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'It's really cutthroat:' In a year harder than most to make a WNBA roster, rookies contemplate next steps after being cut, deciding to sit out or making a team

Alexa Philippou, The Hartford Courant on

Published in Basketball

Even after getting drafted by the Chicago Sky in April, Kiah Gillespie was aware of how difficult it was going to be to make a WNBA roster. That's why when the opportunity arose for her to sit out the 2020 season and try for a spot on the Sky in 2021, she felt like that was her best move.

"There weren't that many options. It wasn't that hard of a decision to make," said the Meriden native and former Capital Prep standout who was drafted out of Florida State. "I think the best thing for me was to decide to sit out and have an opportunity to get a year of professional playing experience (overseas) under my belt before I came back for training camp in 2021."

This year, it was even tougher for drafted players like Gillespie to land a roster spot. Teams needed to get under the salary cap without holding training camps, with the season having been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and many clubs could only afford to carry 11 players under the league's new salary structure. That confluence of factors resulted in just under half of the 36 draftees landing roster spots by last Tuesday's deadline, some opting to sit the season out and the rest waived before the teams who drafted them could see them play.

"They got their NCAA Tournament taken away, then they don't get to have the in-person draft, and now they don't even get to step foot in training camp. Is there any type of a bright side?" ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said. "I just really feel for this class."

Though the WNBA season had already been postponed by the time the draft rolled around, players were hopeful that they could soon participate in training camps and, for those on the bubble, earn a spot on a team. That possibility was extinguished when the league and the players' union agreed that rosters must be finalized by May 26 so that players could start getting paid.

In addition to the 10 players they already had under contract, the Connecticut Sun had added two rookies and signed four players to training camp contracts, lining up what they expected to be a competitive camp. Last week, the Sun waived those four camp invites as well as third-round draft pick Juicy Landrum.

"Over the years, there have been players who will beat out a veteran (for a spot) because they've had a really good camp, or in preseason played really well against a certain team and even though they originally get cut might get picked up later that year, either by the team they're in camp with or by a team that they played really well against in the preseason," Lobo said. "So those opportunities go away."

Sun coach/general manager Curt Miller said it's possible the Sun would bring back one of their recent cuts when they're able to add a 12th player during the season, similar to how Natisha Hiedeman -- a rookie drafted out of Marquette who was cut in training camp last year -- was later brought back. She eventually played in all but one of the Sun's postseason games and re-signed with the franchise in the offseason.

As free agents, waived players can also be signed by a different team than the one that drafted them. And Lobo offers a potential long-term silver lining: No longer tied to salaries based on draft position, waived draftees who prove themselves overseas may be able to demand more money next season and have more say over which team they play for. One player who came to mind for Lobo as well-positioned for this was Miami's Beatrice Mompremier, the No. 20 overall pick who was cut by Los Angeles.

Gillespie was thrilled that the Sky took a chance on her, even after she unexpectedly dropped to the third round of the draft. Still, she wasn't necessarily in the most favorable of situations to make the team. The Sky can only carry 11 players for most of the season, and there was essentially one opening for their three draft picks and a training camp signee to fight for.

Gillespie has been designated as non-active for the full season, meaning that, unlike a waived player, she can't play in the WNBA at all this year. But her rights will be retained by the Sky, and she was told she's guaranteed a spot in training camp next season. In the meantime, she intends to spend this next year getting into WNBA shape and developing her game.

Among this year's draftees, three international players and two of the Atlanta Dream's picks also chose to sit out 2020.

"I think it sets me up for the chance to make that Chicago Sky roster and be on a team where they're really interested in my skillset and what I have to offer," Gillespie said. "It also gives me an opportunity to work on those things that I necessarily wouldn't have been the best at going into training camp this season."

 

Gillespie could have taken her chances this year and tried to find an opportunity with another team, but she went with what she saw as the less risky move.

"I just looked at it realistically," Gillespie said. "A lot of teams had to make a lot of tough decisions, and they had to waive players that they probably didn't necessarily want to waive because they haven't gotten the chance to really check out their skills. I felt that it was just smarter for me to stay somewhere and actually get the opportunity to play in front of them than to roll the dice and see if another team would pick me when they had people that they couldn't necessarily keep."

Kaila Charles knows that her work isn't over just because she landed a spot on the Sun's roster. The two rookies Connecticut started the 2019 season with (Kristine Anigwe and Bridget Carleton) were either traded or waived by early August.

"It's really cutthroat in a way," said Charles, who was taken No. 23 overall. "I wish we could have more teams and then more people could play. But it is very hard to make a roster, and I see that now, actually experiencing it."

Even though she made the cut, she's seen what happened this year with her peers. Five of the 12 teams didn't keep a 2020 draft selection. Charles was the sole player selected in the second half of the draft to make a roster.

"It really does hurt to see that," Charles said. "This whole situation is kind of unfair. ... As a competitor, I know how much I wanted to be on the court to prove myself, and so I feel for these other girls."

That reality makes Charles all the more motivated to work harder. She does whatever she can to stay sharp and in shape, both through the Sun's organized workouts and other activities on her own. And once she finally gets to step on the court with her new teammates, she wants to reaffirm to her team that she belongs there.

"It just gives me so much confidence that they believe in me and think of me so highly as a player, and being able to have that opportunity -- especially going second round -- is just a blessing," Charles said. "It gives me confidence that my coaching staff believes in me, and that I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be."

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