By Zac Cornell
Sabrina Ionescu, the history-making top point guard for the Oregon Ducks was unsurprisingly the first pick in this year’s WNBA draft and will be joining the New York Liberty. The superstar basketball player is a new marquee name for the WNBA and is expected to help raise the profile of the New York Liberty and women’s basketball within the world of sports. The WNBA recently signed a new collective bargaining agreement which promises much higher salaries for female basketball players and increased investment in marketing for the league. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has stated, “A big priority of mine is to focus on marketing the league and our players. Driving household names and engaging them with fans in a different way is a thing we’re continuing to work on.”
The virtual draft was held via video conference, consistent with all sports drafts this spring due to the coronavirus. Training camp and the start of the season have been put on indefinite hold due to the pandemic as well.
Another exception for this year’s draft were three honorary draft picks: Gianna Bryant, Alyssa Altobelli, and Payton Chester who were all rising stars in women’s basketball and members of the Mamba Sports Academy who died in a helicopter crash in January alongside their coach Kobe Bryant and five others.
Gianna Bryant’s mom (and Kobe’s wife) Vanessa Bryant said, “It would have been a dream come true for her,” about being drafted to the WNBA. “Kobe and Gigi loved the WNBA. Thank you. I want to congratulate all of this year’s draft picks. Congratulations. Work hard. Never settle. Use that Mamba Mentality.”
In another honor to the late Kobe Bryant, who was an important champion for women athletes, Engelbert announced the new “Kobe & Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award”, which will be awarded annually to “an individual or group who has made significant contributions to the visibility, perception and advancement of women’s and girls’ basketball at all levels.”
“Kobe was an incredible champion of women’s basketball and Gianna shared his passion and dedication to our game,” Engelbert said. “The Kobe & Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award will honor their legacy and reflect Kobe’s commitment to mentoring the next generation of players, promoting the game and giving back to the community.”
The first award will be presented at the 2021 NBA All-Star Game in Indianapolis by the WNBA and the Bryant family. Vanessa Bryant will help select the first recipient and will continue to present it to honorees at every future All-Star Weekend.