The 2020 WNBA Draft was one of the best events in league history. Not only did it draw the draft’s biggest audience in 14 years but it also took up the spotlight as the rest of the sports world is on pause. Despite the draft being virtual, the draftees still got to celebrate a potentially life-changing moment and get validation for decades of hard work. It was beautiful and so needed right now.
But for many picks, the draft could be the pinnacle of their time in the league. The WNBA is notoriously one of the hardest leagues to break into. The league’s 12 teams can field a maximum of 144 players (12 per team) during the regular season. WNBA hopefuls are lucky to even get a try-out at training camp because teams can only have 15 players in training camp at one time.
As Eli Horowitz detailed for the New York Times in 2018, getting drafted doesn’t mean that a player will get one of those spots. By my rough count, an average of 16 draft picks in each of the last four draft classes got waived before the next season started. Players picked in the bottom half of the draft (18th and beyond) make up the bulk of the cuts. Again by my rough count, 62 out of the 72 draft picks in the first half of the last four WNBA Drafts made opening-day rosters. Just 18% (13 out of 72) of players picked in the bottom half made opening-day rosters and only 4 of those players remained on the team’s roster for the entirety of the subsequent season.
Those are shocking numbers. Even if my rough count is off a bit, it has been absolutely brutal for these players to find WNBA jobs. For a variety of reasons, the 2020 season could see even more of these later selections cut than ever before as Atlanta Dream Head Coach Nicki Collen said in a pre-draft zoom press conference: “It’s going to be a really, really difficult year for second and third round picks.”
CBA related changes
The new Collective Bargaining Agreement changed everything about the WNBA. The salary bump for player from the new CBA is unequivocally great for the league. But it may also result in fewer roster spots available around the league. As the team salary cap increased by 25%, the supermax player salary jumped by 43% and the minimax (for younger players and players changing teams) went up by 35%. Therefore, max players are taking about 5% more of the salary cap than they were under the old CBA and leave less for teams to use on the rest of the roster.
The rub is that some teams are going with the minimum of 11 players, rather than the maximum of 12, to fit multiple max contracts under the $1.3 million salary cap. Based on my salary cap spreadsheets, Chicago, Connecticut, Phoenix, and Washington will likely all have 11 players on their rosters next season. Having 140 spots instead of 144 will naturally hit late-round picks hardest as they are usually fighting for the 12th spot on a roster.
2020 draft picks now face even longer odds of making a team. Although, New York Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb pointed out that higher salaries could potentially have the opposite effect at some point.
“An unintended consequence of the CBA is going to be more teams that have high salaries on their books are not gonna be able to carry that 12 player,” said Kolb during a phone interview. “So it is possible that goes later picks with a lesser salary will fill a spot by virtue of number crunching.”
The other CBA change that may affect late round draft picks is the rookie scale pay bump. The majority of the 2018 and 2019 draft class got their salaries bumped to $57,000, which is great. But the new CBA’s Rookie Scale dictates that the starting salary for a second round pick is $59,750 and $57,000 for third rounders. To illustrate the potential problem, Naphessa Collier (the 6th pick in 2019 and Rookie of the Year) will make less than Crystal Dangerfield, who the Lynx drafted 16th in 2020, and the same as 3rd round pick Erika Ogwumike.
While this has been less of an issue than I anticipated, the Los Angeles Sparks are feeling the rookie scale crunch. As Richard Cohen explained for Her Hoop Stats and I did in my draft reaction article, they will have a tough time keeping second round pick Beatrice Mompremier because she makes $2,750 more than veterans Marie Gulich and Maria Vadeeva. Through pretty much no fault of their own, LA may not be able to keep a player they just drafted and like.
COVID related changes
Of course, the projections and pretty much everything else I talked about in the section above apply to a somewhat normal WNBA season. The next season (whenever it takes place) will not be normal due to the Coronavirus. In THESE UNCERTAIN TIMES, the timing of the season may also negatively effect the later round draft picks.
“You’re going to see teams have to waive players before camp that they have just signed to make room for draft picks or they are going to be waiving draft picks before camp starts,” said Nicki Collen.
The attrition has already started. The Connecticut Sun waived Valeriane Ayayi after signing her in late February. Usually, the Sun would have space for a player like Ayayi in camp because some of their other players would miss camp to complete offseason obligations. Due to Coronavirus cancelling overseas basketball seasons and at least delaying the WNBA season, teams can be fairly certain that all their players in the country will be in camp when it starts. With the rest of their options available, the Fever can’t give Ayayi the opportunity to prove herself.
“The really interesting thing about [this year] is that everyone will be ready for camp probably,” said Atlanta GM Chris Sienko. “So those extra, periphery players aren’t going to camp at all.”
Later draft picks face a similar situation to veteran free agents like Ayayi, as Kolb explained. “Those later round picks are ‘training camp players.’ In short, maybe they come out to camp and they play really well and they make the roster in lieu of somebody that you had previously penciled in,” said the Liberty’s GM. “In this instance, most players that you would probably have had the need to fill in for will be in ‘camp.’ So we may not need the training camp player spots like we do usually due to the circumstances.”
If we as a WNBA community get good news that training camp is starting soon-ish, it will likely be bad news for the bottom of the draft players. We may see a lot more waived before they even have the opportunity to try out than usual.
For those that get to camp, the battle to make the team may be tougher than a normal season. Nicki Collen detailed how difficult it is for a later round pick even a power 5 All-Conference player to beat out WNBA veterans with similar resumes like Blake Dietrick or Alexis Jones (both on training camp deals with Atlanta). Collen went on to explain why the timing of the season could make it even harder.
“When you think about a shortened training camp and the opportunity to really compete, I think it’s tougher. I think coaches tend to value experience more in that situation,” the Dream’s coach said. “It’s a little different than the investment in a first-round pick where you say this is a player I want and a player I see in the future.”
Notably, the Dream’s 23rd overall pick last season and former All-Pac 12 guard Maite Cazorla nabbed a roster spot over Dietrick in 2019. Mikayla Pivec, Atlanta’s 25th pick in 2020 and a former All-Pac 12 guard, is seemingly in a similar situation. She has a tough fight to get a roster spot but can do it if she has a a great camp.
However, Pivec will likely have less time in camp than Cazorla did. She will also have to battle the need for experience in the upcoming season. It’s certainly possible for Pivec to make the team, but the odds are stacked against her more than they were for Cazorla.
Still, we don’t know what is going to happen with this WNBA season. It could be that this article is rendered moot by teams being forced to take on more late draft picks because, for example, European players not being able to get to the United States.
Yet, later round draft picks have had the deck stacked against them for years. The circumstances of this season are merely exacerbating the existing problem of the draft not giving players a leg up on getting into the WNBA. In some situations (such as Beatrice Mompremier’s), it may actually be detrimental to their chances of making a team.
The league needs to address the issue with reform to the draft, roster size and/or training camp limitations. But as we wait for that to happen, a bunch of excellent basketball players will be waived by WNBA teams that may want to keep them. Some will not even get the chance to prove themselves.