Jaylyn Agnew was social distancing in Omaha, spending time lakeside and improving her comfort level with ball screens, when in June she received a couple of calls she hoped would come.
The Mystics drafted Agnew, the 2020 Big East Player of the Year, in April, but WNBA training camp had been canceled, just like her final NCAA postseason tournament. Then, Washington waived Agnew as the team finalized its 2020 roster. So, she shifted her focus to securing a contract to play overseas in Russia starting in September while refining her skills in case another WNBA opportunity came up.
The first call from Atlanta Dream head coach Nicki Collen, following WNBA vet Renee Montgomery’s decision to sit out the 2020 season, was to inform Agnew of her interest.
The next day, the coach asked her whether she wanted to join the Dream.
“I was like, Heck yeah,” Agnew says.
Agnew’s situation is unique to 2020 WNBA rookies, who transitioned from the college level to the pros, a time already filled with change and uncertainty, during a pandemic. Out of 36 draft picks, 17 rookies made rosters, 16 were waived and three chose to sit out for the 2020 season. As a result, supremely talented players don't have—or almost didn't have—homes in the league this year.
The upcoming season is set to begin on Saturday in Bradenton, Fla., where the league’s players and staff will live throughout the season and playoffs. Each team will play 22 games and practice at IMG Academy over the next few months.
Long before draft day, it was clear rookies would have a tough time making teams' 12-person rosters. A blockbuster free agency filled with trades and pay upgrades under the new CBA created an environment that meant five of the league’s 12 teams would have enough space under its salary cap to sign only 11 players. To boot, rookies weren’t able to increase their visibility during the NCAA tournament or compete for a spot during training camp.
“There’s a reason why we invited everybody we did to camp. There’s a reason why we drafted every player,” says Collen, whose roster initially included two rookies and eight total newcomers. “And when you don’t get the opportunity to see those players battle for spots, it’s disappointing. It’s heartbreaking because I was once that player. I know that feeling and wanting to be good enough and wanting that opportunity and loving the game.”
Making the cut depends a lot on where a player lands. Washington was one of those teams that had room for only 11 players, after signing both Emma Meesseeman and Elena Delle Donne to new max contracts and acquiring Olympian and 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles in a trade. Charles won’t play during the 2020 season for medical reasons, and Delle Donne is unlikely to. Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said the team will continue to pay Delle Donne as she recovers from back injury. Agnew, along with the Mystics’ third-round choice, Sug Sutton, were cut, as were most rookies on 11-players teams. The rebuilding New York Liberty would keep six rookies (and they’ve since added another), but the L.A. Sparks had none.
Only half of 2020 second-round picks made rosters for the May 26 deadline, which was created so players could begin receiving pay on June 1. The lack of visibility especially hurt third-rounders like Erica Ogwumike, who Lynx GM and manager Cheryl Reeve said had a realistic chance to make the final cut in Minnesota.
The Storm drafted Duke’s Haley Gorecki at No. 33 on April 17. She is a versatile guard who played a massive role in Duke’s entry into the NCAA tournament conversation last season due to her ability to get into the lane or score from three-point range. As a redshirt senior, she averaged 18.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.0 steals, something no other Power 5 player did last season.
The Storm waived Gorecki on May 26. It was the first time she’d been cut from a team. Seattle’s lone 2020 rookie is Ezi Magbegor, who was drafted in 2019. The organization announced on draft night that its 2020 first-round pick, Latvian Kitija Laksa, would not be competing in the WNBA this season.
Seattle’s final roster is mostly made up of the players who won the WNBA title in 2018. And while Gorecki understands the situation and that players needed to get paid, there’s a sting that comes with being cut without having a chance to prove yourself.
“I would get super frustrated and upset and my brother would go like, ‘Haley, it’s out of your control,’ ” she says. “This whole process has been very fun, and I know my career will still go on. I’m staying optimistic. I’m really excited for everything to happen that’s coming and for next year as well.”
She wants to play for as long as she can and is preparing to play for Basket Zaragoza in Spain. While with her family in Palatine, Ill., the self-proclaimed gym rat has kept working out consistently in her routine. She normally doesn’t sit still long enough to binge too much TV, but she has watched Outer Banks and Tiger King.
