Oregon Ducks

Sabrina Ionescu's WNBA journey will begin April 17 with virtual draft

Sabrina Ionescu's WNBA journey will begin April 17 with virtual draft

The coronavirus pandemic has halted the sports world.

Seasons have been paused or postponed. The NCAA canceled the men's and women's tournaments. The 2020 NFL Draft now will be conducted remotely. The NHL is postponing its draft, combine and awards show.

The WNBA will be following the NFL's model, by holding its 2020 draft without players, guests or media, the league announced Thursday. The virtual draft still will happen on April 17 and can be seen live on ESPN 2 starting at 8 p.m. ET.

The New York Liberty will on the clock when the draft begins, but it's well known that they plan to take Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu with the No. 1 pick.

The Walnut Creek native had a prolific college career. She became the first player in NCAA history to record 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists. The Ducks legend returned to Oregon for her senior season to bring a title back to Eugene after Oregon lost in the 2019 Final Four to Baylor, a game in which Ionescu was held scoreless in the fourth quarter.

The unfinished business tour was ended abruptly by the coronavirus pandemic. A few days after the Ducks beat Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game, the NCAA announced it was canceling the tournament for public-health reasons, ending Ionescu's season and collegiate career before she was able to paint what surely would have been her masterpiece

"The Triple Double Queen" put Oregon basketball on the map and became the face of college basketball this season. She was unanimously named the AP Women's Player of the Year, the first player to do so since UConn's Breanna Stewart.

Ionescu is a force on the basketball court. Vision, handles, shooting, leadership -- she's the whole package and is destined to be the face of the WNBA and a basketball icon.

The 2020 WNBA Draft will be special for Ionescu for other reasons than her draft slot. The WNBA will honor Kobe Bryant's daughter Gianna, as well as Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester, all three of whom were killed along with Bryant and five others in a tragic helicopter crash on Jan. 26.

Ionescu and Bryant were close. She spoke at his public memorial and then flew back to the Bay and created the 2K-1K-1K club while leading the Ducks to a win over No. 7 Stanford.

Her play has drawn praise not only from Bryant, but also from Steph Curry -- who she texts for advice -- and LeBron James, who shouted out Ionescu after she became the NCAA's all-time triple-double leader.

She put Oregon women's hoops on the map and became one of the faces of basketball along the way. Ionescu knows how important she is to growing the women's game and to continuing Kobe and Gianna's legacy.

[RELATED: Curry-Ionescu relationship one that's great for basketball]

That journey continues April 17 when she'll hear her name called as the newest face of the Liberty and the WNBA.

Marcus Mariota knows Raiders are Derek Carr's team, ready to compete

Marcus Mariota knows Raiders are Derek Carr's team, ready to compete

Marcus Mariota has been a starting quarterback most of his NFL career. He assumed the responsibility his rookie year and relinquished it only for injury before Week 6 of last year.

The No. 2 overall pick of the 2015 draft, which Tennessee gave up significant assets to get, was benched for Ryan Tannehill. Mariota watched from the sideline as Tannehill led the Titans to an AFC Championship Game and then got rewarded with a big, fat contract.

Mariota ended up on the open market, agreeing to a pact with the Raiders on March 16 as a presumed backup. A two-year, $17.6 million contract so incentive laden that Mariota could earned roughly $20 million more if he assumes the starting gig through most of 2020 and has serious success in 2021.

Mariota is betting on himself, armed with belief that he can win a starting job and be rewarded in kind. He’s not walking into the situation with a hard edge. Not his style.

He fully understands that Derek Carr is the Raiders starting quarterback heading into next season and wants to do whatever possible to foster a positive work environment as the second option. Mariota and Carr are friendly, with similar personalities, and are expected to work together well.

“First and foremost, this is Derek’s team. I understand that going in,” Mariota told Rob DeMello of KHON2, a television station in his native Hawai’i. “I think my priority was to be part of a team that would bring out the best in me. Whatever happens, whatever comes of that, I’m ready for.

“I do know that, to play starting quarterback in the NFL, to be at that spot, is not an easy job to do. I think, when it comes down to it, a strong, stable, supportive quarterback room makes that job a whole lot easier. That’s what we have to do. I’m going to do my best to support Derek in every possible way that I can. Along with that, I’m going to try to become the best player I can be and see where that takes me.”

