phoenix Mercury.

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Heading into the home stretch of the regular season, Sabrina ranks No. 8 in the league in points per game with 17.5, third with 6.4 assists, and 11th with 7.0 rebounds, elite stat-stuffing for any player, but particularly for someone who stands under six feet tall. The top overall pick in the 2020 draft out of the University of Oregon is more than living up to the hype as a generational superstar. She’s pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in hoops — not just women’s hoops — and recently became the first player in WNBA history with 500 points, 200 rebounds, and 200 assists in a single season.

But the journey to this point has been arduous, filled with injury, adversity, and self-doubt.

Facing one other on an outdoor terrace at Boardroom’s New York City office overlooking Manhattan’s bustling west side in late July, Ionescu— looking laid-back wearing an acid-washed denim jacket over a white hoodie and black athleisure pants— and 35V CEO and co-founder Rich Kleiman discussed her road from college at Oregon through the WNBA Wubble and on to Brooklyn, her growth as an investor and partner with major brands, and the physical and mental struggles that shaped her into one of basketball’s brightest young stars.

The Competitor’s Craft

Ionescu redefined success at The University of Oregon. However, no one could have prepared for the string of events that dictated her senior season.

In January of 2020, Ionescu’s world was rocked by the tragic death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna. In the year leading up to his untimely death, Kobe had become a mentor to Sabrina. The two spoke a few times a week, and Ionescu came to be someone Gigi could look up to.

She became so close with the family that she delivered a speech at the Bryants’ memorial service that year.

Following their passing, Ionescu resolved to play with a greater sense of purpose. She became the first player in NCAA history, women’s or men’s, to record 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 1,000 assists, leading the Ducks to a No. 2 spot in the polls. However, as the squad waited to be seeded for the NCAA Tournament, Ionescu and her teammates learned that due to COVID-19 shutdowns, they would not get an opportunity to compete for the national championship they believed was within reach.

“We were playing to win a championship because of all the stuff that happened and the hardship that we all went through as a team after the accident,” she told Boardroom. 

The team wasn’t even together when they found out the season was canceled — along with their championship aspirations.

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“We never really got a goodbye from being with that special team, a historic team,” she added, even texting about it from time to time with some of her teammates. “We were together for three or four years, building to win a championship and then the world shut down and we just have not all been in the same place [ever since].”

There were 36 days between the NCAA Tournament’s cancellation on March 12 and the WNBA Draft on April 17. Due to the pandemic, the draft itself took place virtually, depriving the Walnut Creek, California native of the experience she’d dreamt about her entire life. Instead of being at a packed venue with family and friends, celebrating a seminal and momentous achievement, she was at home with five family members waiting to see and hear her name called.

“I didn’t even hear my name being called, honestly. The reception was off,” Ionescu said. “I thought I heard my name. I tried to read her [WNBA commissioner Cathy Englebert’s] lips, but there was a delay. So it was quite interesting, not really what anyone had expected their big draft day to be, but we made the most of it.”

Drafted No. 1 overall by the New York Liberty, Ionescu departed days later for the WNBA bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida with no family, friends, or relatives able to join her in her first experience as a professional.

It would be more than a year before she’d get to play in front of fans in New York or any other WNBA city.

“I Was There for Business”

In the Wubble as a rookie, Ionescu felt trapped, with no real escape or refuge. It felt like she was back on the high school AAU circuit, stuck in a monotonous Groundhog Day of basketball courts and hotel rooms.

“You didn’t really have a safe space to just go and detach from the fact that you’re playing every other day, you’re practicing every other day. You’re seeing the players that you’re playing against,” she said. “And for me, I’m so competitive. I didn’t want to hang out with the other teams and I didn’t want to go to the pool … I was there for business and wanting to win. I would just go back to my hotel room and stay there all day until practice or the game the next day.”

“I just want to be Sabrina. I want to come in, do my job, win. It’s taken a little bit of an adjustment for me to not worry how other people perceive me. I just have to continue to be true to myself.”

Ionescu’s goal was to carry the explosive momentum she generated in college right to the W and all its elite-level competition, but the transition came with limited support. With strict protocols in place, she had no time to figure out how to be a professional, who to train with, or whom she could work with to get into W-level shape. The professional she dreamed of since she was a child versus her WNBA realities were suddenly starkly different.

