November 9, 2021
‘I don’t know if we’ve had one like her’: Sabally sisters are both one of a kind at Oregon
Satou and Nyara Sabally play the game very differently, but their numbers as Ducks paint a similarly dominant picture
Most high school girls basketball players who get recruited by the Oregon Ducks probably know about the intense rivalry between Oregon and Oregon State, two programs that have combined for five Elite Eight appearances and two Final Fours since 2016.
That was not the case for Satou Sabally, who was born in the United States but grew up in Gambia and Germany. As the 36th-best prospect in the class of 2017, she took back-to-back official visits to Oregon State and Oregon—and that’s when the rivalry was finally spelled out for her.
“I saw a ‘No Beavers’ sign in Eugene,” Sabally told ESPN in 2017. “I was like, ‘Oh my God. I just came from there.’”
Unfortunately for the Beavers, Sabally didn’t hightail it back to Corvallis. The 6’4 forward eventually chose Oregon and helped the Ducks win 89% of their games in her three seasons before becoming the No. 2 pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft.
Sabally’s basketball journey began when she was nine years old, a few years after her family had moved from Gambia to Germany. A youth coach saw Sabally and her younger sister Nyara on a playground and noticed their size and potential. For the next five years, Satou played on an all-boys team, progressing from never getting passed the ball to becoming the team’s star.
“You just fight through it,” Satou said this year. “You have to be proud to be a girl. I loved being the best one on the boys’ team. I would talk trash like, ‘Hey, you can’t guard me!’”
Playing on an all-boys team not only helped Satou hone her skills and develop confidence, but it also incubated a dream of playing professionally. “They would always talk about the NBA and making it … and I was like, ‘Well, I can do the same thing, too,’” she told The Athletic in 2020. At age 14, she started playing on girls’ teams and discovered the WNBA, which became her new dream.
It took time for Nyara to develop similar aspirations, and she credits Satou for keeping her in the sport early on. “At first, I did not enjoy going to practice,” she said this year, “but because my older sister went, I kept going until I eventually started loving it.”
While still a teenager, Satou got the opportunity to play professionally in Germany, and in 2015, she moved seven hours away from her parents and six siblings to play for Eisvögel USC Freiburg. Nyara remained in Berlin and attended one of the elite schools for sports recognized by the German Olympic Sports Confederation, Schul-und Leistungssportzentrum Berlin. Both Saballys also played for German youth national teams and aspired to play collegiately in the United States.
“I just thought that I couldn’t reach my full potential in Germany,” Nyara said this year, citing a lack of support for women’s basketball. Likewise, Satou has said that the level of investment is “totally different” in the United States and that she wanted to get a college education while playing basketball, which can be difficult in the European system.
Their mother, Heike Krone, may also have planted a seed for her daughters. “My mom told me that she always knew I would play in New York [City] one time,” Satou said in 2017, just before she became the first international player to participate in the city’s Jordan Brand Classic high school girls’ game. “… Coming back to America where I was born—it’s just amazing for me.”
Satou chose Oregon over Oregon State, Arizona State, Gonzaga and Kentucky, and by all accounts, she hit the ground running in Eugene. At Pac-12 media day before her freshman season, then-sophomore stars Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard both said that the Ducks would likely look to Satou when they needed a late-game basket.
“She definitely has a lot of confidence coming in as a freshman, and how she plays really works with what we’re trying to do,” Hebard said.
Satou delivered, winning the 2017-18 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year award after averaging 10.7 points and 3.8 rebounds per game on 46.1% shooting from the field. Her highlights included a clutch 25-point performance to beat UCLA in overtime and 21 points and five rebounds against Oregon State. Her potential seemed boundless: In November of her sophomore year, she was picked third in an anonymous survey that asked Division I coaches who they would pick in a hypothetical draft of college players with the goal of winning a national championship.
When Nyara, a 6’5 forward, followed Satou to Eugene in 2018, Heike relished the unexpected full-circle moment for her younger daughter, who was born in Bandon, Oregon. For Nyara, the decision was simple: “The main reason I want to go there is definitely playing with my older sister, Satou. That’s something we wanted to do forever,” she told Oregon’s Daily Emerald shortly after she committed.
However, the sisters would never share the court for the Ducks, as Satou entered the WNBA Draft after three years and Nyara missed her first two seasons with two ACL tears.
After Nyara’s second injury in 2019, Satou expressed a mix of personal sadness and sororal pride. “I’m really proud of her,” she said. “… I don’t know a lot of people that have handled the situation [as] mature as she has. Yeah, but obviously I’m sad about it and I’m definitely playing for her this season.”
Nyara recovered to play all but one game in 2020-21, giving the Ducks a Sabally on the court for the fourth straight season. She called her debut “really emotional” and said that her extended recovery made her appreciate the game more. “My love for basketball is so big and just to … be on the court and just play feels so great,” she told KOIN 6 News last February. “… It’s definitely an experience that I’ll cherish forever, this year.”
