The sad reality of the WNBA Draft

Chelsey Perry who was drafted by the Indiana Fever
Getty Images

Author’s note: Ahead of Monday’s 2022 WNBA Draft (preview here), On Her Turf spoke to three draft picks from 2021 about how their rookie experience in the league played out. 

As her college basketball career was coming to a close, Trinity Baptiste created a vision board. It was red and navy – the colors of the Arizona Wildcats – and it included a variety of goals all written in Baptiste’s neat handwriting: win the NCAA women’s basketball championship, get her Masters’ degree, and make it to the WNBA.

“I saw it in my room every day and just manifested it,” said Baptiste, who was a graduate transfer at Arizona during the 2020-21 season.

Baptiste and her teammates came as close as possible to winning the NCAA championship without actually winning it, losing to Stanford 54-53 in the 2021 title game.

Eleven days later – after the rush of securing an agent, simultaneously celebrating and commiserating Arizona’s NCAA tournament result, and making a cross-country drive home to Florida – Baptiste was watching the 2021 WNBA Draft on TV with her family.

As the second round was nearing the end, “I thought I wasn’t going to get picked,” Baptiste said. “In my mind, I was like, ‘This is kind of embarrassing. I’m sitting here watching with my family and I’m not going to get picked.'”

Baptiste was ultimately selected by the Indiana Fever as the No. 24 overall pick. “It was a great feeling hearing your name called,” she said. “It’s a surreal feeling that I cannot explain.”

But two weeks later, Baptiste was already on her way back home to Tampa. Midway through training camp, she was called into a meeting with Fever general manager Tamika Catchings and head coach Marianne Stanley and was told she was getting waived — with a flight back to Florida booked for later that same day.

“It just caught me off guard at the time,” Baptiste said. “It was like, ‘Ok, so I don’t even get to finish the rest of the day?'”

Herein lies the sad reality of the WNBA Draft. Each year, 36 players hear their name called out in what is often the culmination of a lifelong goal. But many of these players – whether they know it in that moment or not – still face long odds when it comes to whether they’ll actually play in the WNBA.

In the last five years, an average of 13 newly drafted rookies were waived prior to the first game of the WNBA season. Last year was especially tough: 16 of 36 draftees were waived before the season began, and an additional six were waived or released shortly after the season started. Based on data from Basketball Reference, about half of each year’s draft class doesn’t play more than one season in the WNBA.

“I don’t know how prepared or educated the players are on their ability to make a roster,” ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said in a media call ahead of Monday’s 2022 WNBA Draft.

Getting drafted into the WNBA is just the first hurdle to playing pro

In the fourth grade, Chelsey Perry had to write a speech about her goals.

“My speech was basically (about) Candace Parker and how I wanted to be in the WNBA with her,” Perry said. “Being a Tennessee girl… she’s always been an influential person in my life.”

During the 2021 WNBA Draft, Perry — who attended Tennessee-Martin — saw the her goal partially realized when she was selected by the Indiana Fever as the 26th overall pick. Though at that point in the draft, ESPN’s broadcast had moved on from the main event.

“They were doing a story on (No. 1 draft pick) Charli Collier‘s outfit and how she grew up and all that, and at the bottom (of the screen), they were listing the third-round people,” Perry recalled. “I wasn’t even paying attention at the time and my family was like, ‘Oh, you got drafted!’ I was in complete shock.”

The shock factor continued when Perry arrived in Indiana a few days later and saw how many players were competing for a roster spot.

“I didn’t realize that we would have 19 people on our roster coming into training camp with only 12 spots,” she said. “So that was definitely pressure for me.”

Towson’s Kionna “Melo” Jeter, who was selected by the Las Vegas Aces as the 36th and final pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft, tried not to think about the odds when she arrived in Vegas for training camp.

“When you’re in practice, you can’t really think about, ‘Am I going to make it?'” Jeter said. “When you go out there, you just have to have fun and showcase your talent.”

Jeter’s time with the Aces ended after a week, due in part to a nagging injury she was dealing with at the time.

On Her TurfMeanwhile in Indiana, Perry made it through camp and scored 16 points in the Fever’s 2021 season opener against the Chicago Sky, a 82-65 win.

And then the 6-2 forward got cut.

But Perry knew her WNBA career wasn’t automatically over. She returned to Tennessee-Martin’s campus and stayed in shape with the support of her former college coaches.

“I just stayed hungry and motivated, which was tough because (the WNBA) was something I wanted to do since I was young,” Perry said. “There was just this feeling of uncertainty, like, ‘What’s going to happen?'”

The working and waiting paid off. A month after getting cut, the Fever waived Lauren Cox and Perry got a call asking her to re-sign with the team.

