The New York Liberty drafted Sabrina Ionescu in 2020 to be the cornerstone of their franchise. Now healthy, she is ready to raise her game, on and off the court.
Sabrina Ionescu has been in the spotlight since she was a teenager. As a freshman at Oregon, she recorded four triple-doubles and was named USBWA National Freshman of the Year. And she only got better from there, eventually leading the Ducks to a Final Four and going No. 1 in the WNBA Draft a year later.
That was in May 2020, a time in which she sat atop the basketball world as the NCAA’s all-time leader in triple-doubles, the consensus national player of the year, and the potential future face of women’s professional basketball.
If only bad luck did not interfere.
Three games into her rookie campaign — already shortened by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic — she suffered an ankle injury and did not play again that season. She came back and had a productive 2021, but it was without the benefit of a healthy offseason and, as she admits, her typical level of self-confidence.
Instead of taking the game over the last two years, it’s been a learning experience for the Liberty phenom. That’s not a bad thing.
“I never really was able to prepare for [the injury] or thought that I would ever have to go through that,” she said in a conversation with Boardroom. “But I think it’s really just taught me a lot about myself, but also how I need to take care of my body at a really young age.”
By the end of the regular season, Ionescu was a lot closer to her old self.
Now, with the Liberty tipping off their 2022 season Saturday with a win over the favored Connecticut Sun, it’s safe to say that Sabrina is back.
Deals and Division Street
While many of the best players in the WNBA use their off-seasons to go overseas to supplement their modest league salaries with a heftier paycheck, Sabrina Ionescu stayed put in her first healthy winter as a pro. She didn’t just sit around, however — in addition to working on her game, she has her hand in plenty of endorsement deals, investments, and partnerships.
Sabrina Ionescu’s Endorsements, Investments, & Partnerships:
One of the biggest projects Ionescu has gotten involved in off the court has been with Division Street, an Oregon-based venture established to help Ducks athletes capitalize on their NIL rights. Though Ionescu was out of college by the time the name, image, and likeness revolution rolled around, she’s had plenty of offers come her way in this emerging industry of college athlete brand monetization that’s looking for its long-term equilibrium. Her role is to provide Division Street with insight regarding what student-athletes really want, as well as to make sure all athletes at Oregon have a chance to benefit — not just the basketball and football players who get to make plays on national TV.
“The landscape has completely changed in college,” Ionescu said. “So now being able to make money on your brand and your image, it’s been different and I think it’s been an adjustment process — not only for us on the business side, but also for the student-athletes and what they’re going through.”
As for major success stories so far, a Tinker Hatfield-designed NFT and Division Street’s partnership with Airbnb are the two that come to Ionescu’s mind immediately. But more profoundly, she wants the venture to continue to innovate in ways that other NIL collectives do not.
“It’s not your typical ‘here’s a car deal, here’s some money,'” she said. “I think it really encompasses the storytelling of Oregon and always being on the forefront of that.”
That’s something that Ionescu takes with her into her own opportunities — making sure brands she partners with share her values.
“I don’t want to feel like it’s a job,” she said. “Does it align with who I am as a person?”
Going forward, Ionescu is not sure if she will remain in the states in the offseason or explore the opportunity to go overseas. She noted how much shorter the WNBA season is compared to the NBA — 36 regular-season games instead of 82 — and how much time that leaves between each campaign.
“I might go overseas for a couple months to just stay in basketball shape and continue to get better,” she said. “Or if it’s just training here in the states, being able to spend time with my family and also continue to work on the business portfolio that I’ve been working on.”
Face of the Franchise
There are parallels between how Ionescu treats the business world and how she thinks of herself as a player. Namely, her focus is to get the best out of everyone around her, be it Oregon athletes at Division Street or her teammates on the Liberty.
“I think [I’m] just someone that wants to win and do whatever that the team needs for me to do,” she said. “But I think as a point guard, [I’m] really looking forward to getting everyone involved, continue to work on my passing and my vision, but also being able to score from all three levels.”
Ionescu enters the season stacked with endorsement deals, loaded with opportunities, and brimming with promise.
She just has to deliver, for herself and her teammates.
There’s no question she can. The defining moment of her WNBA career so far was in the first game of last season when she hit a wild buzzer-beating three to beat the Indiana Fever in just her fourth career pro game. It was the type of shot that only a star could hit — one of those where you just know it’s going in, even if there’s no reason why it should.
Now it’s a matter of being that star consistently, which she was not able to do last year as she worked her way back into form. This year, she has a new coaching staff by her side led by WNBA champion coach Sandy Brondello.
“Being reassured from [Brondello] about making sure you’re healthy; that’s priority No. 1 and everything else will follow,” Ionescu said. “I think that’s kind of been instilled in all of us through the start of training camp and it continues to be a focal point.”
The veterans on the team, including newcomer and 2021 champion Stefanie Dolson, have told her the same thing, easing some of the pressure on her.
“If you don’t feel ready, if you don’t feel all right, it’s okay to take a day off and make sure that you’re ready for the next day,” Ionescu said. “And so it’s been really nice learning from them, particularly in that category.”
The Liberty snuck into the playoffs last year, but as the eighth-best team in a 12-team league, there’s still plenty of room to improve. The team went out and added Dolson and signed Kaila Charles on Friday. Reigning Rookie of the Year Michaela Onyenewere also returns with a year under her belt along with Betnijah Laney and Sami Whitcomb, giving Ionescu a talented core around her.
Still, she’s the one whose jersey is going to sell. She’s the one the media will want to talk to every night.
It’s how it’s always been.