It’s long been known that the WNBA has too few roster spots for the vast universe of women’s basketball talent it draws from. The league has maintained a steady group of 12 teams — and, therefore, 144 on-court job opportunities — for more than six seasons now, even as the popularity of the game has grown and the pool of available players has deepened. Today’s WNBA is so deep that even its second-round draft picks have star potential.
Because of this, there are a lot of talented players who won’t be on a WNBA roster this season. That issue is highlighted by an uptick in talent from outside the United States. The U.S. has been the leader in women’s basketball globally since 1992, the last time it lost a game in the Olympics. But the rest of the world has begun to develop elite talent as well, adding to the logjam for spots in the league.
Just look at this year’s WNBA draft: International picks were a popular choice, starting with the No. 2 overall selection, Awak Kuier of Finland, who was drafted by the Dallas Wings. In all, seven players — including three in the first round — were drafted this year directly from other countries instead of from American college basketball programs. That’s more than in any season since the seven taken in 2001, when the league had 16 teams and drafted four rounds of players.
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The increase in international draftees is a credit to the globalization of the women’s game, of course. But it also has to do with the paucity of roster spots: International picks don’t have to be rostered right away and can keep playing overseas, while the teams keep the draft rights to those players. That can work out as an “extra player” for the long term for the teams that choose not to add the player immediately. (Most domestic players can’t be selected until the calendar year that they turn 22, but overseas players who don’t play collegiately in the U.S. are typically eligible the year that they turn 20.)
The 2021 WNBA draft was a global affair
Players selected in the 2021 WNBA draft, plus their college or nationality
|1||Dallas Wings||Charli Collier||C||Texas|
|2||Dallas Wings||Awak Kuier||F||Finland|
|3||Atlanta Dream||Aari McDonald||G||Arizona|
|4||Indiana Fever||Kysre Gondrezick||G||West Virginia|
|5||Dallas Wings||Chelsea Dungee||G||Arkansas|
|6||New York Liberty||Michaela Onyenwere||F||UCLA|
|7||Los Angeles Sparks||Jasmine Walker||F||Alabama|
|8||Chicago Sky||Shyla Heal||G||Australia|
|9||Minnesota Lynx||Rennia Davis||F||Tennessee|
|10||Los Angeles Sparks||Stephanie Watts||G||North Carolina|
|11||Seattle Storm||Aaliyah Wilson*||G||Texas A&M|
|12||Las Vegas Aces||Iliana Rupert||C||France|
|13||Dallas Wings||Dana Evans||G||Louisville|
|14||Las Vegas Aces||Destiny Slocum||G||Arkansas|
|15||Atlanta Dream||Raquel Carrera Quintana||C||Spain|
|16||Chicago Sky||Natasha Mack||F||Oklahoma State|
|17||New York Liberty||DiDi Richards||G||Baylor|
|18||Seattle Storm||Kiana Williams||G||Stanford|
|19||Indiana Fever||Unique Thompson||F||Auburn|
|20||Connecticut Sun||DiJonai Carrington||G||Baylor|
|21||Connecticut Sun||Micaela Kelly||G||Central Michigan|
|22||Los Angeles Sparks||Arella Guirantes||G||Rutgers|
|23||Seattle Storm||N’dea Jones||F||Texas A&M|
|24||Indiana Fever||Trinity Baptiste||F||Arizona|
|25||New York Liberty||Valerie Higgins||G||Pacific|
|26||Indiana Fever||Chelsey Perry||F||UT Martin|
|27||Atlanta Dream||Lindsey Pulliam||G||Northwestern|
|28||Los Angeles Sparks||Ivana Raca||F||Wake Forest|
|29||New York Liberty||Marine Fauthoux||G||France|
|30||Connecticut Sun||Aleah Goodman||G||Oregon State|
|31||Indiana Fever||Florencia Chagas||G||Argentina|
|32||Phoenix Mercury||Ciera Johnson||C||Texas A&M|
|33||Indiana Fever||Maya Caldwell||G||Georgia|
|34||Los Angeles Sparks||Aina Ayuso||G||Spain|
|35||Seattle Storm||Natalie Kucowski||F||Lafayette|
|36||Las Vegas Aces||Kionna Jeter||G||Towson|
Kuier is the first Finnish player ever to be drafted. The 19-year-old, who turns 20 in August, had been playing with future Dallas teammate Isabelle Harrison on the Italian team Passalacqua Ragusa during the winter season. Raquel Carrera Quintana became the highest-drafted Spanish player ever when the Atlanta Dream selected her with the third pick of the second round, 15th overall. She earned some attention in the FIBA EuroCup Final when she sank two free throws with a second left to win the game.
Australia’s Shyla Heal was projected to go anywhere from the late first round to the middle of the second before the Chicago Sky made her the No. 8 overall selection. In a draft where Louisville’s Dana Evans and other elite guards were available, it spoke volumes that the Sky, who desperately needed a backup point guard, went with Heal. In the third round, Indiana added Argentina’s Florencia Chagas with the seventh pick (31st overall), and the Los Angeles Sparks took Aina Ayuso from Spain with the ninth pick (33rd overall).1 Chagas was assigned to the suspended list after signing her rookie contract, making her ineligible to start the season. That gives the Fever a full roster spot, and they retain her rights.
And remember those 144 roster spots across the entire WNBA? Paradoxically — given the overflow of talent in the women’s game right now — there will probably be fewer than 144 players on teams when the season begins on May 14. Salary cap restrictions have made it difficult for clubs to sign players for the future. And rookies and second-year players, even first-round talent, may find it difficult to crack a roster. Plus some teams may want to save room for talented players who will be waived or released by another team. Because of all these factors, some of the 12 WNBA teams will elect to carry just 11 players, further cutting down the number of jobs available to the best athletes in the sport.
The development of the women’s game across the globe, and the amount of top-notch talent being left off WNBA rosters, has raised the question of league expansion. The WNBA peaked with 16 teams in 2000, just three years after the league was founded, and has sat at 12 teams since 2010.
“It’s certainly on the list of things that I’ve been thinking about down the road. It’s interesting to note how competitive and how deep the talent in the league is,” commissioner Cathy Engelbert said to reporters right before this year’s draft. “It’s certainly something that, as we’ve come out of this pandemic, hopefully next year that we’ll prepare to start talking about. I think if we have a very successful season this year, this time next year, we can certainly start talking about what expansion would look like, how many [teams], and the time frame over which that would occur.”
It’s a different landscape for women’s basketball — and women’s sports as a whole — in 2021. The WNBA saw record ratings in 2020 and has garnered more of an appetite for coverage. The league is more attractive than ever, not only for consumers but also for athletes. If the influx in international talent this year is any indication, the cries for more roster spots might soon be too much for the WNBA to ignore.