With so much talent and so little spots, the draft will leave several stars, both rookie and veteran, homeless. Once things calm down, that has to change.
We often speak about how professional athlete is one of the few professions where you can be in the top one or two percent of your job and still be put on the chopping block. In the WNBA, that axiom rings true in even more dire ways.
The 2020 WNBA Draft was everything we, the sports-loving public of America, could’ve asked for. It was a welcome distraction from our (temporary) new reality, a chance to awe and revel in the talents of exceptional athletes. The sight of college stars’ dreams coming true, professional realities realized in the comfort and warmth of their own homes, was a welcome vision for a reeling nation. A thrilling college basketball season provided numerous new stars to root for on the WNBA level. Their draftings provided the slightest bit of consolation for the fact we will never get to see how this wide open season would end.
Now comes the unfortunate reality: some of these stars may not see the light of a WNBA day.
The WNBA is currently stocked with 12 teams, a number that has remained stagnant since 2010. With 12 roster spots available per squad, that means 144 of the finest women’s basketball players will take to the courts of the most prominent female professional sports association. This is in stark contrast to, say, the NBA, which has open slots for 360 athletes.
This simply isn’t right…it’s time to widen the WNBA, be it through new cities or new roster spots.
Already, we’re seeing jam-packed rosters that are going to have to bid farewell to talented rookies. The New York Liberty welcomed in six newcomers from the draft proceedings. Obviously, top overall pick Sabrina Ionescu is a shoo-in. But several talented players could be searching for new opportunities before playing a regular season game.
New York welcomed in four first-round picks alone (Tenth overall choice Jocelyn Willoughby came in a trade) and not all of them are guaranteed to make the roster. The Dallas Wings might be in a similar situation. They were able to deal some of their surplus picks to the Liberty, but still face potentially tough decisions with three of the first seven picks in tow. It’s likely that Satou Sabally, Bella Alarie, and Tyasha Harris will all make the team, but it’s a bit troubling that such a question even needs to be raised.
Veterans are equally affected in the oncoming roster carnage. In what’s certainly the first of several painful moves, the Liberty waived veteran guard Brittany Boyd last week. Meanwhile, Dallas let go Kaela Davis.
Frankly, it’s a phenomenon we should’ve seen coming last season. It was a year, after all, that opened without Megan Gustafson on a WNBA roster. The 2019 Player of the Year (per the Atlanta Tipoff Club and the Associated Press) eventually worked her way back onto Dallas’ roster. But her absence should’ve been a warning sign then and there. Gustafson wasn’t the only talented 2019 draftee left out of the early regular season festivities. Natisha Hiedeman, for example, was the Big East’s Player of the Year, but went through four separate transactions before playing her first WNBA minutes. Hiedeman’s roster spot in Connecticut was open only after the waiving of another conference’s player of the year: Bridget Carleton of the Big 12.
Of course, collegiate accolades are no guarantee of professional success…just ask any of the Heisman Trophy recipients who burned out in the NFL. But the lack of roster spots could be costing the WNBA an opportunity to grow.
With only 12 teams, the WNBA must do the best they can to lure in “neutral” fans. Hideman, for example, made a name for herself at Marquette in Milwaukee. Cream City has never hosted a WNBA team. But if one of their own was representing their cause on the professional level and a player that took them to unprecedented heights (the Golden Eagles won a program-record 75 games over the past three seasons), fans would be more likely to tune into the games. It could even lead to enough expanded interest that a new team could join the Bucks at the newly opened Fiserv Forum.
Even if expanding beyond the current dozen teams isn’t in the cards right now (especially with the current landscape), roster expansion could the next best thing.
Perhaps there would be some financial or logistical hurdles to jumper over, but roster expansion would be an effective compromise to offer more positions to deserving athletes. Rookies would have a better a chance of making their first rosters, while veterans could build lengthier careers.
Las Vegas head coach Bill Laimbeer hinted last summer that he would like to see expanded to afford new opportunities in the league. He also suggested that games could expand to 48 minutes to “expose” more players, believing the supposed two-hour TV window to be “a myth”.
“Today’s NBA is 2-on-2, 1-on-1. (The WNBA) is still 5-on-5, which is great,” Laimbeer said in June. “We need more exposure for players. If we don’t expand, we can expand in a different way.”
It truly stings to see accomplished athletes being forced to look overseas to showcase their talents. At the end of the day, not all of them may be cut out for a regular role on a WNBA roster. But shouldn’t candidates be given a chance to prove it before ultimate judgement is passed?
Rookies and veterans alike are being affected by the cramped quarters of current roster and/or team standards. Expansion probably wouldn’t be the be-all, end-all solution, but it would certainly relieve some stress in WNBA circles and maybe generate a new fan or two along the way.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert has accomplished a lot in her first year on the job, achievements dictated by her three pillars of “economics, growing the revenue base, and the fan and player experience”. Expansion is the one of the rare movements that could effectively involve all three.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags