Sabrina Ionescu is the ‘rock star’ ready to change the Liberty, WNBA forever

Sabrina Ionescu is the ‘rock star’ ready to change the Liberty, WNBA forever

The assists were her ticket onto the court. The boys at the neighborhood park wanted someone to pass it to them, so to make sure she would get picked, the young girl obliged.

The rebounds were her chance to get the ball in her own hands for once, so she learned to crash the offensive glass — more likely aluminum or wood — with a vengeance.

And the points? Those helped ensure that her team won so that Sabrina Ionescu could not only get on the court but stay there, the place where her basketball legend and trademark competitive fire was born.

“Just her competitiveness, it really did come from the park and the playground, playing against her brother,” Kelly Graves, Ionescu’s coach at Oregon, told The Post recently. “It all makes sense. It’s self-made. It’s hard to teach that, she just learned it.”

Soon, the basketball world would learn of Ionescu. The daughter of Romanian immigrants splashed onto the radars of NBA stars like Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, who would become an influential mentor to her before his death. Curry dubbed her “the walking Triple Dub,” James picked “Queen Sabrina,” and Bryant chose “Geppetto,” for the way she pulled the strings like Pinocchio’s puppeteer as a 5-foot-11 point guard who made NCAA history for a man or woman by racking up 26 triple-doubles and surpassing 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds over her sensational college career.

Now, after becoming the face of the women’s game and inspiring a new generation of young basketball players, Ionescu’s star is primed to take off as a pro. Sneaker wars are already underway, her jerseys could be everywhere and all of it could be amplified under the bright lights of New York. The WNBA draft is Friday and the Liberty are on the clock with the No. 1 pick.

“I think it’s gonna be a match made in heaven,” Graves said.

Ionescu and Oregon turned out to be perfect for each other, too. She grew to thrive in Graves’ pick-and-roll offense that was in part shaped by one of her idols, John Stockton.

Sabrina Ionescu Oregon WNBA Draft Liberty
Sabrina Ionescu playing for Miramonte H.S. on March 5, 2016.MediaNews Group via Getty Images

When she arrived in 2016 as the country’s No. 4 recruit out of Miramonte High School in the Bay Area — quietly announcing her commitment by showing up on campus the day before the summer semester began — Graves and his staff knew they had something special, a program-changing player to cap off a powerhouse recruiting class.

The same day, Nike co-founder and major Oregon donor Phil Knight texted Graves over the magnitude of Ionescu’s signing.

“This is a game-changer,” Knight texted, according to Graves. “She’s a difference-maker, not just for your basketball program, but for the entire university.”

And still, Ionescu went on to exceed the great expectations

When Ionescu stepped foot on campus, the Ducks had not made the NCAA tournament in 11 straight years. By the time she left, they would have gone four straight years — two Elite Eight appearances, the program’s first-ever trip to the Final Four last year, and left forever wondering what might have been this year, ready for a run at a national championship before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the tournament.

Ionescu could have been a top pick in the 2019 WNBA draft had she opted to leave after her junior year. She was already a two-time All-American, had captured the national player of the year and had recorded 18 career triple-doubles, enough to break the NCAA record of 12.

She decided to come back for her senior year, though, and while the unfinished business she and her teammates chased remained just that, their season was unforgettable. It began with a win over Team USA — becoming the first college team to beat them since 1999 — and ended with a Pac-12 championship, as stud teammates Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard joined Ionescu for a formidable big three.

“This year, honestly, it was like traveling with rock stars,” Graves said. “Our Pac-12 games, our opponents averaged 2,000 more [fans] than their other Pac-12 games. A lot of those were to see Sabrina and the team. It wasn’t just a one-person show. It was a fun style.”

The most memorable day of Ionescu’s Oregon career, though, was hardly the most fun one.

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