By Nick Daschel • The Oregonian

SAN FRANCISCO — This is how you arrive at levels few in basketball reach.

Colorado coach J.R. Payne was asked about Oregon senior Sabrina Ionescu during Monday’s Pac-12 women’s basketball media day and the reigning Wooden Award winner’s impact on the upcoming season.

“Any time you can name an athlete and everybody knows who you’re talking about just with their first name, it’s a pretty big deal,” Payne said.

For purposes of this story, we will refer to her as Ionescu, even if the basketball world knows her as Sabrina. And no, “world” is not a stretch.

Oregon coach Kelly Graves relayed a story from the awards circuit earlier this year, when he was rubbing elbows with basketball greats such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Jerry West and others.

“I would go up and introduce myself and they’d say, ‘Oh, oh,’ and I then I’d say, I’m Sabrina’s coach. It’s suddenly, ‘Oh, coach, nice to meet you,’” Graves said. “She runs in circles that I can only dream of. She’s at an entirely different level.”

No would argue against ­Ionescu as the face of women’s college basketball in 2019-20. Graves takes it a step further, saying “I’d argue she’s the face of all of college basketball.”

For that reason, Ionescu faces challenges of those known on first-name basis: the off-court demands. Many want a piece of Ionescu; an interview here, an autograph there, myriad public speaking appearances.

Just imagine if this were five or 10 years from now, when college players might be compensated for their name, image and likeness. Demands for Sabrina, er, Ionescu might be crazy.

Ionescu says she has not given much thought to last week’s signing of a California bill that will allow college athletes to commercially profit from their name, image and likeness.

“I hope whatever they decide to do, I hope everything is in the best interest of the student-athletes,” Ionescu said.

Even without commercial opportunities, Ionescu has plenty on her plate. Graves says he wants to promote his players as much as possible because there is a “small window to make themselves as marketable as possible as a player.” But in Ionescu’s case, Graves says he has become good at saying no.

“She gets pulled and pushed in so many directions,” Graves said.

Ionescu says her approach to off-court demands are prioritizing what is important to her and the team. She admits having less down time these days but does not see it as a burden. Even though she is into her fourth year in a prominent college role, Ionescu says she is “always nervous” when it comes to public speaking or even casually talking to a cluster of star-struck grade school kids.

“It’s been super fun, and something I’ve got used to,” ­Ionescu said.

Graves said only a few times has he noticed where demands for Ionescu have worn on her, “but it doesn’t last long. … I’ve never seen her act out when someone asks for an autograph, and it happens a lot. Or take a picture. She’s real gracious.”

While Ionescu may be the “face of college basketball,” her priority is finishing an Oregon career on a high note. Some may see that as winning a national title, but that is not the only goal on Ionescu’s mind.

“There’s so many steps along the way to get to that,” Ionescu said. “You can’t lose sight of that. I’m taking practices super seriously, as if I’m playing in a national championship game.”

Even at Ionescu’s level, her game has a hole or two. She does not get into particulars, other than to say every facet of her game needs improvement. Graves is guarded about giving away skill specifics, other than to say her defense could use a boost.

The biggest improvement Ionescu has made over the past year is of a physical nature, says Graves. He is constantly stressing to Ionescu about the importance of sleep and diet.

Graves said she is eating right, and getting more sleep, but still not enough.

“She never takes a break,” Graves said. “I’m always telling her, you’re not just training for this year and the Ducks. You’re training for a long WNBA and European career. There’s no doubt. She’s smarter in that area.”

Graves, meanwhile, plans to absorb Ionescu’s final year. After Ionescu is asked why she returned for her senior year rather than turn professional, Graves makes a sidebar point about what is at stake for the senior Oregon guard. He underscores that Ionescu could be the first player — man or woman — to score 2,000 points, grab 1,000 rebounds and hand out 1,000 assists during a college career.

“Unless there’s another Zion (Williamson) coming down the pike here, and I don’t think there is, I think Sabrina really becomes the face of the college game,” Graves said. “There is nobody that can handle that better than she can. She handles everything with grace and poise. When I travel around with her, it’s like I’m with a rock star.”

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