She went on to play three games — “I was learning a lot and I was earning my spot on the team,” she says — and then tore her ACL and meniscus in practice.

While the injury ended her season, Perry says she’s thankful for the “leap of faith” Indiana took on her heading into the 2022 season.

“They made the decision to keep me here in the offseason, to work with the trainers and coaches and do marketing,” she said. “It was a blessing that they were able to keep me and trusted in my ability.”

Still, it’s an uphill battle. Perry is currently one of 15 players on the Fever’s roster ahead of training camp, and the team also has seven picks in Monday’s draft (including four in the first round).

And yet, the Indiana Fever is the best-case scenario for this year’s WNBA prospects, according to Lobo.

“If I’m a draftee in this first round, I’m hoping Indiana drafts me because there’s room on their roster and there’s an opportunity to play there, whereas there might be some other situations where first-rounders even or certainly early second-rounders might not make a roster,” Lobo explained.

What’s the solution to a pipeline that is just too strong?

While expansion teams are typically cited as the next step for WNBA growth, a more logical first step might be roster expansion.

While NBA rosters can include 17 players (15 active players plus two two-way players), WNBA rosters are capped at 12. And the league’s most recent collective bargaining agreement (CBA) has resulted in some roster spots going unused.

While the WNBA’s 2020 CBA was groundbreaking for multiple reasons — including providing players with higher salaries — those salaries have made it tougher for teams to stay within the $1.3 million salary cap max.

“We talk about the 144 (total roster spots). Well, it’s not 144. I think there are three teams at the start of the season who will be able to have 12 players on the roster. The rest are at 11,” Lobo explained.

“I think every general manager and coach, when it’s not coming out of their own pocket and paycheck, would love to have a bigger roster,” Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said. “I would love to find a way to get more players in the league so that we as coaches can develop them, because there are ones that are going to get cut that probably would have a future in our league.”

And because there is no G-League equivalent — and female players aren’t allowed on WNBA practice squads — players who are cut have historically had to go abroad if they wanted to keep their WNBA hopes alive.

That’s what Baptiste did after being waived by the Fever. She signed a contract in Russia and says just being a WNBA draft pick provided a boost in the salary she was able to make overseas.

Jeter, meanwhile, took the season off to heal her body and focus on her mental health. But she plans to play abroad in Italy this year and says her biggest ambition hasn’t changed.

“My goal is to try to get back into the WNBA.”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Diana Flores looks to break down gender barriers with turn as AFC defensive coordinator in 2023 Pro Bowl

Courtesy Diana Flores

Diana Flores admits she was surprised when she became a viral sensation last spring, courtesy of a 15-second slow-motion clip showcasing her evasive maneuvers and fancy footwork while leaving at least three defenders in the dirt during Mexico’s 2022 national collegiate flag football championship.

“I never expected someone to record that moment,” said Mexico City native Flores, who led her team – the Monterrey Tech Borregos – to their third consecutive national title as a senior last May. “I was just having fun. I was just playing the game I love and then days later to see that it was viral on the internet — it was crazy. But at the same time, it was exciting because I remember when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of flag football role models to follow. So now, for me to be a role model for many boys and girls that play my sport is something that really makes me happy and proud and also motivates me to keep getting better.”

Flores, who led the Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team to a gold medal at the 2022 World Games, will have the chance to promote her sport on one of the world’s biggest stages this weekend when she serves as the AFC defensive coordinator for the NFL’s 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday in Las Vegas.

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Flores will be joined by Peyton Manning as the AFC head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator. On the NFC side, U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback Vanita Krouch will serve as offensive coordinator, with Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as defensive coordinator.

“I think that this has been one of the best things in my life,” she recently told On Her Turf about her Pro Bowl appointment. “It is like a dream. I mean, I grew up watching football, watching the NFL, playing flag football. And now to be able to be part of all of this — it is bigger than my biggest dreams.”

Flores’ football dreams began as when she was just 8 years old. Her father — who played quarterback for the perennial football powerhouse Monterrey Tech program — took her to a practice and she fell in love with the sport. But as the time there were no teams for girls her age, so she played with girls twice her age and used it to her advantage, focusing on her own abilities and sharpening her skills. By age 14 she was playing NFL Flag in Mexico, where she was the only girl in the league, and at 15 she started playing NFL Flag in the U.S, where she finally played on an all-girls team.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: U.S. flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

“I remember when I started playing, I used to receive a lot of like comments, directly and indirectly from other people, like, ‘Why do you play that sport? That’s not a girls’ sport, that sport is for boys, you’re get injured, you’re going to get hurt, don’t play with boys, that’s too rude.’ And the list keeps going. But my mom and dad were so supportive. They always encouraged me not to listen to anybody, to just follow my passion.

