February 14, 2018
It may not be the most well-known part of the CBA, but draft rules have become a larger focus in the WNBA in recent years when it comes to international players. With one of the more highly regarded international prospects in several years becoming eligible for selection in 2018, those who have not thought much about rules differences are considering them now. An initial bout of confusion came last season when the Lynx signed Cecilia Zandalasini, a free agent who somewhat surprisingly went undrafted in her year of eligibility in 2016. Since she had at one time considered playing in the NCAA, American WNBA fans were more familiar with her age than other prospects and some were unclear on how she could arrive in the WNBA when other players her age were still in school. The rules as they are currently constructed make for some tough choices for players with both WNBA aspirations and interest in collegiate play. One of the top prospects in the 2019 Draft has a difficult decision ahead of her as she will likely be a high pick next year, but will be barred from that draft and the 2020 Draft if she opts to attend college. Early entry has been a part of men’s college basketball discussions for years, but has not been a talking point on the women’s side.
Draft eligibility is covered on pages 105 and 106 of the current CBA. Subsection (b)(i) of Section 1 of Article XIII lays out they basic criteria of eligibility as “(b) A player is eligible to be selected in the WNBA Draft if she: (i) will be at least twenty-two (22) years old during the calendar year in which such Draft is held and she either has no remaining intercollegiate eligibility or renounces her remaining intercollegiate eligibility by written notice to the WNBA at least ten (10) days prior to such Draft;”. While that covers college players, Paragraph’s (d) and (e) provides rules for international players as “(d) Notwithstanding Section 1(b) above, an international player is eligible to be selected in the WNBA Draft if she will be at least 20 years old during the calendar year in which such Draft is held. (e) For purposes of this Section 1, an “international player” means any person born and residing outside the United States who participates in the game of basketball as an amateur or a professional. An international player who exercises intercollegiate basketball eligibility in the United States shall be subject to the eligibility rules set forth in Section 1(b)(iii) above.” That means that players are either classified as non-international or international players with the former not being allowed to play in the WNBA until their age 22 year and the latter being allowed as early as their age 20 year.
The difference in the rules between the two types of players has a number of consequences. Foreign players with WNBA aspirations who are contemplating their options at a young age have a difficult decision to make. Attending college means a postponement of those goals for at least two years. Even foreign players who decide that the college system is not for them and return home to play professionally are not automatically eligible for the next draft, but must wait until the draft in their age 22 year. Of course, American players do not have that choice and must wait until their age 22 year to play in the WNBA. Besides the obvious immediate consequences, the rules have other effects. International players can use the accelerated timeline to burn through their rookie contract and other restrictions earlier and reach free agency and larger contracts at a younger age. Player evaluation is also affected as teams face both risks and rewards when picking international players since they are two or more years younger than the rest of the prospects being evaluated.
International players are notoriously difficult to forecast in the WNBA. Many internationals make enough money outside of the WNBA that they are not willing to play in the WNBA at all or every year, especially with the lure of national team competition. Players who have a more difficult time earning significant money on their home continents have a much better record of being regular WNBA players. The face that teams must draft them at a younger age also makes their development curves harder to predict. Nevertheless, in the 12 team era, 6 players have played in the WNBA at an age at which they would not have been eligible as Americans.
The current poster child for this is Emma Meesseman, who came over in the year that she was drafted. Her age 20 year saw her receive regular playing time, which helped boost her to a starter in the next season and the team’s second leading scorer, all at an age at which American players cannot play in the league yet. Liz Cambage has recently returned to the WNBA spotlight and she was an even greater immediate contributor, earning all star honors in her rookie year while still 19. Even though she has not had a track record of playing every season, there is no question that she was ready for the league at a young age. One more player who debuted in her draft year was Astou Ndour, who earned a handful of minutes as a rookie, taking her age 21 year off before returning in a bigger role the next year at the age of a typical American rookie. Three players made their WNBA debuts in their age 21 year. Farhiya Abdi was the only one of them who was drafted, primarily coming off the bench in three straight seasons. Valeriane Ayayi played spot minutes in her one WNBA season. Cecilia Zandalasini was a late addition in her rookie season, walking away with a championship a year after not being picked in the draft.
As a matter of basic fairness, it seems unusual that this disparity has been allowed to exist and continue. Should players face additional restrictions on when they can enter the league simply based on where they are born or where they choose to attend school? The NBA allows both international and non-international players to enter the draft as soon as their age 19 year. There are marketing and development reasons for the WNBA to want to postpone the arrival of American players, but denying themselves the signing of international players who have already committed to professional basketball instead of the American college system also does not make sense so the rules themselves are not arbitrary. That means the simple change of pushing international eligibility back to the age 22 year is unlikely. Bringing the college eligibility age down to 20 also would be a hard sell, especially with players on the borderline in terms of birthday often joining the later class, which would mean that some players could leave after their freshman year.
Moving both one year to converge at 21 might be a reasonable compromise. Only the biggest true international stars are ready to play in the league in their age 20 season and teams would get another year to evaluate those players. American players would still develop in college, but could leave early, better accommodating players with family financial needs or those who struggle academically. Alternatively, collegians who renounce their eligibility early could automatically be eligible for the draft one year later as is the case in the NBA. International players would no longer be penalized for choosing to try college. American players who opt to play professionally overseas at a younger age would then be able to be drafted sooner, increasing their earnings potential at home and abroad.