The lead-in to tipoff of the 2022 WNBA season started as it had the past few years with news of big names and recent draftees being waived ahead of first games.
Two-time Seattle Storm champion Breanna Stewart was one of many to sound off on the issue, calling for a soft salary cap or the addition of practice players.
"We need to be developing young talent and taking advantage of the momentum newly drafted players bring from the college game," she wrote, which is a bridge WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, NCAA women's basketball personal and players have said needs remedied to grow fandom.
Her Hoops Stats writer Jacob Mox looked at what adding practice players might look like with specific parameters that mirror the NBA G League.
"My biggest takeaway is that looking at the alternative to practice players, which would be just pure rostered players, that almost can’t happen without an increase in the salary cap," Mox told Yahoo Sports. "Because then you just run into a more exaggerated version to what we’re seeing right now. So increased roster sizes would have to come with an increased salary cap. ... An option is to avoid the CBA entirely and go the practice player route."
His proposal is for up to five practice players at a maximum total cost of $144,282 in 2022 — that's less than a maximum contract and about 11% of the approximately $1.38 million salary cap. He said it was important in this hypothetical that it be at-will for both sides.
The WNBA is at a critical point with some deep-pocketed team owners wanting to go all in and invest while others can't afford the upfront costs of that. This would allow team owners, like Mark Davis in Las Vegas or Joseph Tsai in New York, to make their teams better without forcing it on everyone else. But it would create a competitive disadvantage the collective bargaining agreement has worked to avoid in cases like chartered flights.
"You have to kind of sway some teams that, hey, you can not spend this money if you want, but you’re going to have a disadvantage," Mox said. "That could be a stumbling block for some owners."
When the CBA was agreed to in January 2020, max salaries went up 82% ($117,500 to $215,00) while the cap only grew 30% ($996,100 to $1.3 million), forcing general managers to be creative in building rosters. Ten of the 12 teams are carrying the minimum 11 to fit under that cap, but the talent pool continues to grow around them.
"What the general public forgets at times, it's not always about the best 11 players, it's the best 11 players that fit under your salary cap," Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller said on May 3. "And that is two different statements."
Engelbert is focused on league expansion before roster expansion, though players like Candace Parker feel the opposite. Something has to give to keep elevating the league.
Undrafted rookies make early marks near campus
For all the talk of high draft picks missing out on opportunity, there are two undrafted rookies who made rosters straight off their college seasons.
Maryland graduate student Katie Benzan moved 25 minutes down the Potomac River to the Washington Mystics, where she put up a big night off the bench against the offensive juggernaut Aces. In 15 minutes she scored 12 points, going 3-of-4 from 3-point range and 3-of-4 from the free-throw line. She is the first Dominican player in WNBA history and Alysha Clark coined her success "Benz-sanity."
— Kareem Copeland (@kareemcopeland) May 12, 2022
Benzan, who played three years at Harvard before transferring, set the Terrapins career record for 3-point percentage (47.4%, 166-250) and ranked sixth in the nation in 2021-22 (44.5%, 73-164). She averaged 10 points a game almost predominately off of 3s, making 73 of her 100 total made baskets there.
Or, as Myisha Hines-Allen eloquently put it:
— The NBS Sports Hour (@NBSSportsHour) May 11, 2022
Benzan is on a hardship signing, so she will be released as soon as the Mystics are back at full strength. When Clark is ready to return, Stephanie Jones will be released as the first hardship signing made by the Mystics. Benzan will have to leave when Elizabeth Williams returns from overseas commitments.
Out west in Arizona, Wildcats star Sam Thomas moved two hours up Route 10 to play for the Phoenix Mercury. Thomas has played nine minutes over two games with a rebound and an assist.
Of the 36 players drafted, 17 were on opening-day rosters. Five of the players were not with their teams because of injury or staying abroad. This rookie class also includes a handful of older players who are making their WNBA debuts.
Adding in the Sky's Rebekah Gardner tonight, so far this season 6 players have made their WNBA debut at age 26+.
Rui Machida (29)
Sparkle Taylor (26)
Tina Krajišnik (31)
Nikolina Milić (28)
Kristy Wallace (26)
Rebekah Gardner (31)
That is the most in one season since 2001 (8).
— Across the Timeline (@WBBTimeline) May 12, 2022
Six players at least 26 years of age have made their debuts so far, the most in one season since eight in 2001, per Across the Timeline. The issue of draftees not making rosters, and therefore being unable to develop and learn from the world's best, is still a problem that needs to be addressed. But the first-year players who have stuck are showing out.
