Gabby Williams' French league situation is first test of new, controversial WNBA prioritization clause

For at least the initial implementation, it appears most players have prioritized the WNBA with an assist from beneficial schedules by both their domestic league and overseas ones. But less than two weeks into the 2023 season, one player remains impacted by the controversial prioritization clause.

Gabby Williams is a restricted free agent whose contract rights are held by the Seattle Storm, where she played in 2022 following a trade. The veteran played for French club ASVEL and helped win the championship early last week.

Her eligibility for the WNBA season has been a test of the clause since she missed camp, though it appears Williams might be able to sign a contract to play if she chooses. It’s also in sharp contrast to ASVEL teammate Marine Johannès, who reunited with her New York Liberty squad over the weekend as a player exempt to the clause.

Williams, 26, and her former Storm teammate Breanna Stewart, 28, were among the most outspoken about the 2020 collective bargaining agreement (CBA) prioritization clause that went into effect this season. Players who do not report for training camp face daily fines, and those who do not report by the start of the regular season will be suspended for the season.

Beginning in 2024, players will be suspended if they do not report for the first day of camp. A few players did report a little late this season, and will not be given that grace in the future. Retired star Sue Bird and veteran Candace Parker told Yahoo Sports in February this preseason was more of a “soft opening” with the larger implications to come next year.

Gabby Williams competes for France during the 2022 FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup in Sydney, Australia. (Kelly Defina/Getty Images)
Gabby Williams competes for France during the 2022 FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup in Sydney, Australia. (Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

Gabby Williams caught in the clause

Williams, Johannès, Julie Allemand and Blake Dietrick were the four players in the French League playing for AVSEL who were going to be most impacted by the clause. The league always goes later than other countries’ domestic leagues, bleeding into the WNBA regular season.

Allemand, who last played for the Chicago Sky, opted to forgo the 2023 WNBA season and is officially listed as a WNBA full-season suspension (personal reasons). Dietrick played for the Dream in 2021 and has not played a league game since. And Johannès has only two years of WNBA experience in 2019 and 2022. She will no longer be exempt from the clause next season.

Williams, who also plays for the French national team, said in her exit interview last fall that she was “shying away from the W because teams aren’t touching what I’m making in Europe.” Her base salary was $144,000 in 2022 and she became a restricted free agent when the new league season opened. Because she was not on a contract when training camps tip off, her situation could have opened a slight loophole.

The clause requires players under contract to report to their club before the start of the regular season. Players who are not under contract, such as Williams, are required under the CBA to merely “fully complete any offseason playing obligation prior to the start of the 2023 regular season” to be eligible to sign a player contract within the WNBA season.

Williams technically did that. She suffered a concussion in the first game of the semifinals and missed the deciding game, but returned for Game 1 of the French finals on May 17 — two days before the WNBA season tipped off. The French club suspended her contract shortly thereafter and ahead of the two wins on May 20 and 22 that won the title.

“The 2023 WNBA season is an option for Gabby, but not a certainty,” Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Williams’ agent, told ESPN’s M.A. Voepel last week. “For now, she’s prioritizing her health while taking into account her French national team commitments this summer. From there, we can start to evaluate availability for the WNBA, but as of today we are still a couple of steps away.”

Williams’ concussion is her second since late August and is reportedly serious enough to need three weeks of “complete” rest without basketball. She also intends to play in EuroBasket, which begins June 15 in Slovenia and Israel and wraps up on June 25. (Johannès will reportedly not partake in EuroBasket to stay with the Liberty.) At that point, Seattle would have played up to 15 games of its 40-game season. Complicating the issue further is how the Storm would fit Williams under their salary cap, which would necessitate a smart cut to make the money work correctly.

Seattle head coach Noelle Quinn said they are in “constant communication” with Williams, who the team acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Sparks ahead of last year. She was the Sky’s No. 4 overall pick in the 2018 draft out of UConn. Ahead of the 2021 season, the Sky placed her on the full-season suspended list because of her obligations to her national team at EuroBasket and the rescheduled Olympics that season.

New York Liberty guard Marine Johannès has only two seasons of WNBA experience and is exempt from the prioritization clause this season. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
New York Liberty guard Marine Johannès has only two seasons of WNBA experience and is exempt from the prioritization clause this season. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Why prioritization wasn’t as talked about this preseason

A few things worked in the league’s favor when it came to its new clause this year. Overseas clubs largely adjusted their schedules to fit games in before the WNBA regular season.

The Turkish league played the start of its finals in quick succession on April 22, 23 and 25. Fenerbahçe, which featured Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot, Kayla McBride, Kiah Stokes and Satou Sabally, swept Mersin, which included Elizabeth Williams, Chelsea Gray and Tiffany Hayes.

The WNBA season also began later than it did last year, when quite a few teams played multiple games without their star players who remained overseas. This year’s first games were May 19, 13 days later than the May 6 tipoff of last season, and in line with those of the previous three seasons (excluding the 2020 season shortened due to COVID-19).

They could do that this year because there is no summer Olympics nor is there a World Cup, as there was last fall. Next season is the 2024 Paris Olympics.

More impactful is that next season, players will be full-on suspended if they miss the first day of camp. Stewart first became an unrestricted free agent ahead of 2022 and said she signed a one-year deal with the Storm to “have a little bit more flexibility in technically what I can do in 2023 as we try and figure out this prioritization." She signed a one-year deal with the Liberty this past offseason.

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