When the news broke in early August that UConn star guard Paige Bueckers suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the debate around whether women’s college players should be able to leave college early to declare for the WNBA draft heated up. She was in the spotlight during March Madness after leading the Huskies to a 14th consecutive Final Four as a sophomore.
Bueckers, who will miss the 2022-23 season, and South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston faced each other in the national championship and had fans wondering if either would consider exiting college early to enter the 2023 draft. Due to WNBA eligibility requirements for intercollegiate athletes in the US, neither player could opt-in to the draft before that point. The league’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement with the player’s union outlines these requirements.
The eight-year CBA runs through 2027.
Early Entry Doesn’t Guarantee Success
Unlike the NBA, one-and-done players do not exist in the WNBA. Eligibility rules for the women’s league have not changed since its inception over 25 years ago. College players must turn 22 the year they opt-in to the draft and be in a class scheduled to graduate within three months after the draft. Athletes can also enter the draft if they are four years removed from high school.
That doesn’t mean that women’s college players haven’t left college early to go pro. They just didn’t start their careers in the WNBA.
In 2001, Schuye LaRue left Virginia to play professionally in Italy. The Los Angeles Sparks selected her in the second round of the 2003 draft, but LaRue never played in the league and, tragically, ended up homeless on the streets of Washington, D.C.
Former Rutgers standout and New York City prep legend Epiphanny Prince shocked the women’s basketball community in 2009 when she skipped her senior year to play in Russia. She fared better in the WNBA than LaRue becoming a fourth overall pick in 2010 and earning a championship with the Seattle Storm in 2020.
Most of the other players who left college with eligibility left had already earned their degree or met the age requirement. That group includes top draft picks Candace Parker (2008), Jewell Loyd (2015), and Charli Collier (2021), as well as 2015’s second pick Amanda Zahui B.
While Prince and Loyd succeeded in the league, the road has been rocky for others. Most notably, Collier had a lackluster rookie campaign averaging just 3.4 points per game and 3.6 rebounds per contest. After recovering from a knee injury suffered in overseas play after her first year, she returned to the Wings, but her stats were lower than her rookie campaign.
Rosters Spots Are Scarce
Another argument for not changing the eligibility rules is the sheer competitive nature of the league.
Officially, there are 144 roster spots in the 12-team WNBA. In reality, that number is lower considering how teams manage salary caps and other variables. So, the actual number is around 136 during the season.
Most players who are drafted don’t make a final roster. With the plethora of talent already in the league, including the entire U.S. Olympic team and international Olympic standouts, it is even hard for returning players to retain a roster spot.
Only 36% Drafted in 2022
In 2022, there were over 100 prospects in the pool of eligible college players. Only 36 were drafted. And less than two dozen of those rookies made a team and played during the regular season.
When rookies get cut, there is no league-sponsored development program like the NBA’s G League as a backup plan. So, having a chance to develop skills for another year under a college program’s safety net when eligibility is left may be the best route for players who are not among the top 20 NCAA players in the nation.
Fortunately, athletes do have the option of rescinding their draft opt-in, and several did so this past year, deciding to stay in school.
Lucrative NIL Deals Are Enticing
While Bueckers can leave UConn after the 2022-23 season and enter the 2023 Draft, she can also stay for another year, as she’ll have eligibility remaining due to sitting out a season because of her ACL tear.
As one of the most popular college players on a heralded team, Bueckers is on the receiving end of several lucrative name, image, and likeness deals that could garner her over $1 million in endorsements, according to Forbes. That money and the perks of being a UConn athlete outweigh any amenities she’ll receive as a WNBA rookie. The league’s players travel commercial, while top college programs have privately chartered jets. Furthermore, the media attention the Huskies and Boston’s South Carolina Gamecocks receive is greater than what they will experience as rookies.
Russia Playing a Role in Player Plans
The geopolitical landscape and the lingering economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic could be another factor. With the war in Ukraine and the detention of Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner in Russia, US-based players have hard decisions to make for the offseason.
Russia was the most lucrative overseas market, with top players earning $1 million per season while enjoying luxury amenities. Other overseas markets tightened restrictions on the number of foreign players allowed on each team during the pandemic.
The CBA Will Be the Deciding Factor
When players begin negotiations for the next CBA, eligibility requirements will most likely be up for discussion, especially given the dawn of the NIL era.
Until then, the youngest players that enter the league will continue to be international players like Australian center Ezi Magbegor of the Seattle Storm, drafted at the age of 19.
AP Photo/Jessica Hill