“And I think thanks to them, I’ve always had this mentality that gender doesn’t matter. It just matters how passionate you are about your dreams, how hard you work for what you want to achieve. And that you will always demonstrate what you’re made for, depending on the hard work you do. So, I’ve lived through that [negativity], I have experienced that. And I think that it has been one of my biggest blessings to be able to experience — for myself — what sport can do and how gender barriers get broken when you follow your dreams and you connect with other people through your passion.”

At just 16 years old, Flores made Mexico’s national team, playing in the first of four Flag Football World Championships – so far. Last summer at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, the 24-year-old Flores led Mexico to a 6-0 record, which included two wins over the U.S. women, who took silver. In the gold medal game against the United States, she completed 20 of 28 pass attempts for 210 yards and four touchdowns in Mexico’s 39-6 victory. She finished the tournament with 23 touchdown passes, the third-most among women’s teams, and she was the only starting quarterback to beat USA’s star QB, Krouch, who is 19-1 in international tournament play.

All that international experience so early in her career has given Flores a wise-beyond-her-years approach to playing flag football, a sport where she was frequently the only female player on the field and often the only Latin American as well.

“When I first came to the U.S., it was a little shocking to notice that I was probably the only Latin American girl playing,” she recalls. “But I think that it was easy for me because I got all the support from my coaches and my teammates. And since a young age, I think that I started to realize that sometimes what you do is for something bigger than yourself. That’s why you have to always give your best, in any situation. Even at that young age, I understood that I was representing more than myself on the field, I was representing Latin American people, Latin American girls in a sport that [many people thought] was meant to be for boys.”

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

One door Flores hopes to help open is the one leading to the Olympics. Flag football is on the short list being considered for inclusion in Los Angeles in 2028 Los Angeles. As an ambassador for flag football for the NFL and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), she’s participated in talks with the International Olympic Committee, and just last month she was joined by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in Mexico City where they joined forced to promote women’s empowerment and inclusion.

“I think for me, that experience is one of my top three,” she said of spending time with Biden. “I call them gifts from life, something that you didn’t expect it to happen, and somehow, one day, you’re right there in front of the First Lady. I admire her for what she does for boys and girls, for empowering woman and giving opportunities for everybody to achieve their dreams. So it was truly an honor to meet her, and also to be able to keep impacting my sport, not only on the field, but [off] the field, and have the opportunity keep inspiring others and keep impacting the world.”

As for what she hopes fans at the Pro Bowl and viewers at home take away from Sunday’s flag football showcase, Flores hopes they’ll see the characteristics that made her fall in love with flag in the first place: creativity, speed, agility, teamwork, passion and a lot of heart.

“I hope to show to all little girls and women that dreams come true, that nothing is impossible, to keep inspiring and opening opportunities and doors for women in sports, especially in the world of the NFL and football and flag football,” she says. “We’re going to make history, and I am so proud and happy for that. I’m really hoping that it is just the first step, not only for me, but for all the women that are coming after me.”

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Flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator


When Vanita Krouch got the news that she was named NFC defensive coordinator for the 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback admits her jaw nearly hit the ground.

And then she realized something even more profound.

“For the longest time, thinking about the moment, everything, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a dream come true. Is this really happening?’” said the 42-year-old Krouch, known as the “Tom Brady of flag football” with a 19-1 record as USA’s starting quarterback in international tournaments since 2018.

“But then I started thinking to myself: You know what? None of us grew up thinking of this as a dream to obtain. So really, it’s kind of reversed where I’m living a dream. I get to be a pioneer in this growth of flag football for all and inclusion for all, youth and adults, [women and men]. It’s such an inclusive sport, and I get to be a part of this growth and still actively play. It’s exciting. I’m literally living the dream. I’m very much like, ‘Guys, don’t pinch me. Let me keep sleeping.’”

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Krouch will be joined by Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as NFC defensive coordinator. On the AFC side, Mexico Women’s National Flag Football quarterback Diana Flores will serve as offensive coordinator, with Peyton Manning as head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator.

But Krouch’s journey to the Pro Bowl stage began under the unlikeliest of circumstances and was inspired by her own family odyssey, which began in Cambodia during the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Krouch’s mother, Phonnary Krouch, fled the country with three young sons in tow, running by night and hiding by day to escape, finding safety initially at a refugee camp in the Philippines. That’s where she welcomed Vanita, in September 1980, and two months later the family made its way to the United States. Krouch’s father exited the picture upon their arrival in America, leaving Phonnary to raise four children alone.

