Sabrina Ionescu: 'I'm excited to struggle a little bit'

Inside the Liberty rookie's journey settling into WNBA's Bradenton 'Wubble'

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New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) dribbles the basketball. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Jocelyn Willoughby had never played against number one overall pick Sabrina Ionescu. Leaonna Odom had played against her once while both were first years at Oregon and Duke, respectively. But before arriving in Bradenton, Florida for the 2020 WNBA season, both were unsure of her aura.

Amid the months of team zoom calls, Willoughby could only go off media appearances and interviews, which doesn’t always reveal what’s behind the curtain. And for Odom, how helpful would it be to flashback to a game from 2017?

Coming up on almost two weeks since arrival, folks want to know from the outside looking in, what it truly is like playing with the most well-known college basketball player?

“Everything that you see on the media about Sabrina is exactly what you're gonna get,” Odom told the press last week. “You're gonna get a great leader, she knows what she's doing out there and it's great.”

Teammate Jazmine Jones, a former Louisville Cardinal who played against Ionescu and defeated her Ducks this past November, reminisced and remembered that matchup well.

While the Cardinals won, defending Ionescu was no cakewalk. In the past week, she’s seen why and is beginning to understand the mind behind the triple-double queen. Jones maintains that her point guard’s “basketball IQ is top-notch” as she can put players in positions to succeed.

While Ionescu’s basketball IQ is probably higher than most rookies, the key to her character on and off the court is reliant on her social and emotional intelligence and her show-not-tell leadership style, which is far different from leading by example.

Ionescu was hesitant to discuss how she and the idea of leadership will function on an organization that she’s so new to. She told the press on Monday that she doesn’t know “everything about the league,” and she radically accepts that. She knows that the veterans, young vets (or “baby vets”) Layshia Clarendon and Amanda Zahui B. are outspoken and will be vocal when they need to be. Ionescu doesn’t want to use titles, at least not for now.

“I don't necessarily need to be a captain or a leader, I think just coming in and doing my job and my role which is trying to bring everyone together, trying to find ways to win,” she said.

Head Coach Walt Hopkins noted specifically that Sabrina “doesn’t want any preferential treatment.” She’s not entitled and he described her and her actions so far as “quiet” and “hardworking.”

Ionescu stretches before practice at IMG Academy. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

“Everything she does is in service of [the Liberty] as a group, rather than in service of her,” he said.

In other words, Ionescu leads when she may or may not be aware of it. But in her words and without titles, bringing people together is her focus. Sabrina doesn’t necessarily tell you she’s leading, but rather she shows you.

Teammate (and 13th overall draft pick) Kylee Shook explained how Ionescu put in her “two cents” in during a team meeting, expressing how it would be helpful for the entire roster to get to know each other on a personal level and just talk about life. A priority for Ionescu is to understand her teammates’ interests aside from basketball.

But why is that important to the Liberty’s new point guard?

“Well, it helps with the chemistry,” Ionescu told The Next. “It helps understand, you know maybe what someone's going through. Maybe what someone likes on the basketball court, maybe how someone reacts to criticism or someone doesn't like, you know, negative comments. How to hype someone up.”

Ionescu affirms that understanding emotional motivations and the passions of her teammates will only help this young squad “bond better on the court.”

Also, this was a tradition that seeped into Ionescu at Oregon, and she sees no reason why it shouldn’t continue at the professional level. What also will continue to percolate into the pros is this narrative that she accumulated while in Eugene regarding her evolving role. Hopkins remarked that the way in which she “knew ways to lead” while growing into “different roles” will be an aid to Ioenscu as she makes this transition to the W.

What will also make the transition a bit smoother is having a guard like Layshia Clarendon by her side who is just as “pass-first” as she is. Clarendon and Ionescu bike together to practice every day, and the seven-year vet has taken the rookie under her wing. Ionescu compares their budding chemistry on the court to how she worked with current Atlanta Dream guard Maite Cazorla for three years at Oregon.

Clarendon agrees with Jazmine Jones. Ionescu puts people in positions to succeed and in turn makes them sharper players.

I would say one of my first impressions is like how understated [Ionescu’s] game is in a positive way. She just makes people around her better, and her ability to be a chameleon-like. She's not the person who always has to take the shot, and that's what we saw at Oregon. She wasn't the one who had to take 20 shots a game to get her 20 points. She was able to do it with such efficiency. And she knows when to get her own shot and when to get other people involved. Like yesterday in practice, we knew she ended up being on the group with like all rookies on her team, and her ability to make the players better around her, like four other rookies is just something that you don't see every player do in this league. 

Hopkins sees a duality in Ioenscu’s leadership style. She employs and tries to balance “both overt and covert leadership strategies.”

Shook mentioned how Ionescu helps teach during practice, employing more of a covert strategy, but the former Louisville Cardinal noted that her guidance is laced with kindness rather than hostility. “Coach will say something and then she’ll reiterate it in a perfect way, in a player’s aspect,” Shook said.

Ionescu will be learning a whole lot as well, and that’s something she’s eagerly anticipating. She expects the high highs and the low lows and knows that both are the ingredients of a fruitful professional career. She’s “excited to struggle.”

While Hopkins called her quiet during a virtual news conference last week, that doesn’t mean Ionescu has had a change of heart or a shift of her self-assurance.

Sabrina Ionescu hi-fives teammate Jazmine Jones during practice at IMG Academy. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Before taking a half court shot during media day, she shouted how she probably wasn’t going to make it. Well, she did and she shimmied as well. Her confidence is understated rather than pretentious. Her confidence isn’t quiet, but rather is innate.

“She's just a great player so I think she can be serious and focus but also you know be a great friend, great teammate on and off the court,” said former Oregon teammate and close friend Ruthy Hebard. “And I think she's gonna be a huge asset to New York and lead the rookies, and also have a lot to teach the other players as well. So I'm just excited to see what she does and how she transforms this young team of hers.”

Teammate tiktoks during media day >>> 😂😂😂 Go @jazmine.jones4 & @sabrina_i !!! (via @jazmine.jones4)
July 13, 2020

While waiting in a hallway during media day, Ionescu and Jones decided to occupy themselves with Tik Tok. Why not? With all smiles, the rookies began the well-known dance to DaBaby’s “Rockstar,” which Ionescu previously mastered alongside her younger cousin in May.

Ionescu and Jones weren’t quite in-synch, as they giggled and cackled throughout the rest of the short dance routine. The same exists in the gym and on the court. But the guards will be, and that’s the beauty of it all.