Sabrina Ionescu Opens Up About Kobe Bryant and Rookie Year Woes

Spread the love

Want more basketball in your inbox? Sign up for Marc Stein’s weekly N.B.A. newsletter here.

Sabrina Ionescu could spend a considerable amount of time, if she wished, dwelling on everything that was snatched away from her in what was scripted to be a momentous year.

She prefers to focus on the fortune that enabled her to avoid surgery after a nasty ankle injury prematurely ended her rookie season with the W.N.B.A.’s Liberty.

“With everything that’s happened, with everything that’s been out of my control, I’ve just handled it the best that I can,” Ionescu said.

Last fall, Ionescu, 22, returned to the University of Oregon for her senior season, rather than turn professional, to try to win the N.C.A.A. title that had eluded the Ducks in the 2018-19 season. When the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the 2020 N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament in March, Ionescu moved on to the W.N.B.A.

She was the No. 1 over all pick in the draft in April and one of the most celebrated rookies in league history — only to sustain a season-ending injury in the second quarter of her third pro game. Ionescu rolled her ankle when she stepped on the foot of the Atlanta Dream’s backpedaling Betnijah Laney. The Liberty, who had six other rookies besides Ionescu, sank to the league’s worst record (2-20) without her.

The injury, Ionescu said, was “definitely” the most severe of her career. It added another layer of struggle to a year that began with deep sorrow, after her friend and mentor Kobe Bryant and Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna — whom Ionescu mentored — were among nine people killed in a Jan. 26 helicopter crash.

Ionescu spoke to The New York Times about the numerous challenges she has faced in 2020, spending time with Bryant’s family and life in the W.N.B.A. bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

How are things going on the rehabilitation front?

I feel really good. Everything’s been going well, progressing as it should. It’s just been fun and exciting to get back out there and start playing and practicing.

How did you deal with the shock of having an injury so soon in your pro career?

It happens. It really wasn’t the end of the world. It wasn’t like my senior year of college or anything. I’ll have many, many more opportunities to play in the league, so it really wasn’t like a devastating experience. I kind of just took it for what it was and moved on.

The game before, to go for 33 points against the Dallas Wings, what did that feel like to be able to perform at that level so quickly?

I just felt comfortable. I obviously learned from the first game [Ionescu shot 4 for 17 from the field in her debut against the Seattle Storm] and just kept watching film and was just able to find my shots and felt more and more comfortable.

You faced big expectations throughout your college career, but how much different do pro expectations feel — being drafted to turn around a struggling franchise?

They don’t feel any different at all. The expectations I have for myself are always higher than anyone else’s, regardless of what level I’m playing at. It didn’t really matter that I was a rookie or it was my first year. I still had that same high level of expectation.

What was life like for you in the W.N.B.A. bubble?

It’s really hard, and it’s definitely not ideal. I think they did a great job keeping it safe and doing the best that they can with the short notice of having to kind of start the season and try to keep our best interests at hand. But, obviously, to eat, sleep and breathe your job is not always the best route that you could possibly take.

It definitely wasn’t easy being away from family and that support system, especially in my first year, and then obviously getting injured and kind of being stuck in that bubble and not being able to readily see who I need to see right away. But I think they did a great job just being able to keep us safe. Hopefully, if there’s a situation like this next year, we can just learn from it.

If next season is closer to typical, after spending your whole life on the West Coast, what do you imagine living and playing in New York will be like?

Hopefully really fun. I’m not nervous to get out there. I’m really excited to get out to Barclays and to be able to play with fans in an arena. Hopefully that happens, and we can get back to a little bit of the normal way of playing sports.

We’ve seen a few videos and pictures of you spending time with Kobe Bryant’s family. How helpful is it, if that’s even the right word, to grieve with them?

I think it’s helped all of us, just to be able to see each other, be around each other, tell stories, obviously be there for the good and the bad times, whatever it is. I’ll always be close to his family, and I think they know that they’ll always be close to me. So it’s been great to be able to just spend time with them, and that’s honestly been a blessing that I’ve been able to have that opportunity to be down in L.A. and see them.

To be asked to speak at Kobe’s memorial service — I honestly can’t even imagine taking that on.

It was difficult, but it was also an honor. Obviously being around such great people that were in attendance, some great teammates, all of his mentors, really everyone that was there — it was something that I am so happy that I was able to do and was asked to do.

At this point of your rehab, how much are you able to do?

I’m able to do just about everything that I want. I’m not playing live now and probably won’t be for a while, just because there’s no point playing live. It’s not necessarily for my health or my ankle, but just due to Covid-19 and everything going on. I don’t really feel like I want to go to a gym and start playing with random people at this point.

How hard is it for someone as competitive as you to be patient?

I’m actually pretty patient. I’m just making sure I’m staying healthy. There’s nothing really I’m rushing back for, so I think that’s definitely helped me. There’s not a game in a week that I need to get ready for. I have a while until next season, so I think this is going to be a time to just get my body where I want it to be.

This newsletter is OUR newsletter. So please weigh in with what you’d like to see here. To get your hoops-loving friends and family involved, please forward this email to them so they can jump in the conversation. If you’re not a subscriber, you can sign up here.

You ask; I an