WNBA draft picks now face harsh reality of limited opportunities in small, 12-team league

As she gestured to the 2024 WNBA draft class, a group that features the likes of Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Cameron Brink and a bevy of other stars, ESPN analyst Andraya Carter summed it up perfectly.

“This group changed the game,” she said.

She’s right — or she will be soon. In just a month we’ll see the impact of these young women who are joining the oldest women’s professional sports league when women’s basketball is at an all-time high, more popular than ever. The sport is riding the wave of a tremendously successful and most-viewed Final Four, finally standing in the spotlight after decades of being pushed to the side.

“Women’s basketball is not a fad,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said before the draft started. “We’ve been steadily building this momentum for years.”

The question is, what kind of staying power does this 2024 draft class have?

This year's draft class was the most star-studded since “The Big Three” in 2013, when Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins (now Diggins-Smith) went No. 1, 2 and 3 respectively, generating tons of talk and energy around the league.

Eleven years later those three are still around, though each has had individual struggles: Delle Donne has been sidelined by injuries for long stretches of her professional career. Diggins-Smith missed the 2023 season after giving birth, then had a weird and seemingly ugly breakup with the Phoenix Mercury before signing with Seattle. Griner, of course, was wrongfully detained in Russia for nearly a year, her absence glaring and heartbreaking during the 2022 season.

Despite the pauses in their playing careers for whatever reasons, the staying power of those three superstars is noteworthy.

With just 144 roster spots stretching across 12 teams, the WNBA is the toughest professional league in the world to make. (Because of salary cap rules, quite a few teams only carry 11, making the total roster number closer to 136.)

That’s brutal, even for some of the best players in the college game. It’s not uncommon to hear your name called on draft night and then be cut before the first game. Consider that the top pick from 2021, Charli Collier, isn’t in the league anymore. In fact, just seven players from the 2021 draft were on rosters going into last season.

If you're a draftee, you can't like those odds.

Monday night before Caitlin Clark went No. 1, Engelbert reiterated that the league is closer to expansion than not, and said she feels optimistic that it can get to 16 teams by 2028 (the Bay Area expansion team is slated to begin play in 2025).

In the meantime, how many of Monday’s players will be able to actually impact the WNBA? Are there enough spots for them?

Of course we know what Caitlin Clark is going to do in Indiana. And players like Kamilla Cardoso, a mobile 6-foot-7 post, don’t come along very often; she will always find a home on a roster. Cameron Brink’s ability to impact both ends of the floor should help her anchor a WNBA team — in this case, the Los Angeles Sparks — for a long time.

Outside of those examples, there's plenty of room to worry. Not because these young women lack for talent, but because they lack for opportunities.

Lots of players went to what is easily the best situation for them: Dyaisha Fair, an undersized scoring machine from Syracuse, will learn more from Becky Hammon of the Las Vegas Aces than anyone else. Angel Reese and her relentless motor will thrive under new Chicago Sky head coach Teresa Weatherspoon. UCLA’s Charisma Osborne is headed to Phoenix, where the Mercury desperately need some scorers on the low end of the pay scale.

But roster spots are limited. That’s a shame, especially at a time when it feels like there’s no limit on the growth of women’s basketball.

It’s time for the WNBA to step up and get serious about expansion. Actions speak louder than words, as the saying goes. The players are acting, elevating the game every day with their play, from high school to college. The powerbrokers in the WNBA need to stop dragging their heels and name the next round of new — or revived — teams.

The 2024 draft class will be remembered as one of the strongest in the history of the league, a testament to the talent explosion across women’s basketball. But if the majority of these players aren’t on WNBA rosters in three years, that’ll be a loss for everyone.

Then they won’t be the group that changed the game. They’ll just be like so many before them. And that’s no way to grow the game.

Email Lindsay Schnell at or follow her on social media @Lindsay_Schnell

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2024 WNBA draft picks face long odds toward impacting league