Sky head coach James Wade points out grim reality as WNBA roster moves begin to cut deep

·7-min read

The WNBA roster moves most were expecting are already cutting even deeper than anticipated. And it's only Tuesday.

"We're probably going to have some players that are actually WNBA players that are left without jobs," Chicago Sky head coach James Wade said in a bluntly truthful reality check on Tuesday, via On Her Turf's Alex Azzi.

WNBA teams have until the season tips off on Friday to cut their rosters to 12 players. Some can carry only 11 because of salary-cap space. Injuries and late arrivals due to overseas commitments also complicate that further with temporary rosters spots and 10-day hardship contracts soon in the mix.

The grim reality is most rookies who were drafted less than a month ago will not make an opening-day roster or stay on one for the first few weeks. Veterans are also being pushed out because there simply isn't enough space as the talent level grows by the year. And expansion isn't fully on the table right now.

Here's what to keep in mind as the week progresses and more teams make difficult decisions.

What's the nitty gritty here?

Teams must carry between 11 and 12 players on the roster at a time and most will carry 11 because of the salary cap. When the league and its union signed the collective bargaining agreement in January 2020, it raised player salaries significantly (nearly double for the top earners), but it has been difficult to carry as many players under a cap that did not rise as significantly.

At play here are WNBA-specific intricacies. With only 12 teams, there are, at maximum, only 144 roster spots. In one WNBA draft alone, there are 36 players of top talent brought into the league. There is also no developmental feeder or G League with two-way contracts or even practice players.

Players are still arriving late to training camp and could miss games because they are currently in the playoffs with their overseas clubs where they make up to 10 times more money annually. Others are injured. And there is no G League or injured reserve list to place players on rosters temporarily.

The hardship exemption is for a team that has two players out due to injury, illness or other conditions for at least three weeks from the time the request is made. It can be requested once two games have passed. An emergency hardship exemption is when a team has fewer than 10 available players on the roster. Many teams will have these once the season gets underway.

Lynx roster cuts include veteran, '21 ROY

Minnesota Lynx guard Layshia Clarendon was cut from their WNBA team on Tuesday. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Minnesota Lynx guard Layshia Clarendon was cut from their WNBA team on Tuesday. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Minnesota Lynx made the first wave of jaw-dropping roster news on Tuesday when they waived veteran point guard Layshia Clarendon, 2020 Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield, 2021 first-round draft pick Rennia Davis and both 2022 draft picks. The Lynx started the day with 11 players on contracts (excluding training camp and draftee deals) and a mere $12,198 of cap room, per Her Hoop Stats.

Clarendon rejuvenated the Lynx last season when they took her off waivers from New York. General manager and head coach Cheryl Reeve used a series of hardship waivers for them at first. Clarendon is coming off a stress fracture to her right tibia that impacted her late in the 2021 season; he did not play in the April 27 preseason game because of soreness but did start on Sunday. Reeve said on Tuesday she did not think the injury had healed enough for them to practice and play regularly.

Dangerfield experienced a down sophomore season and Davis missed her rookie year while rehabbing a stress fracture in her left foot. She underwent surgery in June 2021 after going No. 9 in the draft.

The Lynx have approximately $1 million of their $1.379 million salary cap tied up in six players and another $72,141 in Napheesa Collier, who is still on a pre-CBA rookie contract and will miss the start of the season while expecting her first child. They could also be without Damiris Dantas, Kayla McBride and Angel McCoughtry, who sat out the finale due to soreness in her knee. That will help trigger a hardship waiver while she is rostered but out.

The Sparks released popular point guard Te'a Cooper on Wednesday along with 2021 draftee Arella Guirantes and 2022 second-round selection Kianna Smith of Louisville.

Lack of roster spots for rookies

The roster hits will keep coming throughout the week as well as the coming month. The lack of rookies on rosters and therefore their ability to develop at a professional level has been a big issue for the WNBA, resulting in calls for expansion of at least roster sizes.

In 2019, it was Naismith Player of the Year Megan Gustafson who didn't make an opening-day roster (she has played parts of three seasons and was waived by the Washington Mystics last week). It's only been tougher since then.

"In no circumstance should we have a league where top draft picks aren't on a roster," Los Angeles Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike said on Tuesday.

Rookies who are waived often wait to play overseas and try again to make a WNBA roster the following spring. The draft is always in early April, and within two weeks, players are in market for training camps.

WNBA 2021 class struggled

In the 2021 WNBA rookie class, only 18 of the 36 draft picks appeared on rosters. Two players stayed at home with their domestic leagues and national teams. And a third, Davis, missed due to injury.

The top seven picks made rosters, but did not play big minutes. Michaela Onyenwere, the Liberty's No. 6 overall pick, won Rookie of the Year playing 22.5 minutes per game. Four first-round picks did not play in 2021 and currently only half are rostered, though some will likely be waived this week.

No. 13 overall pick Dana Evans won a championship with the Sky (which picked her up after Dallas waived her) but only five second-round picks played. And two third-rounders (Chelsey Perry, Aleah Goodman) played, but neither are on rosters this year.

What NCAA stars will make rosters?

Here's where the 2022 rookie class stands as of Wednesday at 9 a.m. ET. This list will change.

First round: 10 of 12 rostered

No. 5 overall pick and Oregon star Nyara Sabally (Liberty) will miss the season after undergoing a successful Osteochondral Autograft Transplantation (OCA) surgery on her right knee, the Liberty announced Tuesday. No. 8 pick Mya Hollingshed of Colorado was waived by the Las Vegas Aces on Monday.

Second round: Seven of 12 rostered

No. 14 pick Christyn Williams is out for the season with a knee injury sustained during training camp, the Mystics announced. LSU's Khayla Pointer (No. 13, Aces), NC State's Elissa Cunane (17, Seattle), NC State's Kayla Jones (22, Lynx) and Baylor's Jordan Lewis (24, Sun) have all been waived.

Third round: Four of 12 rostered

Sika Kone of Mali is out for the season while rehabbing following minor arthroscopic surgery, the Liberty announced of their No. 29 pick shortly after the draft. Australian Jade Melbourne (33, Storm) will also skip the season with the FIBA World Cup in September.

Jackson State's Ameshya Williams-Holiday (25, Fever), South Dakota's Hannah Sjerven (28, Lynx), North Florida's Jazz Bond (31, Wings), IUPUI's Macee Williams (32, Mercury), Indiana's Ali Patberg (34, Fever) and LSU's Faustine Aifuwa (35, Aces) have all been waived.

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