'It's about time': Sabrina Ionescu relishes growth of WNBA, offers advice to newest stars

LOS ANGELES — As if there needed to be any more evidence of how women’s sports continue to grow, it was a raucous crowd full of children and teenagers when Sabrina Ionescu stepped foot inside the Los Angeles Boys and Girls Club gym.

The gym was renovated in partnership with 2K Foundations, SLAM and her SI20 Foundation to bring an entirely new court, scoreboard, lighting and roof to the Boys and Girls Club. Ionescu was in attendance for the unveiling.

It was her appearance that set all of the youths into a frenzy. A pickup game was set to take place after Ionescu spoke to the crowd, but it was delayed after the players – mostly teenage boys – all huddled around the WNBA star in hopes of getting her autograph. Whenever she signed something, all the teens surrounding her screamed and cheered as they got a coveted signature.

Sabrina Ionescu meets with children at the unveiling of the refurbished basketball gym at the Los Angeles Boys and Girls Club.
Sabrina Ionescu meets with children at the unveiling of the refurbished basketball gym at the Los Angeles Boys and Girls Club.

Just another day in the life of a basketball megastar.

“It's always kind of a humbling experience,” Ionescu told USA TODAY Sports. “I was once that kid not too long ago, and now being able to understand what it means to build relationships and to just show up, and how important that is to just show a lot of these young boys and girls that we're all human, can put a smile on my face.”

Ionescu has had quite the early professional career as she enters her fifth season with the New York Liberty. She’s part of a stacked team that is expected to again challenge for a WNBA championship, competed in a 3-point contest against Stephen Curry at the 2024 NBA All-Star Weekend and released her first signature shoe that has become one of the most popular kicks in all of basketball. It’s hard to argue she hasn’t lived up to the hype she had out of Oregon.

In that time, Ionescu has gone from the next big thing in basketball to one of the biggest faces of the sport. The way she sees it, partnering to help with underserved communities is a way of helping the possible next face of basketball.

“(It’s) wanting to give back to the next generation of athletes that are going to end up breaking your records and being better than you are, and kind of welcoming them with open arms and showing them the way,” she said.

New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) reacts after the Stephen vs Sebrina three-point challenge during NBA All Star Saturday Night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) reacts after the Stephen vs Sebrina three-point challenge during NBA All Star Saturday Night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Welcoming the next generation of basketball players has certainly been a hot topic in women’s basketball, particularly as superstar Caitlin Clark, the the NCAA's all-time leading scorer, and a rookie class that has entered the mainstream begin thier pro careers.

Ionescu didn’t address Clark directly, but noted how eager she is to see how a “really good” 2024 rookie class does in the WNBA. She believes the rookies will take the massive fan bases they had in college and bring them to the WNBA, which will continue to push the league toward new heights.

“I'm excited to see how teams do and how attendance and viewership and records just continue to get broken for us,” Ionescu said.

Of course, it won’t be easy for all of the rookies to transition to the pro game. Ionescu personally knows how tough it is to go from a prized No. 1 pick to being in a league full of veterans who won’t just put her on a pedestal. She remembers what she had to adjust to when she joined the WNBA and said the biggest change was not having the same support system as a college player would get.

“When you get to the pro level, everyone's just kind of at a different stage in life,” Ionescu said. “There's veterans, there's rookies, and sometimes it's really hard to relate to being a pro for the first time. Just figuring out what it's like to be an adult and have to figure everything out on your own and not have that supportive university.”

The struggle of limited WNBA rosters

Ionescu has never had to worry about making a WNBA roster, but she knows she’s an exception.

For all the talk about this year’s draft class, not every one of them is guaranteed to make the roster due to the small size of the league; there are just 144 spots across 12 teams. Because of the limited opportunities, expansion has been a key topic of discussion, something WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the league is expecting to do in the coming years.

Ionescu agrees the WNBA needs to add more teams and needs to do it sooner rather than later. An expansion team in the San Francisco Bay area, owned by the NBA's Golden State Warriors, is set to begin play in 2025.

“144 isn't enough for the talent that we're having. Players are going to have to continue to get cut because there's just not enough roster spots,” she said.

Ionescu offered her thoughts on why it’s so tough to make a WNBA roster as an young pro, and she believes it has to do with the longevity of veterans. She added players are able to play much longer than before because there’s a stronger emphasis on taking care of the body.

“That in turn sometimes takes roster spots away from younger players who definitely deserve to play, but there's no room,” Ionescu said. “A lot of that is why players go overseas.”

That’s why the talk of expanding the league excites Ionescu. She wants to go up against more players and see the talent pool widen, and believes it would help grow the college and even high school games, too.

What to expect for 2024 WNBA season

The WNBA is set to experience a season like no other in 2024. Interest has skyrocketed, but it’s been a long time coming for a league that continues to get stronger.

“It's about time,” she said. “We haven't just come about in the last year. It's been so many individuals that have come before us that have laid down the foundation to allow us to use our platforms now.”

WNBA GAMES TO WATCH Clark vs. Taurasi, Finals rematch among 10 best for 2024

The league has already gotten a taste of the attention it can expect to get this season. The 2024 WNBA Draft shattered the league’s TV ratings record when 2.45 million viewers tuned in Monday night when Clark was taken with the No. 1 overall pick. The previous record was 600K viewers in 2004 when Diana Taurasi, the Phoenix Mercury veteran and the WNBA's all-time leading scorer, went first overall.

Whether someone is a longtime fan or watching the WNBA for the first time in 2024, Ionescu says people can expect “really good basketball,” and it’s “the best it's ever been in terms of talent and the way the game is executed and played.”

Because of the anticipation, players see where the game is headed and want to be part of it, according to Ionescu, which will lead to fans falling in love with certain players or teams.

All of these reasons are why Ionescu says “the time is now” to invest in women’s basketball and get on the hype train because it’s going to continue to ride. She notes it’s been a long time coming for the sport, which is now deservingly getting the spotlight.

“It's exciting to see where we're at now and how much room there is left to grow,” Ionescu said. “We haven't reached the top. We know that.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sabrina Ionescu relishes growth of WNBA, offers advice to 2024 rookies