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Sabrina Ionescu is staying at Oregon for her final season and already she’s leading another conversation on the realities of women’s basketball.
Ionescu, college basketball’s career leader in triple-doubles, had 24 hours to make her decision and the time frame didn’t sit well.
The reality of the WNBA draft
The WNBA regular season runs from May through September, purposely situated to not compete with the NBA season. Training camp begins in late April and the 2019 season tips off May 24.
That doesn’t leave much wiggle room for the WNBA to hold a draft given there’s about three weeks between the Final Four weekend and training camps. That said, it could be better.
The WNBA collective bargaining agreement requires players to be at least 22 years old to enter the draft, or if younger have a four-year degree or are four years removed from high school.
Student-athletes must declare at least 10 days before the draft, though an exception is made for those still competing in that time frame. Per the CBA, student-athletes have 24 hours from the conclusion of their final game to make the decision.
This year’s draft is Wednesday, three days after Baylor won the national title and five after the Final Four games.
That’s what caught up Ionescu, who already spoke out about media representation during the tournament.
Ionescu speaks out about WNBA draft deadline
Ionescu spoke to reporters in Eugene, Oregon, on Tuesday after announcing her decision to stay in a piece for The Player’s Tribune. The three-time All-American and two-time Nancy Lieberman award winner said she thought she had until 12 a.m. ET Sunday, according to a video of the press conference by 24/7 Sports. But a text alerted her that her decision was due at 9 p.m. ET, 24 hours after the Ducks lost to eventual national champion Baylor in the Final Four.
Ionescu quickly conferred with family and decided it “just didn’t feel right” thinking about telling teammates and coaches she was leaving. The face of women’s college basketball did not declare for the draft and called it the “most stressed” she’s been.
“I think it’s horrible that a student-athlete only gets 24 hours to make one of the biggest decisions of their lives,” Ionescu said. “You really don’t have enough time to process what you want to do until after your season’s over. And 24 hours is not enough. So (it’s) probably the most stressed out I’ve been in a very, very long time with that decision.”
She added, per Duck Territory at 24/7 Sports:
“Obviously you can’t think about it while you’re playing, but you’re really not focused on it while trying to play for a national championship. I only had a few hours to really think about what I was going to do."
The Ducks reached their first Final Four and had a shot at the title, requiring Ionescu’s full attention. She averaged 19.9 points, 8.2 assists and 7.4 rebounds this season.
Vocal face of women’s basketball
As her head coach Kelly Graves told reporters Tuesday, Ionescu is arguably the face of women’s college basketball right now.
“She’s going to have a bigger platform, I think, as a college senior than she would be as a WNBA rookie,” he told The Oregonian.
Every year in March and April the disparities between men’s and women’s college basketball and how each are treated are stark. Many in the game don’t talk about it and arguably aren’t in a privileged position to speak out.
Others make clear it’s time for change, such as former four-time national champ Breanna Stewart calling out the NCAA and Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw delivering an eloquent, mic-drop worthy response to a question about women’s voices and leadership in sports.
Ionescu did speak out, taking a shot at ESPN for its lack of coverage of women’s sports, presumably on its highlights and talk shows. As a player in a safe position to do so, she’s vocalizing how unfair the game and media can be to women. And in doing so, the media is covering it and spreading the word.
As for the draft, it will take more than her voice alone and even then logistics make it difficult. The WNBA draft is perfectly positioned to carry over the excitement from the college finals to the professional ranks. One option is to drop the 24-hour stipulation in the CBA as there are only a handful of players in any Final Four making the stay-or-go choice. Student-athletes could declare 24 hours before and it would still be a huge carryover from one to the other — possibly a larger impact than players declaring three days beforehand.
Oregon will be a favorite to win the title in 2020 and Ionescu will be must-watch TV. The Ducks increased attendance during her time and viewership for the women’s tournament continues to grow.
Her brand and following will only grow, and when she enters the WNBA those fans will follow. She’s already made note of the pay disparity between the WNBA and NBA and to stay at Oregon, per Erik Skopil of 24/7 Sports, she’s enrolling in a Masters program for marketing, advertising and brand management.
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