The accommodations in Bradenton were as bad as everyone had said, Ionescu admitted, but added that the WNBA couldn’t really have done a better job given the last-minute circumstances that saved the 2020 season. FaceTime became Sabrina’s best and perhaps most meaningful link to the outside world, one she’d soon join far earlier than expected.

After losing their first two games to Seattle and Dallas, Ionescu and the Liberty were off to a strong start against the Atlanta Dream in her third professional game.

Then, her season suddenly veered off in an entirely different direction.

Hard Lessons

All she did was call for an outlet pass.

“As soon as I turned around, someone’s foot just came right under,” Ionescu said.

“All I remember is having my ankle touch the ground. It just completely turned and I’d never hurt my ankle before then. So I just laid there and I didn’t really know. I didn’t scream. My face was just kind of blank, like something’s wrong, but I’m not sure what.”

Ionescu received a medical exemption to leave the Wubble and get an MRI at a nearby hospital, as diagnostic imaging services were not available on-site. Because there was a lengthy quarantine period to return to the bubble, her once-promising, long-awaited rookie campaign effectively ended even before she was diagnosed with a Grade 3 ankle sprain that would require minor surgery later that year.

Before then, she’d never missed more than a couple of games in her entire career. And it would be an excruciating 287 days before Sabrina Ionescu would play another WNBA regular season game.

The transition to the W was supposed to mark a new beginning where she’d be able to turn around the Liberty franchise and make a name for herself in the league. The pain of sitting out was compounded not only by Ionescu seeing her new teammates finish the Wubble season without her, but then those players heading overseas to play while she was stuck rehabbing at home.

On the business side, Ionescu quickly signed with companies like Nike and Bodyarmor upon being drafted, and in the wake of her injury, they stuck beside her and support as she angled to return to the hardwood. But self-doubt crept in as she was rehabbing. She felt a little embarrassed at times, unable to prove to the rest of the league and the world who she was and what she was capable of accomplishing.

Sabrina read the comments. She was in danger of becoming a bust. The Liberty will regret drafting her No. 1. She was never going to be able to live up to the hype in the pros.

She knew people were talking about her because she wasn’t healthy.

“I just want to be Sabrina. I want to come in, do my job, win,” Ionescu said. “It’s taken a little bit of an adjustment for me to not worry how other people perceive me. I just have to continue to be true to myself.”

It took a while, she said, for her to come into her own and to trust the long game and buy into her abilities. But having never gone through a long-term injury before, Sabrina wasn’t sure what the recovery process should look like. She had no barometer for the pain and discomfort that she felt as she eyed a comeback and whether her ankle was on the mend or causing further harm. 

The injury impacted both the outside and inside of her ankle, which lengthened the recovery time. Her game was built on her movement — cutting, sprinting, starting and stopping.

As she rebuilt her strength and speed leading into the 2021 WNBA season, she returned to the court. But she didn’t realize she tried to come back too soon until it was too late.

“I rushed myself back. It was pretty complicated,” Sabrina said. “Looking back, I shouldn’t have played as early as I did and through as much pain as I did. It was hard dealing with a lot of the people that just thought I just wasn’t playing like that because I wasn’t capable.”

She had gotten an injection in her ankle a few weeks before training camp started and deemed herself ready to show herself, her teammates — and the basketball world — what she was truly capable of.

The Brooklyn Regeneration

She wasn’t a rookie anymore. But on the court, Ionescu was only in the early stages of getting to know her Liberty teammates.

“I hadn’t known them. I hadn’t played with them for more than two games,” she said. “So there was this desire to prove to my teammates that I’m going to battle through any pain that I’m going through. I’m going to come back to play for you guys. But that ended up hurting me in the end.”

Ionescu didn’t know a whole lot about her new home, either.

“I knew this was going to be the year that I was finally able to play like myself. And win or lose, as long as I could play to the best of my ability and I can train as much as I want and just be fully present, I was going to be happy.”

Amid all the uncertainty surrounding Ionescu’s return and the ongoing pandemic, the West Coast kid officially moved to New York for the first time. The weight of so many transitions all at once was an uncommon challenge.

“I didn’t have anyone here,” she said. “I was still going through [my] injury. Still feeling down. Still not being all there mentally as well as physically. So I didn’t really do too much last year. I kind of just stayed in my apartment because physically I couldn’t [do much else], but also just mentally, I didn’t really love the city because I wasn’t able to perform.”