“In a nutshell, my mom is an amazing woman,” said Krouch, who first found sports via an elementary school flyer advertising youth soccer in Carrollton, Texas. “On the journey, she had a lot of trials, tribulations, … and after our dad left us, it was just mom and four kids in this little one-bedroom apartment. So, it was a challenge. I’m just so amazed by her strength and will to never give up.”

She also credits her mom for standing up to then-stereotypical notions that Asian girls should not play sports.

“I’m just thankful, honestly, that my mom allowed me to break the Asian culture barriers of a woman playing sports because that’s not easy,” she said. “She faced a lot of backlash from the community. But she said, ‘Hey, my child’s making good grades. She’s healthy, she’s good. She’s staying off the streets. I don’t see a problem.’ And she just let me do it. I was just lucky to have a mom that let me spread my wings.”

Krouch also had a few mentors along the way. Her elementary school PE teacher, Toni Neibes, stepped in to pay for those initial soccer fees and continued her support as Krouch transitioned to basketball in the fourth grade. She fell in love with the sport and excelled at it as well, eventually earning a full scholarship to play college basketball at Southern Methodist University. She wears the No. 4 to this day in honor of Niebes, who wore the same number as a young athlete. She also credits her fourth-grade teacher, Judy Ward, as having a lasting impact after the teacher made a habit out of showing up for her youth basketball games.

She pays tribute to them both through her clothing line, 4Ward Apparel, which features ever-changing collections emblazoned with relevant slogans encouraging female empowerment, inclusion and her personal mantra of “paying it forward” – something she does with the line itself. Each month, Krouch donates a portion of the sales to individuals, families or organizations in need.

After graduating SMU in 2003, Krouch continued to play basketball in semi-pro and adult leagues, but she was still searching for something to satisfy her competitive drive. She and a former college teammate stumbled on flag football during a Google search for local Dallas-area activities, and the rest – as they say – is history.

“It was like I drank the Kool Aid and I never looked back,” she says of her start in flag in 2006. “It’s just like every game, every play is a new challenge, and it’s addictive for a competitor, so I just fell in love with flag. I actually think I’m way better at flag than I was at basketball.”

She moved into the quarterback position through some sly maneuvering by current USA Women’s Flag Football head coach Chris Lankford. They were playing together in a local tournament when he “tricked” her into the QB position, despite Krouch knowing “zero football language.”

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“One day I showed up for a tournament and I asked, ‘All right, guys, who’s our quarterback?’ And he says, ‘We’re looking at her,’” she remembers. They kept the plays simple, and her team made it to the playoffs that season. Krouch has been a QB ever since.

Krouch joined the national team in 2016 and was inducted into the National Flag and Touch Football Hall Fame that same year. Last year at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, a 41-year-old Krouch set a new mark as the oldest Flag football player, man or woman, in the games, and she ranked second among women with 25 touchdown passes at the tournament where USA won silver.

She aims to bring that expertise to the field at the Pro Bowl games, where she’s looking forward to seeing NFL players take on the flag football style type of plays. “Flag is a very finesse, quick game, a lot of footwork, and these guys can’t grab or hold, no downfield contact or downfield block or anything off the line,” she explains. “So it’s going to be exciting just to see skill for skill, footwork for footwork, defense to offense, and to see flag football language with those type of elite athletes.”

As for the biggest challenge, Krouch believes it will be crafting a concise playbook and language that puts everyone on the same page. “A challenge for me is getting a coach’s mindset,” she adds, “I have to actually come up with plays ahead of time and I don’t usually have premeditated plays in my head. I just read it so for me to tell Kirk Cousins or Geno Smith [what to do], it will be different, you know?”

But beyond the Pro Bowl, Krouch is excited that flag is being considered for inclusion as an exhibition sport in the 2028 Summer Olympics. While she’s keeping a hopeful eye on that development, she’s also working to shape the next generation of potential athletes as a physical education teacher at La Villita Elementary in Irving, Texas.

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

“It’s an honor to be a role model – for other youth flag football players, for my students, both boys and girls,” says Krouch. “Then at my campus and in my community, it’s amazing to be able to break the barrier of like, ‘Asian women can’t do this.’ And then to be at my age, still doing this, I feel very lucky and blessed. …I think I still got some years in me.”

As for what she hopes viewers and fans walk away with after watching the Pro Bowl flag games this weekend, Krouch feels confident folks will walk away enlightened by the show.

“I just hope that they have fun with it,” says Krouch. “And for those who don’t know flag to be like, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing. Maybe that’s something I really can get my son or daughter into at a young age.’ So I just hope that they see that the sport is real – it’s not just something we play at recess. It’s a real thing now. I think they’ll see that the world loves it, the world can play it and is playing it.”

Be sure to check back with On Her Turf later this week when we catch up with AFC coordinator and Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team quarterback Diana Flores.  

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