The most well-known name in women's college basketball will not be drafted Thursday night. She won't be taken in the 2022 WNBA draft, either.
Paige Bueckers built a never-before-seen freshman season for powerhouse Connecticut, a program that itself has experienced a fair share of unprecedented marks. She led the Huskies to the brink of reaching the title game and became the first freshman to win a score of awards, namely the John R. Wooden Award for college basketball's most outstanding player.
If she were a male player, she could choose to be a one-and-done as the likely No. 1 pick in the draft. Her childhood best friend, Gonzaga freshman Jalen Suggs, has that option and is projected to go second overall by Yahoo Sports draft analyst Krysten Peek.
“Two kids from the same neighborhood, same background, same everything go to school 3,000 miles apart. Their paths are 3,000 miles different,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said during tournament media availability. “One will have the opportunity to be 1-2-3 pick in the NBA draft and make millions and millions of dollars. The other will be back at UConn.”
The WNBA, which enters its 25th anniversary season next month, operates with different eligibility rules than the NBA. Those rules are increasingly a topic of discussion that has come to the forefront with Bueckers, and it's not as clear of a call to change the rules as it is with the NBA.
Why can't Paige Bueckers enter WNBA draft?
Most college players aren't eligible for the WNBA draft until they've finished four years of college. But there are some exceptions in the collective bargaining agreement for juniors such as Texas' Charli Collier, projected to be the No. 1 pick this week.
A player who turns 22 in the calendar year of the draft can renounce their NCAA eligibility and enter. Sabrina Ionescu could have declared as a junior in the April 2019 draft, for example, because she turned 22 on Dec. 6 later that year.
A player who graduated from a four-year school prior to the draft or within three months after the draft can declare. Many women's players graduate within three years and begin graduate programs to stay for a fourth.
International players who do not play collegiate ball in the U.S. are eligible if they turn 20 during the calendar year of the draft. The Seattle Storm drafted Ezi Magbegor in 2019 when the Australian center was 19.
The draft rules have been around since the league was founded in 1997 and the current CBA runs through 2027, so they are here for a while. Bueckers is staying in school until at least 2023 when she'll turn 22 in October. But she could be the reason it's changed in the future.
WNBPA thinking about draft eligibility changes
There was a lot to pack into the CBA after players opted out following the 2018 season. The new deal includes higher salaries, better benefits and accommodations more fitting of professional athletes.
Sue Bird, four-time Seattle Storm champion and WNBA Players Association vice president, said the union briefly discussed it during CBA negotiations in 2019, but didn't revisit it with so much else on the table.
“It wasn’t the priority in the moment,” Bird said from Team USA camp last month, via the Associated Press. “I think what’s interesting in this conversation is, I think players should have a choice, always. Players should always have a choice.”
Her longtime teammate, foe and friend, Phoenix Mercury star Diana Taurasi, agreed.
“I think the next step is to have the choice,” Taurasi said, via AP. “Will kids do it? Probably not. We should have that option. If you’re the best at your profession, you should be able to get better.”
Bueckers and fellow freshman phenom Caitlin Clark at Iowa were both asked about it and demurred, noting the choice isn't available to them so there's no purpose in thinking about it. They are part of an incredible 2024 class that includes Aaliyah Edwards (UConn), Cameron Brink (Stanford) and Hailey Van Lith (Louisville).
WNBA players who leave college early
There are very few players who opt to leave college early as an eligible junior. The benefits, and mainly the money, are not there the way they are in the NBA.
In the previous CBA, rookies like four-time UConn champion Breanna Stewart made around $40,000 a year on a rookie contract. WNBA rookies drafted first through fourth in 2021 will receive $70,040 in base salary. That's life-changing money for a lot of people, but it pales in comparison to $8 million a No. 1 NBA draft pick will make.
WNBA players have historically complemented their salaries with potentially more lucrative overseas contracts and marketing deals. But that money is rare to start out for rookies.
For some, it's worth it. Notre Dame star Jewell Loyd (Seattle Storm) and Minnesota's Amanda Zahui B (Los Angeles Sparks) entered the 2015 draft early. In 2016, Aerial Powers (Minnesota Lynx) left Michigan State as a junior and UConn's Morgan Tuck left with a year of eligibility remaining after taking a redshirt as a sophomore.
"Trends take more than a year or two to really develop," Lisa Borders said as WNBA president in 2016. "Let's revisit this again a few years down the road and then see where we stand."
South Carolina redshirt juniors Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis followed in 2017. Diamond DeShields left Tennessee as a junior to play overseas in Turkey ahead of the 2018 draft that also included early entrant Azura Stevens of UConn. Jackie Young left Notre Dame and was the Las Vegas Aces' No. 1 overall pick in 2019. And in 2020, Oregon's Satou Sabally, UConn's Megan Walker and Texas A&M's Chennedy Carter were first-round picks as eligible juniors.
It's a few years later, a trend is there and it's time to revisit it.
Eligibility rule benefits women's game
The impact of allowing players to declare early is deeper than only a talented player like Bueckers or Clark. Keeping top-notch talent in college year after year grows the collegiate game, and in women's basketball, it still has an outsized impact on women's basketball at large.
“That’s what helped our game grow, the fact these kids stay in school a little longer,” Auriemma said. “Build a brand for themselves, build a brand for the university.”
Fans will be tuning in for two more college seasons to watch Bueckers and the freshmen talent that showed out this year. It allows players times to build their own brands and marketing worth — even if they can't make money off of it in college — to leverage as soon as they turn professional. Ionescu has done that with her on-court talents and off-court degree.
But there are also not enough spots for the amount of talent now in the women's game. The WNBA required players to "opt-in" to the draft this year, as did the NBA, because student-athletes have the option of returning to school for an extra year given COVID-19. There were 53 players who put their name in for consideration and the number drew sighs from well-established WNBA talent.
"I like the requirements right now selfishly because I think it grows women's basketball," former UConn star and ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said on a pre-draft conference call. "We saw the ratings this year in women's college basketball and the tournament and the Final Four. These women are on a huge stage on that platform, and I'd like to see them continue to be on that stage until they're completely ready for the WNBA."
The unfortunate reality is there are not a lot of places for them to go if they chose to leave early. Natasha Cloud, Diamond DeShields, Lexie Brown and Erica Wheeler were all among the first to comment on a Highlight Her graphic, noting that there are only 12 spots on each of 12 teams. But that 144 roster number isn't accurate, either. Because of the higher salaries and team salary caps, ESPN analysts and WNBA general managers estimated it might be closer to 137 on a pre-draft call last week.
That a large group of talent opted out of the 2020 season and will return this year doesn't help the matter. Rosters right now are bulging and the jump from collegiate ball to the professional level is a big one. Second- and third-round draft picks are already a long shot to make rosters and some first-round picks might not make it either. Of the 36 players drafted in 2020, 18 were on the season-opening roster.
The league needs expansion first for the growing talent coming up into the professional ranks. We'd all love to see Bueckers or Clark in the WNBA sooner than later. But without more teams, it doesn't make sense for the game if they were to jump now. That might change by the time the CBA is set to expire, and Bueckers' collegiate feats might force a change for generational talents. For now, there are other changes to accomplish first.
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