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Michelle Smith | | February 3, 2020

5 things that make Sabrina Ionescu a singular talent

Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu reflects on her upbringing, her family and her identity outside of basketball

Sabrina Ionescu is making a case for being one of the best college basketball players in NCAA history. Ever. Men or women. No qualification.

The Oregon senior guard is in rarefied air. She holds records that may go untouched. She sets standards that may be impossible to meet. And if she finishes her career in New Orleans with a championship the individual accolades that have become so commonplace can get pushed to the back of the shelf for the one accolade that really matters to her, a national championship trophy.

She is the overwhelming favorite to be the national player of the year after winning the Wade Trophy a year ago. She is the most recognizable name in the women’s game at this moment.

TRACKING SABRINA: Keep up with every big moment here

She is a one-name point of reference for greatness.

What makes Ionescu a talent unlike any we have ever seen in college hoops?

There are many, many things. Let’s look at five of them:

1. She had more triple-doubles than any freshman, ever  — Ionescu has been a star since the moment she arrived on the Oregon campus, showing up one day in June and walking into the gym to let head coach Kelly Graves know that she was signing with his program. She notched her first triple-double three weeks into her first season. By the end of her debut season, she had four, more than any freshman in NCAA history. On Jan. 8, in her homecoming game at Cal, the Bay Area native hit a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer. She hit game-winning free throws to knock out a Kelsey Plum-led Washington team in the second round of the Pac-12 Tournament. The Ducks, meanwhile, immediately became a national factor. The Ducks earned their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005 in 2017 and Ionescu propelled wins over second-seeded Duke and third-seeded Maryland and into the Elite Eight, where Oregon fell hard to UConn. Ionescu was named the national freshman of the year, the Pac-12 freshman of the year. The die was cast.

2. 'Sabrina' is now one of those names that doesn't need a last name  — The Sabrina effect is powerful. When Steph Curry is tweeting at you and you are just a sophomore, you are growing the game. When Kobe Bryant becomes your mentor and comes to watch you play, you are growing the game. When your program is ranked No. 1 for the first time in school history, wins back-to-back conference titles program for the first time in school history, sets attendance records, watches its ticket prices soar on the secondary market…you are growing the game. Her decision to return to Oregon after the Ducks’ Final Four loss was national news. It’s no coincidence that Portland chose to be an NCAA regional host site for the past two years, or that the city has put in for a bid to bring the Final Four back to the West Coast for the first time since 1999. Sabrina — and in fairness, the simultaneous ascent of the Oregon State women’s program — have changed the geographic power center of women’s basketball.

3.  She has more triple-doubles than any NCAA basketball player, ever — Well, of course there are the triple-doubles. Twenty-three of them. More than any male or female athlete ever to play NCAA basketball. She notched her 23rd triple-double just this past weekend against Colorado with 24 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds on a time when she is still mourning the loss of Bryant, with whom she had established a close friendship. And she did it in just 27 minutes on the floor. Sabrina’s offensive game is as well-rounded as it has ever been, even as she says she considers herself a “pass-first point guard.” She is shooting a career-best 50.7 percent from the floor and 94.6 percent from the free-throw line. Her 3-point shooting is down from previous seasons, but she is dishing more, averaging a career-best 8.6 assists per game. She ranks second in the Pac-12 in rebounding at 8.7 per game, also a career-high. And she has improved as a defender. She is as complete a player as there is in the game, impacting her team’s success in virtually every way.

4. She's close to a career points, assists and rebounds mark that no one has ever reached —  In addition to the triple-double record — a record she owns by a margin of 11 — she is the Pac-12’s all-time assists leader (men or women), her school’s all-time leading scorer. She is the only player in NCAA women’s basketball history with 2,000 points, 900 assists and 900 rebounds. She owns career totals of 2,331 points, 960 assists and 929 rebounds as of Jan. 30, giving her the opportunity to become the first player in NCAA men's or women's basketball history to reach 2,000+ career points, 1,000+ career assists and 1,000+ career rebounds.

STARTING FIVE: Ionescu cracks list after another record-setting week

5. She has that special something every great has — And then there is the part of Ionescu’s game that can’t be quantified. Ionescu has the poise of a Sue Bird, the passion of a Diana Taurasi, the guttiness of a Lindsay Whalen. Case in point, she put up 30 points against the U.S. National team in an exhibition game in November, handing the U.S. team their first loss to a college team since 1999 and she looked like the best player on the floor in a game against the best players in the world. She leads by example — first player in, last player out. She is relentless on the floor. She plays with a chip-on-the-shoulder mindset when she really has no good reason to have one. She adapts to what her team needs, gaining 15 pounds this past summer to make herself stronger and more physically imposing. And she demands accountability and greatness from those who play with her. Graves has always said that Sabrina is not the fastest player on the floor, she’s not the strongest, but no one wants to win more. And with a couple of months left in what is now a legendary college career, in many ways, no one has accomplished more as an individual talent. All that’s left is a title.

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