NEW YORK — On Sunday, Jackie Young played in the national championship game for Notre Dame against Baylor. On Monday, she declared for the WNBA draft, forgoing her final year of eligibility. On Wednesday, she was selected No. 1 overall by the Las Vegas Aces.
“It’s been crazy,” Young said, taking a deep breath while cameras flashed in her face and reporters’ recorders were up in her personal space. She was still trying to comprehend everything that just happened.
“I didn’t have a dress, didn’t have anything. Didn’t have shoes. Honestly, it’s just been crazy.”
Young, dressed in a cobalt blue off-the-shoulder dress with sparkly stilettos, was escorted down a bright orange carpet around Nike Headquarters after her name was called. She had a second to hug her parents, talked to ESPN, and wrote her dream — to win a WNBA championship — on a basketball sticker that she posted to a bright purple wall for everyone to see. She couldn’t have been happier in this moment, rushed as it may have been. The 6'0" guard was surrounded by her family and coaches — and a bevy of foodie-friendly hors d’oeuvres, like mini-tuna tartares and one-bite burgers — as she became the first of five Notre Dame starters drafted Wednesday night. Louisville’s Asia Durr, Mississippi State’ Teaira McCowan, UConn’s Katie Lou Samuelson and Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale rounded out the top 5.
“As a kid, it was always my dream to be the first pick,” said Young, who averaged 14.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game as a junior. “I can’t even put it into words. I can’t believe it’s real.”
The last few days truly have been, in Young’s words, crazy. She had 24 hours after the Fighting Irish lost the national title by a point to decide whether she was returning to South Bend or turning pro. According to the WNBA collective bargaining agreement, players must declare 10 days before the draft unless they’re still competing in the NCAA tournament. In that case, they’re given 24 hours from the conclusion of their respective seasons to make a decision.
Wednesday’s draft fell three days after Baylor beat Notre Dame for the title, so Young quickly met with her family and Irish coach Muffet McGraw to determine what was best for her.
“The biggest thing I think was just trying to help my family out,” Young said, although WNBA salaries are not comparable to NBA salaries. “That was honestly the biggest thing. And making sure that I could do things the right way so that I would have a good future.”
If Young had more time to mull over her future after her season ended, she still might have arrived at the same place. But the quick turnaround from college to the pros poses a tough predicament for prospective WNBA players. Training camp begins in late April, and the league’s regular season runs from the end of May to the beginning of September. That doesn’t leave much time for a draft with about three weeks between the Final Four and players reporting for camp.
Sabrina Ionescu is not a fan of this system. And she didn’t mince words when she was asked about it, either. Ionescu, college basketball’s leader in triple doubles (18 for her career), had been the WNBA’s projected top pick up until she announced she was returning for her senior year last Saturday. Tuesday, she detailed the unfavorable time constraints she was under after losing to Baylor in the Final Four. Ionescu said she received a text at 8:15 p.m. informing her that a decision was due by 9 p.m. ET, 24 hours after the semifinal loss. She hadn’t been thinking about the draft as much during the season because “you’re really not focused on that in the midst of a Final Four trying to compete for a national championship, and so I really only had a few hours to think about what I was going to do.” With 45 minutes to spare, she got some food and went on a walk with her mom and brother to talk things out. She describes that brief period as “the most stressed I’ve been.”
“I think it’s horrible that a student-athlete only gets 24 hours to make one of the biggest decisions of their lives,” Ionescu said. “You really don’t have enough time to process what you want to do until after your season is over, and 24 hours is not enough. So, probably the most stressed I’ve been in a very, very long time.
“I think there needs to be more time. I think the draft can be pushed back a few more days. At least so the student-athletes can get home and talk with their families and get a few days after a win or a loss to make that decision.”
Male players don’t have to worry about this. Underclassmen can declare for the NBA draft after their season ends in March or April, go through a combine in May, and still have time to withdraw from the draft by 5 p.m. on June 10. Not to mention this year’s WNBA draft coincided with the last day of the NBA regular season, therefore ensuring it would get little to no national attention.
It will take more than a few frustrated players detailing their deadline horror stories to force change to the draft format. Especially with the current clause in the CBA. At least it's better than it used to be: From 2006 to ’08, the draft was the in the city of the Final Four the day after the title game, giving players even less time to catch their breath.
The WNBA draft may be uniquely positioned to carry momentum from the NCAA tournament to the regular season. But that doesn’t make these decisions any easier.