On the court, Ionescu’s 2021 season gave the city plenty of reasons to love her. On the stat sheet, she delivered what would be considered a spirited performance for just about any player, averaging 11.7 points, 6.1 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per game, but she only attempted 10 shots per contest and converted at a subpar 37.9% clip from the field. She felt pain throughout the season, but hardly told anyone how much it affected her.

While she showed traces of her signature play, she was forced to re-engineer her mechanics as she recovered. She adapted her game to jump off one leg because doing so normally sparked shooting pains that signaled that she was far from where she needed to be. Elsewhere, she hobbled through her days outside of the facility.

“Obviously I never talked about it,” Ionescu said. “Never told anyone. My trainers didn’t know. My coaches didn’t know. No one knew.”

But when she stepped to the free throw line last season during a game against the eventual WNBA champion Chicago Sky, she winced subtly.

Future Hall of Famer Candace Parker came up to her and knew exactly what was going on.

“‘Hey, I know you’re in a lot of pain,'” Ionescu recalls Parker saying. “‘Get your body healthy and then you’ll be ready to perform.’ I just felt like no one knew what I was going through, so when I was able to hear that from her, I thought, ‘This is cool. Someone has my back. And someone understands what I’m going through and the target that I have.’ So we’ve gotten even closer through this last year, and I’ll always really appreciate her for that.”

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Last offseason, Sabrina largely shut herself off from the world of distractions around her by putting everything into getting her ankle back to full strength.

“I kind of took a break because I was personally embarrassed,” Ionescu said. “I was just like, ‘this is not acceptable. I need to be better.’”

She did so with a single goal: to get to a place both physically and mentally where she could finally return as the best version of herself. Even so, she realized there were days on which she shouldn’t just play basketball for six or seven hours a day, so she found other ways to get better. Ionescu developed a sophisticated understanding of what her body needed while incorporating yoga and swimming into her rehab regimen.

Every day, it was all about intentionally building towards one goal: returning in 2022 at 100%.

Becoming Sabrina

On the first day of training camp for the current WNBA season, Ionescu woke up five hours early.

She was beyond ready for the chance to finally prove herself at close to full health for the first time since that fateful Friday in Bradenton. 

“I knew this was going to be the year that I was finally able to play like myself,” she said. “And win or lose, as long as I could play to the best of my ability and I can train as much as I want and just be fully present, I was going to be happy. I’m able to show up and show my teammates that I’m committed. I want to be the best and lead by example.”

Ionescu said she knew she could play at the elite level she’s performing at this season, though she was unsure about her fit with her teammates and how other teams would defend her. Injuries limited her role with the Liberty in ’21, she said, so it was a learning curve for her as the 2022 campaign began. She’s performed at an otherworldly level since then, earning WNBA Player of the Month for June and Player of the Week on July 8 after not just her sizzling 30-point triple-double, but a performance the very next day that saw her fall just one rebound short of another 3×2.

Ionescu is addtionally hitting a star-level stride with off-the-court endorsements, investments, and partnerships. Her portfolio is large and diverse, featuring a growing group of brands including Autograph, Bodyarmor, Buzzer, State Farm, Tonal, and Xbox in addition to Nike, where she hopes she can join the likes of Breanna Stewart as a WNBA superstar with a signature shoe.

She is also deeply involved with Division Street, which helps Oregon Ducks athletes navigate the world of NIL, through her role as Chief Athlete Officer. She became a Boardroom ambassador in June of 2021.

“Now that I’m able to have gotten healthy, now I can say, yeah, I rock with these companies,” she said of spreading her wings as a businesswoman.

As Ionescu dominates the WNBA in ways we’ve never seen before, she still sees more room for growth. Laser-focused on the task at hand, Ionescu isn’t thinking too much about the offseason quite yet. However, she is eager for the chance to train and improve her skills as her body recalibrates to full strength. 

“There’s no rehab. I’m just going to be able to train and work on my body,” she said. “And so next season, I can just be that much better.”

That’s a scary thought for opposing WNBA teams — that Sabrina Ionescu has so many more levels to reach as she gets past her injury, only scratching the surface of her abilities as she enters her prime years.

About The Author
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung is a Senior Staff Writer at Boardroom. He has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with past work appearing in Forbes, MLB.com, Awful Announcing, and The Sporting News. He graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and his Twitter and Spotify addictions are well under control. Just ask him.