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