Ionescu picked first in WNBA ‘virtual draft’ under quarantine


(Reuters) – Sabrina Ionescu was selected first overall in the WNBA’s draft on Friday, as quarantined coaches and players pivoted to an online format amid life in the era of the new coronavirus.

The University of Oregon guard, the first NCAA player to score 2,000 career points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists, was selected by the New York Liberty, as the franchise looks to rebuild after back-to-back seasons of lackluster performance.

“I’m looking to do everything that I possibly can to get better in every aspect, whether that’s scoring, defending, rebounding, passing,” Ionescu told reporters.

“I’m really just excited to be playing against professionals and learning from them and just seeing where that takes me.”

The 22-year-old pressed her hands to her face and smiled when her name was called before embracing family members at a house in California, as players across the country waited their turn with remote cameras set up, away from the typical glamour of draft night.

The evening went off without any significant technology malfunctions, as the world of professional sports adjusts to social distancing and the NFL readies for its own virtual draft next week.

“Of course, it was different than what I had expected,” Ionescu said, reflecting on the virtual draft experience. “Just excited to be able to be here with my family and the people closest to me.

“Really making the most out of what’s going on in today’s society.”

Forward Satou Sabally, also out of the University of Oregon, was the second player selected, going to the Dallas Wings, and Baylor forward Lauren Cox was taken third by the Indiana Fever.

The affair attracted cheers on social media, with the #WNBADraft hashtag reaching the top spot in Twitter’s trending topics in the United States, as basketball’s biggest stars and sports fans alike eagerly watched events unfold.

“Congratulations to the draftees. Thank you for letting us share this special night with you,” tweeted basketball hall of famer Rebecca Lobo, who served on the broadcast team.

“Watching @WNBA draft! Lot of women dreams coming true. Salute and congrats to you all!” tweeted three-time NBA champion LeBron James.

Eighteen-time NBA All-Star Kobe Bryant, a fierce advocate for the league who died alongside his daughter, Gigi, in a January helicopter crash, loomed over the evening.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced the new Kobe & Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award during the broadcast and posthumously drafted Gigi and her teammates Payton Chester and Alyssa Altobelli, who also perished in the crash.

The former NBA Commissioner and WNBA founder David Stern, who died in January, was honored as well.

Broadcasting from her house, Engelbert’s first draft since assuming the commissioner role nine months ago was unlike any before, with the coronavirus having put on hold the WNBA season, which had been slated to kick off on May 15.

“We’re not going to do anything until it’s medically feasible and advisable to do so,” Engelbert said on the ESPN broadcast. “The sports leagues all need to band together to think about how we can get live sports back.”

Reporting by Amy Tennery and Rory Carroll; Editing by Sandra Maler, Robert Birsel