Of all of the 5-foot-11 guard’s plentiful and varied basketball skills, her rebounding ability was the one perhaps most borne of necessity. Well, unless you count her passing ability. That keen vision, much like her capacity to predict the exact angle at which the ball is going to careen off the backboard and the precise moment at which she should jump, also was developed out of compulsion.
The point is, the NCAA Division I record-holder for career triple-doubles — among both men and women — didn’t emerge from the womb rebounding and passing. Sabrina Ionescu was always a natural scorer, she’ll give herself that. The other stuff came along because she couldn’t stand not being able to compete.
“When I was younger, I was always playing with the guys, and I had to find ways to get the ball, because they never wanted to pass to me,” Ionescu said. “So I figured that if I could rebound, I would be able to get the ball myself.
"Then passing-wise, when I was in sixth grade playing with the eighth-grade team, I was obviously a lot shorter, skinnier, smaller than they were. I would just have to find ways to impact the game other than shooting or scoring, and that was passing. … I think it just all kind of added together on its own.”
At Oregon, the three skills have added up to historic production. Ionescu (pronounced “yo-ness-coo”) owns 16 career triple-doubles, having broken Kyle Collinsworth’s previous NCAA record of 12 in December. Collinsworth took four seasons at Brigham Young to tally his dozen by 2015; Ionescu reached that mark 11 games into her junior year.
But there’s a reason Ionescu, who hails from Walnut Creek, Calif., 30 minutes from the Golden State Warriors’ arena, shrugs off her record as “just another thing I do” and Oregon Coach Kelly Graves classifies it as little more than “a very cool stat.”
The 21-year-old has become more than a triple-double machine. She’s the fierce guard who helped put Oregon women’s basketball on the map, the breakout star whom Steph Curry featured on his Instagram. And, because she turns 22 this draft year, she could be the rare female player to cut her college career short for the pros.
“Could she go high [in the WNBA draft]? Absolutely. Absolutely,” South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said.
In her capacity as coach of the U.S. national team, Staley worked out Ionescu over the summer ahead of the World Cup because, as she put it, Sue Bird won’t be playing point guard forever.
“The thing that stood out to me most was her competitiveness,” Staley said. “She wasn’t intimidated, she looked like she belonged, and that does not happen much at her age. Her ability to see the floor in a pick-and-roll situation is quite incredible … Her transition defensively would be my only question, but that’s the question with a lot of younger players. And she’s bringing a whole lot of things that they’re not.”
Ionescu hasn’t thought much of the WNBA hype that surrounds her, nor has she made a decision about the draft. What she has thought a lot about — almost every waking moment, so much that Graves wishes she would let up sometimes — is competing for Oregon basketball.
As a senior in high school, the fourth-ranked recruit in the class of 2016 chose the Ducks over more established programs such as Oregon State, Texas and California because she wanted to be the all-American at Oregon, not just an all-American somewhere else. Now, Ionescu leads the Ducks with 18.6 points per game and 34.5 minutes per game. She leads the nation with 8.4 assists per game. And she contributes 7.4 rebounds per game to boot.
She was the highest-ranked recruit in Oregon history when she signed during Graves’s second year. Last season, she made more noise as she helped the Ducks earn their first Pac-12 tournament title and a program-high No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Want to know how much she means in Eugene? Just look at the crowds, Graves said. The year before Ionescu came to town, the average announced attendance at a Ducks women’s game was 1,501. Last season it was 4,255 — the largest increase for home attendance of any program in the country, which Graves largely attributes to Ionescu. Through 12 home games this season, the No. 3 Ducks (21-1, 10-0 Pac 12) are averaging 6,567 fans.
“She’s got a chance to be a Marcus Mariota, that level of player and an esteemed Oregon Duck when it’s all said and done,” Graves said last week in a phone interview.
That said, he also knows he has a player whose star reaches far beyond the Pacific Northwest, as evidenced by Curry’s shout-out and online support from national media personalities such as Shea Serrano. Ionescu has become a national figure in college basketball with her game, which she plays with control and limited flair that shows off her intensity. Oregon boasts four players who average at least 13 points, but more often than not, the ball ends up in Ionescu’s hands when it needs a clutch few points to close out a game.
“She had a tough weekend this week on the road at Washington, and I guarantee you last night after we got home at 8 or 9 o’clock, my guess is she went in and shot, because that’s how she’s wired,” Graves said. “By most people’s standards, she had pretty good numbers, but not by her standards, and they drew 3,000 more fans last night than they did two nights earlier against Oregon State. A lot of those I’m sure were to come see the Ducks, but a lot were there to see Sabrina. And she wants to play so hard so that she wouldn’t let them down.
“She goes so hard, she can’t turn it on and off. We try to shut her down on Mondays, when we go a little lighter and play some pickup ball, but the second I turn my back she’s in there. I’m like, ‘Get out!’”
When she was younger, Ionescu played on a club team and filled in on her twin brother Eddy’s all-male squad when they needed bodies. Her middle school didn’t have enough players to field a girls’ team and when her request to play on the boys’ roster was denied, she found a way — the same way she found passing lanes on her sixth-grade team and collected rebounds when boys wouldn’t pass her the ball — and recruited classmates who would agree to play with her.
Her middle-school experience made it especially sweet to set the NCAA record for triple-doubles for both women and men.
“My middle school said I should be playing with dolls. Seriously, word-for-word,” Ionescu said with a laugh. “So I went out and recruited a bunch of girls to sign up for the team, and then I would just play. It’s funny now. I wish I could go back and just tell those people they had made a mistake.”