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Sabrina Ionescu Has Somehow Gotten Even Better

Geno Auriemma knows a few things about elite guards. He’s seen enough of Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu to know that she qualifies.

The Connecticut women’s basketball coach helped steer Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and countless others through college and into the WNBA. So as Auriemma reckoned with one of Ionescu’s and the Ducks’ most impressive recent victories — a 74-56 win over the Huskies in Storrs — he had an explanation for what makes Ionescu the consensus choice for national player of the year, the assumed top overall pick in this spring’s WNBA Draft and a smart bet to lead her Oregon Ducks to a national title.

“She’s just smart,” Auriemma said. “She’s smart. She waits for you to make a mistake. A lot of guards, they go so fast that they don’t give you a chance to make a mistake. She goes at a pace where she waits and waits and waits, and when you screw up, she takes advantage of it.”

This is an essential component of Ionescu’s game — how she manages to play a position that typically rewards the quickest players on the court — and it explains how she has improved upon a junior season that already placed her atop the college basketball hierarchy.

Take a look at how she uses a screen here against Arizona State:

Lydia Giomi applies the screen, but Ionescu doesn’t take the first bit of open space. Instead a beat, another, and only once the center makes the decision to sag does Ionescu take that wide-open three and bury it.

Defensive players are forced to make that decision this season more often because of the single biggest leap in Ionescu’s game: her efficiency at the rim. Ionescu’s shooting percentage from beyond the arc has remained strong — 37.4 percent, after three seasons above 40 percent — but her efficiency from two has jumped from 44.8 percent last season to 59.1 percent this one.

To put that in perspective, she ranked 1,108th in Division I last year from two, per HerHoopStats. This year? She’s 90th, surrounded on the top-100 list by big post players who live in the lane.

So how does Ionescu explain that leap?

“Just taking the right shots, I think,” Ionescu said after the game against Connecticut. “Just definitely more confident and I’m finding my spots on the floor. I think for those last couple years, I was … still trying to figure out the pick and roll and figure out where I was getting shots, and now I know where I’m getting my shots. And so really just drilling those in and practicing them has helped me.”

She’s certainly figured out the pick and roll. Per Synergy, she averaged 0.912 points per possession on the play as ball handler in 2018-19, which was good for the 91st percentile, and 45.3 percent field-goal efficiency on those plays — strong numbers that would translate at the next level.

But look at her 2019-20 on the same play: 1.095 points per possession, good for second in the country among those with at least 100 such possessions. She’s shooting 59 percent from the field on those plays. It’s increased her overall production around the basket from 1.015 points per possession last year to 1.315 per possession this year.

Not that overcommitting to Ionescu helps opposing defenses, either. Her assist percentage — 38.5 percent last season, good for eighth in the country — is up to 43.1 percent this year, third in the nation. Oregon bigs Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally are hard enough to stop, let alone while they’re moving downhill and are getting the ball in the perfect spot to finish from Ionescu.

“She doesn’t do it with, like, tremendous foot speed,” Auriemma said of Ionescu. “She doesn’t run by you and she doesn’t jump over you. She does it more old-school basketball-wise. And those players are few and far between. She beats you with her head, her eyes.”

That’s certainly how Ionescu accounts for her leap forward, citing endless film study as a means to discovering where she should be on the court at all times.

It’s led to a jump in production on, of all things, the boards, where she’s increased her offensive rebounding rate from 5.5 to 7.3 percent and her defensive rebounding from 17.4 to 21.9 percent over last year. To put that in strategic terms, she ranks 159th nationally at ending possessions of opponents with a rebound, and the moment she does so, it gives the best team in the nation the ball on offense, with the best playmaker in the country running the show.

“I’ve watched a lot of film this year, considerably a lot more than I ever have in the past,” Ionescu said. “Watching film on other teams and their tendencies — where they’re missing, how they’re missing the ball, where they’re getting their shots off … that has helped me figure out where on the floor I need to be in order to get those rebounds.”

The same is true at the defensive end, where she’s boosted her steal percentage from 1.8 to 2.4 percent, even as she’s seen her foul rate decrease to 2.0 percent from 2.3 percent. So she isn’t reaching. She’s getting to spots first.

“Some players don’t like putting it on the ground as much and don’t make great decisions when they do put it on the ground,” Ionescu said. “And so [it’s] just figuring out how to make them play to their weakness and then being in the right spot in order to get that steal. And obviously our defensive intensity has improved this year as a team. And so I think that helps me just be able to get in passing lanes.”

She’s right about the overall impact for Oregon. The Ducks, remember, made the Final Four last year despite allowing 92.8 points per 100 possessions as a team, which ranked 191st in the country. This season, they’re giving up only 81.1 points per 100, good for 25th in the country.

“We figured out last year that defense is going to help us win big-time games,” Ionescu said. “It’s not just our offense. And I think for those three years before that, we just relied too much on our offense. And some nights you’re not going to shoot it well, some nights you are. And so I think we really locked down and are trying to play defense and are holding each other accountable and that’s helping us getting our offensive numbers up as well.”

It’s certainly worked for Ionescu. Auriemma praised her relentlessness and toughness, and he pointed out that her broad base of skills is largely unmatched anywhere in the country. Getting a little better in every area, added together, leads to dominance.

“She happens to have all those things,” Auriemma said. “And if you’ve got those things, and you’re living in a world where very few people that you’re playing against have even one of those things or two of those things, you’ve got a huge advantage every night you step on the floor, and that’s kind of where she is.”

Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.