2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup: Rising star Sabrina Ionescu poised to lead United States’ next generation charge 

She was the toast of Oregon, then injury disrupted her WNBA arrival. Now, after finally flashing her full potential for the New York Liberty, the 2022 second-team All-Star is ready to prove her worth for Team USA. 

By Chloe Merrell | Created 20 September

There are certain expectations that come with being a generational superstar: Just ask basketball phenom Sabrina Ionescu.

The overwhelming feeling that the 24-year-old will one day become a WNBA household name derives from the essential fact she has dominated at every level of hoops she has ever played.

From being on the radar of Team USA from the age of 14 to a record-breaking college basketball career, hype has naturally encircled the Californian native.

Ionescu played four seasons at the University of Oregon and during her time became the NCAA career leader in triple doubles as well as the only player, male or female, to finish with more than 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists.

Her relentlessness while representing Oregon, as well as her serious demeanour, captured the attention of NBA giants.

When Ionescu notched her 22nd career triple-double for the Ducks, two-time Olympic champion LeBron James took note, acknowledging her game with a message on social media:

“She’s so dope,” the four-time NBA Championship winner wrote. “Keep going Queen Sabrina!”

Her talents also led to the development of a close bond with the late Kobe Bryant which was first forged when he and his daughter Gianna Bryant saw Ionescu in action at the University of Southern California (USC) campus.

The day the burgeoning talent smashed the NCAA record for most points, rebounds and assists, was the day she spoke at a memorial service for Bryant.

It seemed only obvious that when Ionescu eventually declared for the WNBA Draft, a year later than expected after opting to stay for her senior year at Oregon, that she would go as the first overall pick.

And, sure enough, in a virtual ceremony conducted in April 2020 the Oregon Duck ace, with one of the most decorated careers in college basketball history, went No.1 overall to the New York Liberty.

Forecasts of her eventual greatness began to sound.

Ionescu's grade three ankle sprain proved a devastating blow to the WNBA rookie looking to make an impression
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

Sabrina Ionescu: Pressure and growing pains

Before the 2021 season even started hopes that the star point guard could lift the Brooklyn-based franchise out of two-year-long lull were already soaring.

And when Ionescu put up 33 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in only 34 minutes of her second-ever WNBA game, fans began to dream again.

But then, injury struck.

In just her third game for the Liberty within the WNBA COVID-19 bubble Ionescu sprained her ankle, and the grade three tear immediately halted her rookie season just as it was beginning to gain traction.

If sitting out the remainder of the season wasn’t hard enough for the hungry Ionescu eager to convert her college glory into the ‘W’, then it became even tougher when it also forced her to miss several Team USA training camps for 5x5 and 3x3.

The young American had been invited to join the 3x3 basketball program while at Oregon in a nod to the possibility that she could compete in at the Tokyo 2020 Games, where the iteration of basketball would make its debut.

None of that, however, was possible because of the severity of Ionescu’s ankle injury; the kind of which she had never experienced before.

As she worked hard to rehabilitate her injury the weight of the star-potential attached to her name from such a young age grew heavier and heavier.

Eventually she found her ambition getting the better of her. Desperate to be a part of the team for the 2021 season, the point guard deliberately rushed her recovery:

“Looking back, I shouldn’t have played as early as I did,” Ionescu told Boardroom. “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.”

The expectations that had stalked her from college to her injury continued to haunt her throughout her second season.

Despite experiencing pain through her injury, the resolute baller hinted to her new franchise what she might be capable of, averaging 11.7 points, 6.1 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game.

But even then, it wasn't her best.

“Obviously I never talked about it,” Ionescu continued to Boardroom explaining her silence while suffering. “Never told anyone. My trainers didn’t know. My coaches didn’t know. No one knew."

Sabrina Ionescu joined (L-R) Kelsey Plum, Sylvia Fowles, Candace Parker, A'ja Wilson in teh 2022 WNBA All-Star Game
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

When the legendary Chicago Sky Candace Parker spotted Ionescu wincing during a game, the WNBA Champion took the young player to one side and told her she ought to prioritise her health. Those words inspired the New York Liberty star, and in the 2021 off-season she devoted her time to getting back to full form.

And it worked.

In the 2022 season Ionescu finally became the basketball star that was promised.

In 36 games, she averaged 17.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 6.3 rebounds, as well as becoming the first-ever WNBA player to accrue over 500 points, 200-plus rebounds and 200-plus assists in a single season.

She capped off her third outing in the WNBA with an All-WNBA Second Team spot, two Eastern Conference Player of the month awards, four total Eastern Conference Player of the week nods as well as playing in her first-ever WNBA All-Star game.

Her efforts amounted to the Liberty reaching the best-of-three playoffs where they eventually eliminated by semi-finalists Chicago Sky.

READ MORE: FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup: Australian legend Lauren Jackson primed for encore

Sabrina Ionescu: Bidding for a fifth consecutive World Cup title

With a solid, healthy, WNBA season under her belt, Ionescu is now focused on her duties for the United States women’s basketball team who are currently in Australia ready to compete in the 2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup.

Team USA will be bidding for their fourth consecutive title in Sydney and will be the tournament favourites when the first group matches get underway on Thursday 22 September.

While there will be some familiar faces in the squad with Tokyo 2020 gold medallists Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Chelsea Gray in the frame, the roster heading Down Under is relatively green.

This will be the first major international tournament where the US will be without either Sue Bird or Diana Taurasi in over 20 years.

As the team transitions away from the older guard that brought home gold at the last Olympics, Ionescu is in the perfect position to step into the spotlight and become a mainstay in the international basketball behemoth.

And with the backing of more than a few stars behind her, the rest of the world best be on the lookout.

READ MORE: 2022 FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup: Preview, schedule, stars to watch with Paris 2024 spot at stake

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