Sabrina Ionescu Emerging as One of Nation’s Top 3x3 Basketball Players
USA Basketball Women's Pan American Games 3x3 Team member Sabrina Ionescu was born and raised in Walnut Creek, California, and is the daughter of Romanian immigrants who weren’t big basketball fans back when Sabrina was born in 1997. But that didn’t stop young Sabrina from picking up the ball and never putting it down.
“My parents didn’t know anything about sports, but they let me play in whatever I wanted to play,” she said.
Ionescu (pronounced yah-ness-coo) in fact played many sports, including soccer, tennis, gymnastics and others. But her favorite sport became basketball, which she says she began playing in a park with her brothers.
In the years since, she’s taken her game to the University of Oregon, where she’s a star point guard for the Ducks. The 5-foot-11 junior won the Wooden Award this year for being the most outstanding player of the season and also won her second consecutive Nancy Lieberman National Point Guard of the Year award.
Ionescu has averaged nearly 20 points a game the past two years, and this past season she also set the collegiate record — for both women and men — with the most career triple-doubles with 18.
She’s had more than just individual success, though. Ionescu also helped Oregon reach its first Final Four this year before losing to eventual champion Baylor. She also helped the Ducks get to the Elite Eight the previous two seasons.
“(Oregon) seemed like the best fit for me,” she said. “I really enjoyed the coaching staff and always saw the vision they had for me and for us. And,I kind of just took a chance. I went there and have had a pretty good career so far.”
Ionescu also plays 3x3 basketball as well and won the 2018 national title along with Ducks teammates Erin Boley, Oti Gildon and Ruthy Hebard.
“I went last year with three of my teammates, and we ended up winning the tournament,” said Ionescu, who also was named the tournament MVP.
Hebard and Gildon returned along with Lydia Giomi in 2019 as the Ducks repeated as national champs, with Ionescu repeating as MVP. Basketball is basketball, but 3x3 can be considerably different from the five-a-side game, with two fewer players competing on a half court with one basket, no quarters or halves and a shorter time span required between shots.
“It’s more of pickup basketball,” Ionescu said, who along with Olivia Nelson-Ododa (Connecticut/Winder, Ga.), Christyn Williams (Little Rock, Ark.) and University of Oregon teammate (Fairbanks, Alaska) will represent the United States at the July 27-29 Pan American Games 3x3 competition in Lima, Peru. “You’re making reads really quickly and on your own. You can’t rely on a coach or anyone else to call plays or tell you what to do, because you have 12 seconds. Honestly, I think it makes you take your game to another level and take it out of your comfort zone and take ownership and leadership.
“… I can definitely get better at 3x3 and five-on-five. I like it, because it helps me with my decision making and just working on other aspects of my game. Hopefully. I don’t think I’m any better at one or the other, but I enjoy myself in 3x3.”
Ionescu has played with USA Basketball since she was a teenager, helping win gold medals in the 2013 FIBA Americas U16 Championship and 2014 FIBAU17 World Cup.
She could contend for a roster spot at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, either on the full national team or the 3x3 version which will be making its Olympic debut.
“Obviously, it will be something that would be really cool,” she said.
Ionescu briefly considered entering the WNBA after her junior season but decided to stay another year at Oregon.
“I had to figure out what I wanted to do, whether to leave or stay,” she said. “And I thought that staying was the best option.”
That was great news for Ducks fans. With her talent, Ionescu not only has made the team great, she has increased attendance from around 1,500 fans per game before she arrived to more than 6,500 this past season.
“Hopefully, we’ve inspired a lot of people and children,” she said. “And that we brought that to Eugene and the university and will continue to grow the game and women’s basketball.”
Ionescu could help the Ducks to another Final Four — and possibly a national championship — next season, which she mentioned in a story she wrote for The Players Tribune.
“We’re building something here in Eugene,” she wrote. “We’re building something — together — that’s going to last for a long time after we’ve all graduated.”
After she graduates, Ionescu likely will be a very high draft pick in the WNBA, perhaps as high as No. 1. She also will probably play overseas in the offseason like many of the league’s stars.
While Ionescu has never been to Romania, the country of her ancestry, she looks forward to visiting there one day. If her career continues as it has, that opportunity to visit may come on the court.