Mariota’s a competitor and, deep down, must want another shot at a starting NFL gig. The Raiders promised to pay him appropriately should he earn that role and perform well in in. Mariota has the athleticism and skill set head coach/offensive play caller Jon Gruden prefers, though he has had ups and downs as a professional after dominating college football at Oregon.

Raiders coaches must coax better from Mariota for him to compete with Carr. The Fresno State alum is the firm No. 1 signal caller entering his third season in Gruden's system, but Mariota’s a viable second option with 61 starts and two more in the playoffs to his credit.

[RELATED: Ranking Raiders' top remaining needs]

Mariota’s progress has been hindered by a near-constant coaching change in Tennessee. He played for three head coaches and five offensive coordinators during his time in Nashville. Mariota was looking for consistency at the top and found that in Gruden, who signed a 10-year deal in Jan. 2018 and is going nowhere. 

“I had two priorities going into this free agency process and No. 1 was to be able to find stability,” Mariota said. “I wanted an organization that had a stable head coach and stability in the front office. Secondly, I wanted a coaching staff that could bring out the best in me, use my talents and put my best foot forward. The cherry on top of it was being closer to home and being in Las Vegas. I really can’t stress it enough. We’re so excited.”

Sabrina Ionescu loves having relationship with Warriors' Steph Curry

Sabrina Ionescu loves having relationship with Warriors' Steph Curry

Sabrina Ionescu, the "Triple Double Queen," put Oregon Ducks women's basketball on the map, and made some famous friends/mentors along the way. 

During Ionescu's rise at Oregon, she caught the attention of Warriors star Steph Curry and late Los Angeles Lakers icon Kobe Bryant. 

"She's an unbelievable talent on that team," Curry said of Ionescu at a press conference last year. "She's a legend in her own right, that's for sure." 

Ionescu grew up in Walnut Creek, watching Curry take the Warriors from NBA laughing stock to Goliath with his silky shooting stroke and unmatched swagger. 

The two legends have become close over the past year, and Ionescu knows she can reach out to the Warriors star anytime she needs something. 

"I love having a relationship with [Curry], just being able to remember when I was little, watching him and kind of emulating my game after him, to now being able to call him or text him any time that I need help with something," Ionescu told ESPN's Maria Taylor. 

The past few months have been hard on Ionescu. She lost her mentor and friend when Bryant, along with his daughter Gianna and seven others were tragically killed in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26. 

Ionescu gave an emotional speech at their memorial at Staples Center, eulogizing an NBA legend gone too soon and his daughter who was destined to be the next great thing in women's basketball.

“ 'You have too much to give to stay silent.’ That’s what he said," Ionescu said at the memorial. "That’s what he believed. That’s what he lived. Through Gigi, through me, through his investment in women’s basketball. That was his next great act, a girl dad.

“Basketball in many ways was just a metaphor. I still text him even though he’s not here. ‘Thank you for everything. The rest is for you. Rest easy my guy.’ The last one I sent him said, ‘I miss you, may you rest in peace, my dear friend.’ "

That night, Ionescu flew back to the Bay Area where the Ducks were slated to play No. 7 ranked Stanford. With Curry in attendance, Ionescu made history, becoming the first Division I player to record 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds. 

"It's pretty amazing to see her set new levels of expectation for what greatness is, not just for women's basketball but for basketball in general," Curry told ESPN while watching Ionescu make history. 

"She's blazing a trail nobody has set foot on." 

That trail was supposed to end with the Ducks cutting down the nets as national champions. Oregon rolled Stanford in the Pac-12 title game and looked poised to run through the NCAA Tournament to check off the final and most important box on their Unfinished Business tour. 

But Ionescu and the Ducks never got that chance. 

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the NCAA made the prudent decision to cancel both the men's and women's basketball tournament, ending Ionescu's collegiate career without her getting the proper sendoff. 

[RELATED: Iguodala shares funny story from Steph's 13 treys]

Ionescu and the Ducks didn't get their storybook ending, and now the superstar point guard is set to take her talents to the next level -- she's expected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft by the New York Liberty -- knowing she left the Ducks and the women's college game in a better place. 

She'll still be pinging questions off Curry -- whether it's about her game, promoting women's basketball or something else -- whenever the need arises.

Curry, who took his two daughters to watch Ionescu thrash Cal, knows the importance of his support of the women's game. Ionescu plans to carry Kobe's torch on the floor, and Curry can do the same as an advocate for women's basketball. 

Together their growing relationship can do powerful things. 

And the game of basketball will be better off for it.