Meanwhile, two third-round picks, Mikayla Pivec and Kiah Gillespie, were designated as “Non-Active” by the Dream and the Sky, respectively, which means they’ll sit out the 2020 season but the teams would retain their rights, and they’ll have a spot to land for training camp in 2021. The other third-rounders were waived.
“I mean, of course I wanted to come in and, you know, play in the WNBA and have that opportunity,” Gillespie says. “But I think if you look at the bigger picture, maybe it is the better chance for me to develop and then come back.”
Gillespie calls this moment in life a blessing in disguise. At FSU, she played as a stretch four with the footwork and skills to score in the paint as a post, but could hit from three or dish to a transitioning teammate. In the WNBA, she would likely have transitioned to the three, or small forward, position. Now, she’s moved back home to Connecticut and regularly shows up for tea time with her mom—whether it’s 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m. or 11 a.m.—and competes on Madden with her brothers. She’s signed to play in Israel for Maccabi Ra’anana for the 2020–21 season.
The Sky originally went with 11 players for its final roster after offseason trades and signings were made to keep the core that made the 2019 playoffs under first-year coach James Wade intact. Ruthy Hebard, the team’s No. 8 pick out of Oregon made the cut. But following a mutual decision between Gillespie and the Sky, she will sit out the season, play overseas and wait for training camp in 2021.
The Sky’s Diamond DeShields left the University of Tennessee and played in Turkey before entering the WNBA draft. DeShields reached out to Gillespie with advice.
“ ‘Use this as fuel,’ ” Gillespie recalls. “ ‘Take this step and be able to come in and be ready for what’s next.’ And I think that was really huge. And I definitely think her process wasn’t perfect. [But] I think what she did is what helped her be where she is now.”
Gillespie, who wants to eventually become a college coach, says her redshirt year in 2017–18, after transferring from Maryland to Florida State, prepared her for this moment. It’s when she learned discipline and revamped her attitude and game.
“It definitely taught me what it was like to basically have to build yourself up all over again.”
The obstacles that hurt players have now created a new chance for those on the margins of rosters.
Players have the option to opt out of the season, like Montgomery, who plans to focus on social justice work, and multiple have. And like Agnew, athletes are getting new opportunities to play. Similar to draft picks, which players are picked up depends on need, fit, culture, personal preference and potentially many other circumstances.
“There are times when teams get to the point where you’ve got a short list of who you would add, if you were ever in that situation, so I think it still falls in that same situation,” Collen says. “Whether it’s an opt out, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s injury, whatever the procedure’s gonna be for us, coaches are always thinking about what’s next, who’s up next.”
The Sun signed No. 20 pick Beatrice Mompremier after Jonquel Jones opted out due to concerns about the coronavirus. The Liberty signed No. 19 Joyner Holmes after Stephanie Talbot remained in Australia. No. 18 pick Te’a Cooper signed with the Sparks after Kristi Toliver opted out of the season.
In grade school, Cooper wrote a song about playing for L.A., and it became a family joke. “It's Te’a from the arc, I shoot it from the park-ing lot, a lot, I should be on the Sparks!’
Cooper, a guard who has experience both facilitating at the point and efficiency hitting three-pointers, played in college at Tennessee, South Carolina and most recently Baylor. She was drafted by the Mercury at No. 18. The Mercury narrowed its roster down to 11—no rookies—and waived Cooper. She knew then it wasn’t the end and continued training.
“I just tried to stay positive and I stayed in the gym. And just so happened, I got a call from my agent one day, and he was like, ‘I hope you are in shape,’ and I'm like ‘What, stop playing. Stop playing, what am I in shape for?’” she says.
Sparks head coach Derek Fisher and general manager Michael Fisher called, asked her about herself and her thoughts on the Sparks. On June 28, the team announced her signing.
Her thought process through the signings, cuts and abrupt end to her college career: I can only control myself.
She’s taking that mantra into the bubble as she plays on a team filled with vets like Candace Parker, Seimone Augustus, Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsey Gray.
