Picture by 2020 Getty Images

Sabrina Ionescu ready to lead new era aged just 23

The all-time top NCAA triple-double scorer, who is equally adept at 3X3 and five-on-five basketball, is expected to be part of Team USA at Tokyo 2020.
By ZK Goh and Samuel Friedman

Imagine having the guidance of basketball legend Kobe Bryant and Steph Curry fresh out of college.

That's exactly the situation Sabrina Ionescu finds herself in, as she looks to usher in a new era for her struggling New York Liberty franchise in the Women's National Basketball Association and perhaps even the league itself.

Ionescu may have only played three games for the Liberty, but aged just 23 she is already an established star – thanks in part to her college career – and one of the leaders of the franchise.

The number one pick in last season's WNBA draft, Ionescu only managed three appearances before injury ended her season. Despite this, her reputation was already strong, and the Liberty will again rely heavily on her going forward.

"I kind of like the pressure," Ionescu told Canadian outlet Sportsnet. "I like feeling that it's me that has to come in and help this program and help this team. And not only for us, for women's basketball as a whole."

So what does Ionescu, who is widely expected to make Team USA for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games delayed to this summer in 2021, have to do to make her mark?

Leading the Liberty

Ionescu has a lot on her shoulders. Drafted first overall for the 2020 season, she suffered a Grade 3 ankle sprain after just three games of the shortened year as the Liberty went on to compile an extremely disappointing 2-20 record.

The point guard did however have a game-high 33 points in one of the three games she played, a 13-point loss to the Dallas Wings. Expectations remain high for Ionescu, who showed her ability in the limited time she had on court.

With the Liberty winning the 2021 WNBA Draft lottery, they will have the top selection for the second draft in a row (and a third consecutive top-two pick) as the franchise continues to form a team around Ionescu.

The team have been rebuilding for a few years now, and Ionescu is not the only young star on her team. Asia Durr, the Liberty's second overall pick from the 2019 draft, was also sidelined from the entire 2020 season after contracting Covid-19.

With both players having previously represented Team USA, the young stars will hope to not just turn the Liberty's fortunes around but also earn their spots on the Olympic roster.

Already a star

New York is a basketball city, often nicknamed the "Mecca of basketball" – a moniker it shares with the Madison Square Garden arena. The Barclays Center in Brooklyn is equally home to many stars – the NBA's Brooklyn Nets and Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden; and the WNBA's Liberty with Ionescu and Durr.

Even though Ionescu has only had three WNBA games, her college career with the University of Oregon Ducks set her apart.

She is the all-time NCAA leader in triple-doubles with 26, and was the first collegiate player to score 2,000 career points, 1,000 assists, and 1,000 rebounds.

That reputation followed her to the pro ranks, where despite her team's struggles and her playing only three games, Ionescu's jersey ranked fourth on the number of shirt sales.

Kobe Bryant mentorship

Ionescu has had a strong basketball schooling. Basketball legend Bryant worked one-on-one as a personal mentor to Ionescu, and after his untimely death last January, she spoke at his memorial service.

"I still text him even though he's not here," she said then.

That night after the memorial, she played for the Ducks against Stanford University, the game which pushed her over the 2,000-1,000-1,000 collegiate mark.

Curry, another of her close friends, watched her hit the milestone that evening.

On Instagram, Ionescu paid tribute to Bryant and his "Mamba Mentality", promising to carry on his legacy.

Team USA dreams

With Tokyo 2020 on the horizon, Ionescu is well in the sights of USA Basketball's selectors.

She has experience in both full-court five-on-five basketball and 3X3, which makes its Olympic debut in the Japanese capital, and could be a breakout star.

Ionescu has worn the red, white, and blue of Team USA since she was 15, when she was part of the winning team at the 2013 FIBA Americas Under-16 Championship. She graduated to the Under-17 World Cup team the following year, taking home another gold medal.

More national team representation followed in 2018, but this time as part of the American 3X3 team at the 2018 3X3 World Cup. Although they were eliminated in the last eight, they won all four of their group games and went on to win the Pan American Games title in 2019.

There is little doubt she would improve both the 3X3 and five-on-five teams on court in Tokyo. If she can stay healthy, a big year awaits.