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Sabrina Ionescu’s Return is a Blessing in Disguise for the WNBA

Sabrina Ionescu is one of the greatest women’s college basketball players of all- time, and had she declared for the WNBA Draft after her Junior season, she would have likely went first overall. The Oregon point guard averaged 19.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game in her junior season.

Ionescu led Oregon to an appearance in the final four, and many fans were prepared for her departure from the program. Then came the announcement that no one expected. Ionescu had decided to return for her Senior year.

Naturally, many fans were surprised and even critical of Ionescu’s choice to return for her Senior season, but in hindsight, it seems like a win for Ionescu and the WNBA.

Because she returned, Ionescu gets one last chance to get the National Championship that has eluded her thus far. The triple-double machine and the Oregon Ducks suffered a heartbreaking loss to Baylor in the final four last season.

The team lost by five in the Final Four, but with Ionescu’s return along with potential top five picks in forwards Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard, this Ducks team is more than capable of bringing Oregon their first National Championship.

Chris Pietsch/AP Photo

In her Senior season, Ionescu has cemented her place as an icon of women’s basketball. Ionescu’s stats are not as impressive as previous years, but she has continued her fantastic play this season. She has four triple doubles and in her last performance, she had 37 points, 11 rebounds, and seven assists as sixth ranked Oregon beat third ranked Stanford by 32 points.

Ionescu’s legend has been growing for a while, but it became most noticeable in early November. On November 9 Ionescu’s 30 point performance led Oregon to a victory over the United States National Team.

It was the first time the United States had lost to a college team since 1999 when they lost to a Tennessee team coached by the great Pat Summitt. The win was a wow moment for all of basketball and only increased Ionescu’s celebrity.

Ionescu is arguably the most marketable women’s college athlete of my lifetime, and I don’t think many of us fathomed her popularity until she released this tweet on November 5.

On November 11, less than a week after the tweet and two days after she led her team to victory over the United States, Nike released Oregon basketball jerseys with Ionescu’s number 20 on the back. The jersey was an instant hit selling out within hours and was only another example of the celebrity Ionescu had amassed. 

The WNBA is anxiously waiting for Ionescu to enter the league, and there may not be a more convenient landing spot for her than with the New York Liberty, who barring something unforeseen, are expected to select her with the first pick in the WNBA Draft.

The WNBA is growing, but is still a relatively small league, and like many small leagues, the WNBA is reliant on stars, and Ionescu could be the league’s next superstar. Having Ionescu in the largest media market in the world could do wonders for the league.

Ionescu has already proven that she is a star on and off the court. Combine that with the media power that is New York, and it could do amazing things for a growing league.

Chris Pietsch/AP Photo

Ionescu could have the effect for the Liberty that Candace Parker has had for the Los Angeles Sparks. The Sparks were 10-24 the year before Parker arrived and in her first season in the league, the team won 20 games and made the Western Conference Finals.

In Parker’s career, the Sparks have only won one Championship, but her talent, combined with the attention Los Angeles provides, has kept her a superstar even into the twilight of her career.

In her age 33 season, Parker’s stats suffered a significant decline and for the first time in her career, she played less than 30 games. Despite this, Parker’s popularity remained as she was the third highest selling jersey in the league.

Last season, the Liberty were the second worst team in the WNBA, yet because of their popularity in the league, they were still top five in merchandise sales. Combine Ionescu’s talent and celebrity with the city of New York, and it could be a match made in heaven for the next decade or so.

Ionescu’s arrival could not be better timed because the WNBA just agreed to a new collective-bargaining agreement with the players. The deal increases players salaries and goes into effect in 2020. The deal especially rewards top players as they will now have the ability to earn more than $500,000.

The deal also includes a 50/50 revenue sharing model based on league revenue that goes into effect the following year. The deal will increase everyone’s salary including rookies meaning Ionescu could be one of it’s biggest beneficiaries as she grows into one of the WNBA’s biggest stars.

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