Sabrina Ionescu came into the WNBA as one of the most highly-touted rookies in recent memory. But her first year didn’t exactly go according to plan, as the pandemic moved the New York Liberty from their new home at the Barclays Center to the WNBA bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Then, she suffered a grade 3 ankle sprain in the third of game of the season, ending her rookie campaign and requiring surgery. Her rehab has lasted into this season, and she’s still getting back to full strength in her sophomore year as she and the New York Liberty attempt to bounce back from the disappointment of 2020.
But off the court, Ionescu is thriving. She’s on State Farm commercials with Chris Paul, and she’s bringing NBA and pop culture stars to Liberty games in Brooklyn. Ionescu is also continuing her mission of inspiring the next generation to pursue athletic excellence, specifically young girls, which is why she is partnering with The DICK’s Foundation for its third tour of the Sports Matter Giving Truck.
The truck is providing 15,000 pieces of sports equipment, including sports bras, at eight stops around the country. Ionescu and five other current and former athletes — Sam Mewis, Elena Delle Donne, Swin Cash, Amy Rodriguez and Arike Ogunbowale — have recorded video messages that are accessible by scanning QR codes on the truck.
Ionescu spoke with SB Nation over the phone about her new partnership as well as how she’s adapted to being a professional athlete and what to make of the Liberty’s season thus far.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
SB Nation: Why is the Sports Matter Giving Truck important to you? Why did you want to be a part of it?
Sabrina Ionescu: I think there’s a lot of reasons, but obviously being in sports and I started playing at a really young age and so being able to see the differences growing up, you know, having brothers that played sports and you know, seeing the difference in equipment and in teams and participation of girls compared to the boys. I think that was a huge reason as to why I wanted to help and be a part of this initiative, to ultimately help empower young girls that are playing sports and starting sports. And hopefully with this they can find some positivity and maybe even a reason to continue playing the sport and not quit at a certain age like a lot of girls do.
SBN: What does it mean to you to be in this position where you can Inspire younger girls and know that your voice, your message means so much to them?
SI: It means everything, you know, we play for this reason and I play for this reason, and that’s to give back and find what I can do in my community and across the world. And so, this is obviously very important to me and using my platform and what I’m doing on the court to inspire young girls and young boys across the country. And so, I’m very honored and humbled to be able to partner with this foundation and the Sports Matter Giving Truck and be able to do something like this for female athletes.
SBN: Do you feel like your platform has gotten bigger since you started playing in New York? Or did you feel similarly when you were at Oregon?
SI: I think it’s definitely gotten bigger, you know, now I’m playing professional and out of college and so kind of expanding endorsement deals, endorsement opportunities, you know brand plans and management and all those kind of avenues that you’re not able to do in college. I think that definitely expands your platform at the professional level, and so, with that obviously comes great responsibility, which for me is not only handling my business on the court but doing everything that I can off the court to make an impact as well, and that’s what I plan to do with this as well.
SBN: I saw the other day that you mentioned that you’ve been getting some pretty decent crowds at Barclays Center when you guys play, and you mentioned that Russell Wilson, KD, Steve Nash, those guys coming to games, doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to you because they’re just your friends. But even if it’s not personally a big deal, do you kind of see the way that you’ve been impacting getting a bigger audience for the league as a whole?
SI: Yeah, for sure. This is our first year in Barclays, and so I don’t think anyone really knew what to expect, and I know I didn’t from playing in a bubble last year. So it was definitely exciting to just see people show up from all kind of backgrounds, whether it’s NBA players, former NBA players, coaches, little girls and boys that are in the stands, you know, with our jerseys and signs. And obviously a lot of people haven’t been to sporting events you know as much as we’d like with everything going on, and so I think it was kind of a little glimpse of what it will be in the future and what we’re building in New York and that is really something special. I know as an athlete I’ve definitely missed just being able to interact with the fans.
SBN: It’s been really great to see you back on the court this year, and I was curious, was most of your off-season this past year just devoted to rehab or did you feel like you got a chance to talk really work on your skills during this time off?
SI: Most of it was rehab and with that, of course, is new skills and working on your body and things that you don’t really do when you’re healthy. And so although, you know, I wasn’t able to do everything that I normally would have done in the offseason — I haven’t really ever had an offseason — it was still beneficial to the point of where I was working on my body, lifting, my nutrition, sleeping right, all the other things that are just as important. And so I do think that long-term in my career it could be a blessing.
SBN: Do you feel like that ankle injury is still affecting you at all on the court, like in terms of maybe getting past your initial defender? Or do you feel pretty comfortably recovered from last year?
SI: A little bit of both. You know, I’m healthy enough to play, honestly, that’s all that I’m thankful for and that matters. But of course, I mean there’s still things that I’m not comfortable doing yet or if I am, I don’t have enough repetitions doing them at a high level . And so I’m not anywhere near a hundred per month, so just grinding through that, figuring out ways to get better even if I can’t do certain things or and not at the speed of playing that I want to, but it’s all a blessing.
SBN: Where do you see yourself wanting to improve as the rest of the season progresses?
SI: Aside from getting healthier and being able to maintain that, I think in all aspects of the game. This is my first professional season and so being able to learn from my teammates, being able to learn from my coaches and a lot of the other teams that I’m playing has been really exciting, and kind of brings me back to my freshman year in college, where just everything is new. You’re getting to learn new players that you’re going up against, offensive tendencies, defensive tendencies, and so, all of that I’m not taking for granted and just I’m trying to be a sponge and learn as much as I can.
SBN: What do you feel like has been the toughest adjustment for you so far transitioning from college to professional?
SI: I think it’s hard to say because I’ve been injured this entire time, but I would say just the speed of the game and also the IQ. Everyone’s really smart, everyone’s better. Then you’re going up against players that have been in the league for 18, 19 years, and this is your first year, and so that experience that they have and just that veteran knowledge of everything that they’ve seen doesn’t go unnoticed, and it’s really nice to learn from a lot of those vets.
SBN: Yeah, it seems like it would be harder to immediately be able to manipulate a defense the way you did in college with your passing, compared to being in basically your rookie year in the W.
SBN: The Liberty has been one of the really great stories of the season so far. Is there anything that you think that’s going on there in New York that we haven’t been talking about enough?
SI: No, I mean we listen obviously, we’re aware of the kind of questions we get asked of being in a rough patch, of losing games, or you know, whatnot, because I think everyone was so high on us starting off 5-1 (note: the Liberty are currently 8-9). But I still think, you know, a lot of people forget how new of a team we are and how young of a team we are. And I don’t think we’re in a rough patch. We’re not. We’re right where we want to be. We’re learning, you know we’re losing to teams that are number one in this league right now and have eight, nine veteran players on their team, have been together for a couple of years. So I think we’re not losing sight of that. We’re not letting how we practice and how we play and how our season goes be dictated by wins and losses, and what people think is a successful or unsuccessful season. And I do think that is important and not really losing sight of the controllables and just the growth that we’ve shown from last year to this year.