In early conversations surrounding the 2020 WNBA Rookie of the Year race, two names have come up more than any other: those of Sabrina Ionsecu, of the New York Liberty, and Satou Sabally, of the Dallas Wings.
Sabrina and Satou, the first and second pick of the 2020 draft respectively, spent the last three years as teammates playing for the Oregon Ducks. They know each other very well, both as players and as people. Both Sabally and Ionescu are called now to lead the two youngest teams in the WNBA, after having worked together, and sometimes clashed, in leading their college teammates. The two former Ducks have all the makings of a rivalry that could define the Rookie of the Year race, and transcend it, deep, deep, into their careers. Except for one thing: Neither of them could care less about any of it.
“I know a lot of people are gonna want to make a rivalry out of this,” Satou Sabally said after Dallas practiced on Monday, “But that’s not the case.”
Satou Sabally and Sabrina Ionescu have known each other since 2017, when Sabally joined the Oregon Ducks as a freshman during Ionescu’s sophomore year. Together, they lead their teammates to Oregon’s first ever #1 seed in the Pac-12 tournament, and an Elite Eight run in the NCAA tournament. “[Satou] kind of stepped into a position where we started to get established,” Ionescu recalled last week, “She was kind of able to find her voice a bit quicker and we ended up relying on her a lot during that season because of how talented she is on the court. And so, I think she was able to just bring players along with her through her work ethic.” The duo continued their success leading the team together throughout their three years together, securing a Final Four run in 2019 and a dominant 2020 campaign that unfortunately was cut short by the coronavirus. “I think we were able to come together and lead in different ways that ultimately helped us achieve the goals that we had for our team,” Ionescu explained.
Satou Sabally recalled the time the two spent together, having long conversations over meals in the dining halls at Oregon: “We were probably always eating together for a very long time, cause we were the ones who always took the longest eating for some reason. We would always be the last players at the table just eating slowly and enjoying our meals.”
What strikes me most about both Sabrina Ionescu and Satou Sabally is the immense respect for themselves, each other, and the craft of basketball they demonstrate every time they are asked about each other; and they’ve been asked about each other plenty leading up to their first match-up as WNBA players this Wednesday night. The former teammates are above defining their rookie seasons by the pageantry of competing with each other for the Rookie of the Year award.
“I don’t care about that award,” Satou Sabally said when I spoke to her about competing with Sabrina for the Rookie of the Year ahead of their game. “I don’t care. If I get it, I get it. But I’m not gonna make a big deal out of it just because it’s her,” Satou laughs, “And I don’t care who I play against. That shouldn’t be on my mind.”
“It doesn’t matter to me who wins that, honestly. ” Sabrina Ionescu said when I asked her the same. “As long as I have a healthy season here, as long as we do well, and as long as, you know, I perform to the best of my ability, I don’t really care who wins that. She can have it, anyone can have it, honestly, so uh. That’s really the last thing I’m worried about, focused on. But no, it doesn’t really matter if it’s against her or against anyone else, I have the same mindset on that.” It’s remarkable how similar these answers are, down to the minutia. Satou says “I don’t care about that award,” and Sabrina says “I don’t really care who wins that.” Sabrina says, “She can have it, anyone can have it,” and Satou says, “If I get it, I get it.” Satou says, “I’m not gonna make a big deal out of it just because it’s her,” and Sabrina says, “It doesn’t really matter if it’s against her or against anyone else.”
Point for point, these two rookies are on the same page: There are better things to worry about. Both Satou Sabally and Sabrina Ionescu would rather focus on winning games, improving their abilities, and staying healthy than on proving their superiority over the other. These are two great basketball players not motivated by being better than one another, but instead, by being the best they can be as individuals. That is how they understand themselves, and that is how we should understand them: As individuals whose narratives have intersected, but whose stories aren’t tethered together. Sabrina Ionescu and Satou Sabally aren’t rivals, they’re friends who both happen to be incredibly good at the same thing.
Smiling, Satou Sabally summarized it well: “I’m gonna play for Dallas and she’s gonna play for New York, but we’re gonna play just as we’re playing otherwise: Hard, aggressive, and we’re gonna do our best.”
Sabally paused, and added: “I am excited though, don’t get me wrong.”
Image Source: AP Images