“I’m excited just to be here and to be around them. So, just giving all my energy to them and pouring into them is gonna help me,” Cooper says. “Just really being a part and enjoying my teammates and the situation that I’m in. That’s all I wanna do, and that’s what I’m going to take from this experience.”
Stella Johnson was the first WNBA draft pick in Rider’s history, but expected the cut that came after Phoenix selected her. It wasn’t because the Mercury had built on the WNBA’s new superteams during the offseason, having Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brittney Griner on one roster, which ultimately created salary cap limitations. Her preparation for Sandy Brondello’s call stemmed from being a third-round draft pick coming from a mid-major.
“I knew I wasn’t gonna get the chance to present myself in training camp. I think people have an idea about mid-majors, like you haven’t played against the high teams, the high-DI teams,” she says. “If you’re not gonna get the chance (this year), you can get a chance next year. I think that’s what I set my mind on, just be able to get better overseas and have another chance next season, hopefully COVID free and everything.”
She was shocked when Chicago called to sign her. Sydney Colson tested positive for COVID-19, and Sky head coach James Wade had his eye on Johnson during the NCAA season because of her efficiency, toughness and consistency.
While isolating with her parents in New Jersey, Johnson spent most of her time on TikTok, finding new recipes and movies to watch on Netflix. She loves cooking and going for walks with her mom, but also was in the gym three to four times a week.
Now, she’s working to get comfortable calling plays as a WNBA point guard.
In practice, Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigely and Diamond DeShields are giving her advice. She’s also been “comparing notes” with fellow rookie Ruthy Hebard. Like Cooper, she’s become a sponge in training camp and taking advantage of a second opportunity to join the WNBA.
The players who initially missed out on opportunities with 2020 rosters, only to be given second chances later, are not only rookies like Cooper and Johnson. Veterans like Reshanda Gray, Essence Carson, Betnijah Laney and Alex Bentley, who didn’t return to their 2019 rosters, also were picked up after opt outs.
Indiana guard Erica Wheeler went undrafted out of Rutgers in 2013. After starting her career in Puerto Rico and Brazil, she was signed by the Fever in 2015. With 144 spots, she says making a roster is tough for everyone, not just rookies.
“I think it’s just a numbers problem, because you got some players that’s really good that just don’t make it,” she said.
“Because you can’t keep every great player. If you got A and B, and A’s been in the league already, you gon' keep A instead of B because B is a newcomer and A already got games under they belt.”
The groundbreaking new CBA didn’t explicitly address expansion. Its core changes focused on increasing quality of life for its players as well as the growth and sustainability of the current iteration of the league.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Englebert, who recently reached her one-year mark with the league, frequently says she wants to create an environment where all 12 current franchises are thriving before focusing on expansion.
“I mean, it has to be viable. It has to be a team that’s committed to the long term. It has to be one that makes sense in terms of the breakdown of our league,” Collen says. “I’d love to see growth in this league and more teams, but it has to make financial sense. It has to make logistical sense for the league. I think it’ll come. But right now we have to know that we have 12 really healthy franchises before we add any others.”
The landscape of free agency and deluge of cuts did lead to renewed debates over expansion, either of roster spots or the number of teams. These debates have intensified over recent seasons, due to talent getting better and the increased popularity of the league. The last new team to join the league was the Atlanta Dream in 2008.
Proponents of immediate expansion want to see talented players given the opportunity to play. While it’s been more than a decade since the Houston Comets and the Sacramento Monarchs folded, opponents of immediate expansion fear adding teams quickly or without the right ownership could lead to franchises folding.
But for now, there’s 12-player rosters, 12 teams, 144 spots and 36 draft picks. Wheeler’s journey took her from undrafted to 2019 WNBA All-Star MVP. She exists as proof that surviving as a draft pick isn’t the only route a player can take to enter the league.
“You put the work in and eventually your time will come, and when it comes, you do what you need to do,” she says. “Everything is all about opportunity and [being in the] right place. If you grind hard enough, it’ll come. Any player that’s getting an opportunity to play in this league, which is hard as hell to get in, it’s just 144 players, I just think that you can’t take no days off because at any given moment it can get stripped away from you. Like I said, it’s one of the best leagues in the world. So if you can be the best among the best, I think that speaks for itself.”