Nyara led Oregon in scoring and rebounding in her debut season, averaging 12.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, and her 54.7% shooting ranked third in the Pac-12. Her first of four double-doubles came against Colorado in December, when she had 20 points on 9-of-9 shooting and 10 rebounds.
Former Oregon associate head coach Mark Campbell struggled to think of a previous player with Nyara’s combination of skills. “I don’t know if we’ve had one like her,” he said ahead of the 2020-21 season. “She’s a very explosive, powerful, athletic power forward … She’s able to bang, run the court and stretch the court with her shooting ability.”
Although Nyara, now a redshirt junior, could still play multiple seasons for the Ducks, she and Satou have already built significant resumes at the college level. Those of you who frequently read my family rivalries stories know what that means: It’s time to stack them up.
(The winning result is shaded gray in the table below.)
Comparing the Saballys’ entire college careers might seem to disadvantage Nyara because she has played fewer seasons. However, both sisters have been at Oregon for three seasons, so Nyara was not a typical first-year player. In addition, Satou’s statistics were consistently excellent, so using her career numbers does not give her an inordinate boost relative to her freshman-year numbers.
The result is one of the closer comparisons in this series. While Satou had a narrow edge in the scoring and standout performances categories, the sisters split the other per-game stats and advanced stats. In general, Satou was the more prolific offensive player—leading in points per game, 3-pointers made and attempted per season, and assists per game—but Nyara was more efficient and had the edge defensively. And while Satou’s career high of 16 rebounds topped Nyara’s 14, Nyara averaged more rebounds per game and had more double-doubles last season (four) than Satou’s season average (3.7).
Oregon head coach Kelly Graves praised that aspect of Nyara’s game after her double-double against Colorado: “She’s such a great rebounder. Her second jump, her ability to get her own miss and go right back up is pretty impressive.”
The statistical differences observed in this comparison highlight the Saballys’ contrasting styles of play, as Satou is a positionless player who often plays on the perimeter while Nyara is a more imposing interior presence. According to CBB Analytics, about half of Satou’s shot attempts in her sophomore and junior seasons came in the lane and another 40% came from behind the arc. For Nyara last season, those numbers were 86% and 6%, respectively.
During her college career, Satou developed more post moves like Nyara, but she also got more adept at creating off the dribble. “Every year she added something new and significant to her game and continued to get better and better,” Graves said. “She has a ton more.”
The desire to realize her full potential was one reason Satou decided to enter the 2020 WNBA Draft despite having another year of college eligibility. She first realized she might be ready when she had 25 points and six rebounds in Oregon’s upset of Team USA in an exhibition game before her junior season.
“The USA game was just such a spark,” she said. “… It was just eye-opening that I’m able to play at that level … That game really showed me what I need to improve on but also that I’m kind of there.”
Satou also felt the pull of a professional contract, and accompanying endorsement deals, to help provide for her family in Germany and Gambia, and she had always planned to graduate in three years. Still, the decision was difficult because it meant closing the door on playing collegiately with Nyara.
Heike helped Satou come to terms with that aspect of her decision. “She was always putting an emphasis on I had the two best years with Nyara, and I don’t have to regret everything and be like, ‘Oh, I never got to play with Nyara,’” Satou said. “I should rather say, ‘I got to experience Nyara for two years.’ … That really helped.”
Nyara, too, saw the wisdom in Satou leaving early. “I always supported her,” Nyara told The Undefeated. “If she stayed, obviously, I would have loved that. But she was ready to leave and I saw that.”
Most of the Sabally family couldn’t be with Satou when the Dallas Wings selected her due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was fitting that Nyara was by her side, just like on the playground years earlier when they were first discovered.
“It meant a lot,” Satou said of having Nyara there. “I mean, Nyara is so excited for me … for her I think it’s a lot of inspiration, and I hope one day maybe she’s going to come to Dallas, too. She was just smiling all day long helping with everything, and she’s really one of the best sisters in the world.”
Just as she had in Eugene, Satou got off to a fast start in Dallas, making the All-Rookie team in 2020 after averaging 13.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 28.1 minutes per game. She battled injuries in 2021 but still made the all-star team and shot a better percentage than in her rookie season. Those seasons were sandwiched around an offseason spent playing for Fenerbahçe, a Turkish team in the EuroLeague—and cheering on Nyara despite the 11-hour time difference.
“Satou is my biggest supporter,” Nyara said in December.
And although the sisters aren’t together in Eugene anymore, Nyara does have another sibling who is learning the American college experience. Her younger brother Lamin decided to play high school basketball in Arizona two years ago because of his sisters, and this fall, he is a 6’7 freshman guard at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
In 2020, Satou was featured on a Nike billboard with the tagline, “You can’t stop us.” That already rings true individually, as Nyara and Satou are both matchup nightmares on the court in their own distinctive ways.
And maybe one day—whether on the German national team, in the WNBA or in the EuroLeague—they’ll finally get to show how unstoppable they are together.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.