Roster space is at a premium for WNBA teams, making it a tough road for rookies to make the roster. While first round picks can generally expect to make the team and get a chance in the regular season, the record is much spottier for second round picks with third round picks having an even longer shot to make it to the season. In the seven previous drafts of the twelve team era, only four players have made it to a second season on their initial contract without being waived, which is only one more than the number of draft picks in that time that have been voided due to teams picking ineligible players. Only thirteen of the players ended up playing a game in the year they were drafted on their initial contracts. Given that record, are there changes that can be made for the future?
Removing the third round:
If third round picks rarely make it through training camp, is there an argument for reducing the size of the draft in the next CBA negotiations? If players have very little chance at surviving training camp, then perhaps they should be allowed to choose which training camp to attend like undrafted players instead of being restricted to one team. That would allow the player to evaluate different team situations and pick a spot where she would best be in a position to earn a spot on the final roster. There are arguments for keeping the draft at least at the current length. A team is more likely to be invested in a player if they used a draft pick on her than if she was undrafted, even though the pick is a sunk cost. Having more draft choices encourages teams to scout further, possibly helping them identify less heralded players who can make an impact, especially from lesser known schools. While the picks themselves may not have real value, they still create additional assets that can be used as trade currency to help teams make other moves.
Changing draft rights rules:
The issue of pick value is not due to the lack of quality of players available. The limited roster spots force teams to make tough decisions when it comes to the final players who make the team. Many current WNBA players have been waived in their career only to return and prove themselves to belong in the league. Are there changes that could be made that could give the picks more value and reward teams for making good selections? One of the other uses of late round picks is for players who are unable to sign a contract for their rookie season, often a result of an injury. In the past eight drafts, eleven third round picks from college did not sign a contract in their draft year. Teams can benefit from taking injured or otherwise unavailable players because those players usually fall in draft position compared to their projected talent level due to their immediate unavailability. This approach can be risky because of how draft rights are set up as college players can choose to re-enter the draft in the next year if they do not sign any kind of professional contract, although this provision has not been tested yet.
Some minor tweaks in the future could be made to the concept of draft rights that would give these types of picks more value. Perhaps third and even second round picks could be allowed to attend training camp without signing a contract that leads to any rights being relinquished if the player does not make the final roster. The mechanism could even work like restricted free agency in combination with a roster or salary cap exception rule, allowing teams that make insightful late picks a way to keep those players along with the rest of their roster. There could also be additional protection on unsigned draft picks that makes them last longer. Late round picks do continue to find their way onto rosters, but with the deck stacked against them, the current system does make the picks themselves lack value for teams as assets.
Drafting more international players:
Given the lack of value that teams are getting out of their third round picks, is there another way for them to utilize them more efficiently? Instead of focusing on college players for these picks, teams could more aggressively use their picks on international players. Many of the international players will not reach the WNBA level and never arrive to see if teams made the right choices, but that is not much different from the results of those picks now. The advantage of picking international players comes from the draft rules themselves. International players are drafted or undrafted in the calendar year in which they turn 20, unlike college players. That means that college players are two or even three years older than the international players in their same draft class. An international player might not be at the same level as the collegiate players at the time of the draft, but the years of development after the draft could mean that they have the chance to surpass the current level of those college players by the time they reach the same age. Even the international players who are considered very likely to make an impact often fall in the draft because it is less certain that they will join the league due to national team play or lower salaries compared to their home countries.
While there are gems to be found with international draft picks, finding the right player is much trickier than with college players. This season, eight players who were classified as international were on opening day rosters. Half of those players were undrafted and recent history for other international players also reveals a similar record. Given the rarity of players who are ready to contribute in the WNBA at age 20, it becomes more important to figure out a way to project some of the future development. If college players were only drafted as sophomores, but not allowed to play until they graduated, there would be a lot of wild hits and misses as well. If more teams used these picks on international players, it would be more likely that the players who could contribute when they are older could be identified.