All In On Five: Why Lexie Brown's journey proves roster expansion is necessary
Each week of the WNBA season, we'll go "All In" on five topics that are worth a closer look and preview what is upcoming.
The transaction wire, as anyone who plays fantasy sports knows, can get very messy very quickly. We've seen it quite a bit this spring with the WNBA.
Take Lexie Brown, the former Duke standout and 2018 first-round pick.
April 17: Lynx waive her following two seasons, including a shortened 2020 because of a concussion.
April 19: Sky sign her to training camp contract.
May 13: Sky waive Brown and three other players at the May 13 deadline for opening roster cuts to meet cap and roster limits. She returns home to Atlanta.
June 1: Sky sign her on a hardship waiver.
June 2: Sky release her via hardship stipulations.
Earlier this week on June 14, the back-and-forth for Brown came to an end when the Sky signed the guard to a rest-of-season contract.
“I was very close to being like, ‘I don’t care who calls. I’m not playing,’” Brown told reporters.
And understandably so. That's a lot mentally and emotionally, let alone the basketball aspect of acclimating to new teammates and a new playbook. All the while, players are trying to ball out to keep a roster spot long-term. It's all a resounding case for roster expansion ahead of league expansion.
Brown is not the only player in this Groundhog's Day sign-and-release situation. The Sky have signed and released 2021 draftee Natasha Mack a total of four times, but it's not only the Sky, either.
After Layshia Clarendon was released by the Liberty, they signed with the Lynx on a hardship waiver. Last week, she was released because the qualification of falling below 10 players was no longer met when Aerial Powers returned. Clarendon re-signed that day when another Lynx player was no longer able to play because of injury.
Cierra Burdick has been on two hardship contracts with two different teams, suiting up for the Lynx the same night she was signed.
All of this is to reiterate that the WNBA is the most difficult league to break into, particularly as top-tier players elongate their careers. There are fewer than 144 actual roster spots, and those on the outside and lower rungs of that number are constantly fighting their way in.
That means staying in game shape and honing skills without game time. There is no G-League squad to go down to like there is in the NBA. They aren't making millions for top-of-the-line trainers, either, and are spending WNBA offseasons overseas out of necessity. That's not always a lot of time there to hone in on specific skills for improvement.
In the bigger picture, maybe before we go deep on the spicier conversation of league expansion, we talk about expanded rosters. The limit is 12 maximum and many teams are going with the minimum 11 because of salary cap issues. Two injuries or absences will bring them into the hardship territory of going under 10 available players.
There is no clear answer to immediately implement for the WNBA, which signed a collective bargaining agreement with its players association in January 2020. There were larger things to take care of then, like the aforementioned higher salary cap and better wages, but the roster issue could be addressed in the next one. And it should be.
We want to see players like Lexie Brown in the prime of her career without the mental weight of if she'll still be in town next week and who her teammates will be. We don't want to see a career cut short because of lack of minutes or an available roster spot where she can be learning behind one of the game's best.
Jonquel Jones, Betnijah Laney and the case for MVP
Connecticut Sun center Jonquel Jones has made an early case for MVP with career-bests in nearly every shooting category, a second-best 21.6 points per game and a league-best 10.4 rebounds per game. She's shooting 56.8% overall, including 48.9% from 3-point range that ranks fourth in the league.
The betting lines reflected it by bumping her up (+105 at BetMGM) over preseason favorite Breanna Stewart (+140).
Now the question becomes, how much of a 32-game season does a player have to play for voters to feel comfortable giving her the nod?
Jones is currently with the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team playing in the FIBA Women's EuroBasket held in France. She was temporarily suspended earlier this month and will miss at least four games from June 13-22.
In the opening group stage game, Jones did this MVP-calendar move and Bosnia trounced Belgium (and the Mystics' Emma Meesseman), 70-55.
.@jus242 takes it coast-to-coast 💨!@BFBiH 🇧🇦 | #EuroBasketWomen
📺 https://t.co/Yo05Cy1jaM pic.twitter.com/qyiB4P2uFr
— FIBA Women's EuroBasket (@EuroBasketWomen) June 17, 2021
If the team keeps winning, she could miss two more Sun games (June 27, 29) while EuroBasket runs through the final on June 27. That would mean about one-fifth of the regular season.
That's barely anything, and if Jones returns to play at the caliber she's been playing at, it's no reason to exclude her from consideration no matter what anyone else is doing.
When it comes to the MVP conversation, here's a betting oddity to consider. BetMGM has the Liberty's Sabrina Ionescu at +900, but the star of the season in New York has easily been Betnijah Laney, who is listed at +2500 odds.
That's the 12th-best odds and trails even Elena Delle Donne (+2000), who has yet to practice with the team this season. For Laney to win MVP — or even Ionescu for that matter — the Liberty need to put together a season better than .500 and win a playoff game at least. But her chances of winning are, or at the very least should be, higher than Ionescu's given their season production and value so far.
Elena Delle Donne absence a concern
And on the topic of Delle Donne, the last time we saw her on the court she was completing a historic season while playing with three herniated discs in her back.
It's now 19 months later and Delle Donne, 31, has yet to return for the Mystics. With the Olympic break and midway point of the WNBA season less than a month away, it's time to be concerned.
