WNBA Draft 2020: A look at how Sabrina Ionescu’s passing skills will fare at the next level


There are only a few days until the 2020 WNBA Draft, which, despite the coronavirus pandemic, will go on — albeit virtually. No players or family members will be in attendance when commissioner Cathy Engelbert reads out the picks, and that includes Sabrina Ionescu, who is widely expected to go No. 1 overall to the New York Liberty. 

A 5-foot-11 guard out of Oregon, Ionescu likely would have been the top pick last year, but decided to return to school in the hopes of capturing a national championship. That obviously didn’t happen, as the NCAA tournament was cancelled, but Ionescu put together yet another tremendous season. 

Averaging 17.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 9.1 assists and 1.4 steals, while shooting 51.8 percent from the field and 39.2 percent from 3-point land, Ionescu led the Ducks to a 31-2 record, and a Pac-12 Tournament championship.

She was named the Most Outstanding Player for that event, and over the course of the season became the first player in NCAA history — man or woman — to record 2,000 career points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists. 

Those are the broad strokes, and at this point are pretty well known by college basketball and WNBA fans. But what about the details? What allowed Ionescu to put up those kinds of numbers and establish herself as the expected No. 1 pick? 

Over the course of the week, we’ll take a closer look at different aspects of Ionescu’s game, diving into the film and breaking down her ability on both sides of the ball. On Tuesday, we broke down her scoring. Now, we’ll move on to another skill that makes her so special: her incredible passing. 

While she’s more than capable of scoring, Ionescu has always seen herself as a pass-first point guard. 

“I watch a lot of film, so usually I try to see how they’re playing defense and reacting, really studying the personnel and knowing the right reads,” Ionescu told ESPN earlier this year. “I feel like the game usually slows down enough for me to read and react quickly.”

That work and her instinctual knowledge of the game is evident when you study the tape. Even if you were unfamiliar with the game of basketball, you could watch Ionescu play, and pretty quickly realize, “OK, she knows what’s going on.”

Just watch how she manipulates the defense here on the pick-and-roll, darting out to create space after the big shows, faking the pass to the roller to get the weak side defender to bite, then firing a pass to the wing for an easy 3-pointer.

Or here, where she comes off the screen and gets met by both defenders. She again creates space, gets her head up to see the weak side defender has crashed down on the roller and fires a skip pass to the opposite corner for an open 3. 

There were even times where she turned the ball over because she made passes to where she knew her teammates were supposed to be. 

As for her actual passing skills, they’re unbelievable. Pocket passes, drop downs to the roller, post feeds, skip passes, bounce passes, hit aheads in transition, whatever you can think of, Ionescu can do it. She has next level vision and ability. Just check out some of these feeds. 

Her ability to make key plays with her off hand is another thing that stands out about her game. We know she’s adept at finishing around the basket with her left, and she can throw pinpoint passes with it as well. That flexibility makes her so much more dangerous, because the defense can’t cheat or try to force her one way. Well, they can, but it won’t work. 

Pick-and-roll passing:

While we’ve already seen some of her work, it’s probably best to get a little more in-depth in certain areas. In particular, the pick-and-roll is crucial to Ionescu’s game. Earlier this week we showed how she scores out of these situations, now let’s look at how she creates for her teammates. 

Ionescu is an elite shooter, a brilliant passer and an expert at reading the game, which makes her a menace in the pick-and-roll. Her variety of skills puts pressure on the defense to make a decision, and from there she’s in control. No matter what option you choose, she’s going to have a counter. 

If the defense commits, she’s able to read it and zip a pass down to the roller over the top.

And if the big sits back, she has great timing and touch to drop off a little pocket pass. One little trick Ionescu has in the pick-and-roll is as she comes off the screen she sort of raises up on her toes and hesitates for a second, which freezes the defense. You can see it pretty clearly on these pocket passes. 

Another high-level skill Ionescu has in the pick-and-roll is reading when the weak side defender crashes down to take care of the roller. That leaves a shooter open on the opposite side, and Ionescu has the vision and strength to whip passes across the court for open 3s. 

Transition:

It doesn’t get talked about as much as her passing or scoring but Ionescu is a tremendous rebounder for a guard, which is why she set the NCAA all-time record for triple-doubles. In terms of actual impact on the game, her ability to rebound allows her to grab and go, starting fastbreaks all by herself and creating easy buckets for her teammates. 

Turnovers:

Ionescu averaged just under three turnovers per game, which is a remarkable feat considering she played nearly 34 minutes a night, and had the ball in her hands almost every possession. With an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.05, taking care of the ball isn’t an issue for Ionescu. 

But if there was anything to nitpick, it’s that at times she would trust her own ability a little too much and try to force passes that just weren’t there. She’s going to have to be especially conscious of that in the WNBA when the windows are smaller and close even faster.

Ionescu’s passing and ability to read the game is on a different level from most players in this class. She understands what’s going on at all times, and makes life easier for everyone she plays with. 





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