"It's only right, they deserve it more than anyone," Sabrina Ionescu tells PEOPLE of Gianna and Kobe Bryant being honored during the draft

By Karen Mizoguchi and Karen Mizoguchi
April 21, 2020 11:15 AM
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Sabrina Ionescu has already become a household name in the basketball world.

Within an hour of being drafted to the New York Liberty as the No. 1 pick on April 17, Ionescu's WNBA jersey sold out online (only a few select sizes remain).

"Obviously that's really cool and exciting to see that not only the fans in New York but the fans I've gotten through college are supporting me at the next level," Ionescu tells PEOPLE. "Excited for them to be getting my jersey and hopefully more and more will come out. I know a lot of my friends haven't gotten any yet."

After hearing her name virtually called by commissioner Cathy Engelbert, the 22-year-old point guard celebrated with her family in Walnut Creek, California. "I'm hoping that probably when all this stuff settles down, I'll be able to get with more of my family and friends and celebrate properly," Ionescu says.

"They're just so proud and so happy for me. They know how much work I've put in and how this has been my goal since I was young. I think that coming to fruition and just being able to see all that hard work pay off has been a really special moment for them," she says of her family's pride.

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Ionescu joined the exclusive No. 1 draft pick club, a surreal achievement for her especially after weeks of hearing that she was the expected first choice.

"There's so much speculation before and people think where you'll end up and want to talk about it, but it's completely different to finally hear your name called and have that solidified in your head," she says. "It was an honor to able to hear that and be a part of the ceremony. I'm happy to be able to say I'm a professional now."

Among the many to congratulate Ionescu on social media were LeBron James, Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart, as well as fellow Brooklyn ballers Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

"Spike Lee reached out to me which was really cool," she says. "There were a few people I was able to hear from and see they were paying attention."

Leading up to her big day, Ionescu was prepping her professional career and her next steps. "[I was] getting a lot of things figured out whether it's signing with my agency and Nike to getting drafted," she says, adding that she was excited "to see things fall in place and take a little bit of stress off."

But for Ionescu, 2020 has been a bittersweet year thus far: From the postponement of her WNBA debut (training camp was expected on April 26 and the regular season was originally scheduled for May 15) to the deaths of her beloved mentor Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna.

Sabrina Ionescu/ INSTAGRAM

Furthermore, Ionescu made the decision to return to college basketball for her final season at Oregon to handle some "unfinished business" after her Ducks lost the 2019 NCAA national semifinals to Baylor. But unfortunately, Ionescu was never given a chance of title contention due to the cancellation of this year's NCAA Tournament amid the global health crisis.

"It's for sure been bittersweet but I'm just excited to be given the opportunity to play after college because the season was cut short," she says. "It's a completely different chapter and I'm excited for the ups and downs that has to offer."

Since the NCAA Tournament was called off, Ionescu has been putting in hours to improve her already impressive gameplay. "I took a little bit of time off after the season and now I'm starting to do workouts again. I think it'll be easier when we do have a target date and know when we have to be ready but I've definitely stayed mentally and physically in shape just because that's what I do regardless," she shares.

During the virtual draft, Gianna and her Mamba Academy teammates Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester, who also died in the Jan. 26 helicopter crash, were named honorary draftees. Commissioner Engelbert also announced a new award in honor of the star Los Angeles Lakers player and his daughter, titled the Kobe and Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award, "which will recognize an individual or group who has made significant contributions to the visibility, perception and advancement of women's and girls' basketball at all levels." (The first recipient is expected to be announced during NBA All-Star Weekend in 2021.)

"It's only right, they deserve it more than anyone," Ionescu says of Gianna's honor. "That was her goal, she wanted to play professional and go to college and play. She had that work ethic and that drive that would've gotten her there. I thought it was great for the league to do that for not only her but her family and her teammates and friends. It was an honor to be up there with her during that time of celebration."

And for her WNBA debut, Ionescu is ready to implement what she learned from her mentor Kobe, especially "how he took on the game and the approach that he had ever since he entered the league."

The star adds, "Obviously, there's gonna be a lot of ups and downs being a professional and leaving college. You're relying on the fact that what got you there has been enough. And now you have to do even more and continue to get better."

When federal guidelines are lifted and sports are able to resume, Ionescu will be playing against her former Oregon teammates, forward Satou Sabally, who was drafted to the Dallas Wings, and post Ruthy Hebard who was selected to the Chicago Sky.

"Super excited to see them get drafted. It's been a dream of ours going through these years with them, that was our goal. We pushed each other for that, I'm so excited to be able to see all of our names get called. I'm excited to see each other and hopefully celebrate soon," Ionescu says.

As for what the California native is looking forward to in the Big Apple, Ionescu says she's "excited to get to a new city and a new culture, to take all that in."

But for the time being, she just can't wait to be a competitor on the court again. "I just hope I play and do well, and our team wins. I'm just excited for that. I'm excited to go out there and start competing against other players. Start to get back to the normal sport culture," Ionescu says.

"People can't get into gyms now and people can't really do what they're used to doing, so I do think there will be a different fire and energy around the fact we can start playing sports again," she predicts.