The Liberty selected Sabrina Ionescu with the No. 1 overall pick in the W.N.B.A. draft on Friday, kicking off a refashioned “virtual” event for a league that has, like most sports around the world, been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
The infusion of Ionescu and her star power into the W.N.B.A. comes amid a period of challenges and renewed promise for the 23-year-old league.
An elite point guard at the University of Oregon, Ionescu became the first No. 1 pick under a new collective bargaining agreement that significantly increased player salaries and promised additional investment in marketing. And she will join the Liberty just as the New York franchise is resetting its ownership, its roster and even its logo.
“I saw some of the media coverage in New York today,” W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said on Friday, responding to a question about Ionescu’s potential impact on the league’s footprint. “A big priority of mine is to focus on marketing the league and our players. Driving household names and engaging them with fans in a different way is a thing we’re continuing to work on.”
Ionescu addresses an on-court need of the Liberty, as a point guard capable of making the uncommon pass, of avoiding turnovers and of shooting 3-pointers. She markedly improved her finishing at the rim as a senior, closing the last gap in her game.
“They have great guards there,” Ionescu said to reporters after being selected. “Just their ability to shoot and spread the floor.”
She noted that the amount of pick-and-roll that Liberty Coach Walt Hopkins plans to run will help make her transition to the pro level comfortable, because she often used that play with her Oregon teammates Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard, both forwards.
Both Sabally and Hebard were selected in the first round as well — Sabally second over all by the Dallas Wings, and Hebard eighth by the Chicago Sky.
The Indiana Fever selected Lauren Cox of Baylor third over all, giving the team’s new coach, Marianne Stanley, a stretch four to pair with the franchise’s cornerstone center, Teaira McCowan.
Then the Atlanta Dream got a desperately needed playmaking point guard, taking Chennedy Carter with the fourth pick. Rounding out the top five was Princeton forward Bella Alarie, who was chosen by the Dallas Wings.
The arrival of these players, with an extraordinary array of talents, portends a new reality for the W.N.B.A.
But the reality is on pause: Engelbert announced this month that both the April 26 reporting date for training camps and the May 15 start of the regular season had been postponed indefinitely.
On Friday, Engelbert greeted the draft picks via videoconference on ESPN, as she and the league’s newest players were homebound during an experience that is the stuff of childhood dreams. Engelbert said she had repurposed a drying rack as a display case for the new jerseys displayed during the draft.
The evening began on a somber note, as the league named Alyssa Altobelli, Gianna Bryant and Payton Chester as honorary draft picks. The three girls — all members of Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Academy basketball team — were killed in the January helicopter crash that also claimed the life of the retired Lakers superstar.
“While it brings us pain to see their dreams not come to fruition, I’m grateful and proud to announce them as honorary draft picks,” Engelbert said on the broadcast.
Then the draft proceeded as player after player, surrounded by family inside their homes, learned their professional destinations.
It began with Ionescu, who threw her head back and then let it drop into her folded hands as Engelbert announced her name.
Asked what was going through her mind in that moment, Ionescu said: “That I’m blessed. I’ve been working for this for my entire career and just super excited to be able to see that come to fruition.”
At 12, she had declared herself a future professional player, and now she has plenty of opportunities ahead of her, including one she revealed on Friday’s call with reporters: She has signed an endorsement deal with Nike. Soon, though no one knows quite how soon, Ionescu will get a chance to whether all the hype around her is justified.