Fantasy notes of the week
Aces forward A'ja Wilson scored the most fantasy points (110) over the last week of play and was joined in the top 10 by teammates Kelsey Plum (102, fourth), Jackie Young (94, sixth) and Dearica Hamby (92, 10th), according to ESPN's fantasy database using the standard scoring format. The Aces are averaging 89 PPG, trailing the Mercury's 92.5. Center Sylvia Fowles has the best fantasy night of any player (55 points on May 10) as the one bright spot in Minnesota's early struggles.
*chef's kiss* pic.twitter.com/Q0TjIMB3o5
— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) May 11, 2022
Sky guard Dana Evans has been one of the early season surprises. She was on barely any rosters to start the season, but saw an increase of 27.7% of rostered leagues. Evans is still on only 28.9% of ESPN rosters and could still see decent playing time off the bench. The second-year guard had 39 fantasy points vs. the Sparks and 25 vs. the Liberty. Backcourt mate Rebekah Gardner, a 10-year veteran overseas, is also an option with 23 fantasy points in her WNBA debut.
Some players returned from their overseas commitments this week, including the Mercury's Diamond DeShields and Brianna Turner, after the Turkish League semifinals concluded. CBK Mersin (Sun's DeWanna Bonner) is in the finals against a Fenerbahce loaded with WNBA talent (Mystics' Elizabeth Williams, Wings' Satou Sabally, Fever's Bria Hartley, Aces' Kiah Stokes, Lynx's Kayla McBride). Fenerbahce won the first game, 90-55, and the second, 95-56. Game 3 is on Sunday.
In Spain, the Sky's Kahleah Copper and Sparks' Katie Lou Samuelson won the domestic league title for Avenida and Copper was named MVP on Thursday. They and Valencia's Rebecca Allen are expected to be available early next week. The Sky's Julie Allemand (Lyon) is still in the French league playoffs.
Highlight of the week
From Sylvia Fowles becoming the 13th player in WNBA history to reach 6,000 points to a litany of fun blocks — hello, Queen Egbo — there was no shortage of highlights to start off the season. Sparks guard Chennedy Carter gets the nod for collecting a loose ball near the baseline and going coast-to-coast in a tight game with the Fever. It's nice to see Carter at her best back out on the court again.
— Los Angeles Sparks (@LASparks) May 8, 2022
In case you missed it
Things got weirder and more worrisome in Minnesota. Angel McCoughtry's time with the Lynx lasted 20 minutes before she and the team agreed to a buyout. Odyssey Sims is also gone.
Travel issues are already bubbling up. Natasha Cloud called out the league's commercial flights after entering health and safety protocols and Breanna Stewart joined her the following night after she and Epiphanny Prince were ruled out. Kelsey Plum wasn't happy with the daylong trip from Las Vegas to the District: "Those little things make a difference."
WNBA graced the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition, but not without notes on multiple ways to look sexy beyond the standard views.
2020 Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield — again without a team when her hardship signing expired — got in a revenge game against the Minnesota Lynx one day before turning 24. Fellow former Husky Evina Westbrook signed a hardship contract with the Lynx.
And everything you want a refresher on from opening weekend, including Candace Parker's exquisite Mother's Day kicks designed by her daughter, Lailaa.
Game(s) of the weekend
This weekend's slate is worthy of two games of the week, both on Saturday.
The first is the Phoenix Mercury vs. Seattle Storm (3 p.m. ET, ABC). The teams first met on Wednesday night in Phoenix and will turn around for their second of three regular season meetings in Seattle. The Mercury won, 97-77, and it's unclear if Stewart and Prince can return in time for Saturday. Sue Bird has said all signs point toward this being her final season — though she won't rule out a return — and it could be one of the final meetings between her and Diana Taurasi, who seems to be staying around a while longer. The final meeting is July 22 in Phoenix.
The second is the Los Angeles Sparks visiting the Connecticut Sun (7 p.m. ET, Facebook/League Pass). The Sparks (2-1) are out to an impressive start after loading up in free agency and notched wins over the reigning champion Sky and Fever before falling to the Dream (yes, eye emojis for Atlanta). The Sun (0-1) are preseason favorites to win the title after years of coming close, but will still be without Bonner (not with team, overseas) and Courtney Williams (suspension).
All games are available on WNBA League Pass unless listed on national TV (ESPN, CBS, Amazon)
Friday: Wings at Mystics (7 p.m. ET); Aces at Dream (7:30 p.m. ET); Fever at Liberty (8 p.m. ET, Twitter, Fever Facebook page)
Saturday: Mercury at Storm (3 p.m. ET, ABC), Sparks at Sun (7 p.m. ET, Facebook), Sky at Lynx (8 p.m. ET, NBA TV)
Sunday: Wings at Liberty (2 p.m. ET), Dream at Fever (3 p.m. ET, Amazon)