The 2019 MVP underwent initial back surgery in January 2020, skipped the bubble season due to rehab and her ongoing battle with Lyme disease, and underwent a second surgery in December 2020. She was on track to begin the 2021 season on a minutes restriction, but that didn't happen. It became a 2-to-6-game timeframe. We're past that.
Delle Donne still hasn't done any five-on-five work, though she's doing one-on-one work and additional drills, Mystics coach Mike Thibault said Tuesday on a call with reporters. That note alone means it's becoming more unlikely she's ready before the Olympic break, and puts Team USA duties in doubt, as well.
"Certainly she's going to need team practice time for a number of days before we consider putting her in the game," Thibault said. "If we're two weeks from now [and] we're still wondering about that, then yeah, it's probably more likely [the return] coming out of the break. But we're not saying it's absolute at this point."
Injury timelines in the WNBA can be notoriously mum, and ones set for Delle Donne have now been blown by multiple times. It's certainly concerning that she has yet to return to practices and Thibault said there was "no real update" to give considering it's a serious back issue. She is one of the league's stars, an exciting watch, and it's a better product with her on the floor.
The last we saw of her, she became the first WNBA player to put up a 50/40/90 season. Not to mention what she could be next to another former MVP in Tina Charles; the two have yet to play together.
Then there's the impact on the Mystics. The standings are tight and could undergo an overhaul inside of a couple of days of games. But Washington is only treading water, ranking 10th in defensive rating and sixth in offensive rating largely behind Charles' league-high 24.0 points per game and 32.1 percent usage rate.
It's also going to take time for Delle Donne to adjust to game play after nearly two full years off and mesh with the team again, particularly with Charles' arrival. The good part about the playoff system is the Mystics could sneak in as a No. 7 or 8 team and run the table in single elimination.
Injury reset as WNBA injuries keep piling up
Delle Donne is far from the only player sitting out in street clothes right now. As NBA stars like LeBron James sound off on the growing list of injuries throughout the NBA playoffs and blame a shortened offseason, WNBA players are sitting here looking like a blinking, unimpressed meme. This is their reality every year.
Going from season to season to Olympics to season and doing it all over again is the standard for women's players. They come into the WNBA on a shortened training camp, which Seattle coach Noelle Quinn said factored into her team's defensive prep, and a slew of players aren't even there for it. Former Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier didn't play for the Lynx until two weeks into the season.
Whether it be constant play, shortened preseason or just a casualty of the game, the injury bug has kept on at the one-month mark of the season. And with fewer games than an NBA season, the loss is more impactful.
The Lynx will be without guard Aerial Powers and center Natalie Achonwa for "weeks," head coach Cheryl Reeve said. Powers underwent surgery for a torn ulnar collateral ligament in her thumb and Achonwa suffered a medial collateral ligament sprain in her right knee. Jessica Shepard and Rennia Davis are still out.
Liberty point guard Sabrina Ionescu missed two games this week while dealing with ankle tendinitis. She returned Thursday to play 16 minutes and scored one point. Natasha Howard (MCL sprain) is still out.
Sparks' Nneka Ogwumike is still well within the 4-6-week timeframe with a left knee sprain and Chiney Ogwumike is still week-to-week with knee soreness.
Dream point guard Chennedy Carter is still doubtful with a right elbow injury.
The top, the middling, and one team at the bottom
We're marveling at these standings through Thursday night. It's easier to look at who is pulling away and who is falling behind now that about one-third of the season is gone and the break is looming.
The Storm (12-2) have weathered their free agency losses and are pulling away at the top of the standings. The Aces (10-3) and Sun (8-4) have also distanced themselves, though Connecticut might take a few more losses in the coming weeks with Jones out of the country.
At the bottom, there's the 1-13 Fever who have defeated the Mystics and no one else. Fingers crossed for the No. 1 pick in the lottery this time around?
But in the middle it's an eight-team melting pot of teams separated by one game back from fourth place (Sparks at 5-5) to 11th place (Mercury at 5-7). If that doesn't excite fans, what will?
Catch up on the week
The WNBA All-Star Game will be played this summer ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. It will look a little different.
Circle Aug. 25 on your calendar. The Mercury's Skylar Diggins-Smith and Liberty's Jazmine Jones will take their Twitter beef, which appeared to start in the wubble, to the court.
The Sun are without coach Curt Miller, who returned home to Pennsylvania on Tuesday for a family medical issue involving his mother. Assistant Brandi Poole is acting coach in his absence.
Te'a Cooper served her one-game suspension on Wednesday for leaving the bench area in the altercation between the Sparks and the Lynx.
Keep up on weekly performance trends with the Just Women's Sports power rankings.
What to watch
Liberty at Sparks, Sunday 4 p.m. ET on ESPN — Celebrate! The two teams that tipped off the WNBA will meet again nearly 25 years to the day after that historic June 21, 1997 game.
Mercury at Sparks, Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network — As noted above, this is a battle of fourth-place and 11th-place teams that are separated by one game. This type of game is pivotal in the standings.
Sun at Sky, Saturday, 2 p.m. ET on CBS — The Sky made adjustments in the second half to quiet DeWanna Bonner and pull away in the final quarter. What adjustments will the Sun make in the quick turnaround?
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