WNBA CBA Explained: The Draft

How the WNBA Draft works, who is eligible for the WNBA draft, and a refresher on rookie contacts

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Welcome back to our WNBA CBA and Salary Cap Explained series. As part of our mission to unlock better insight into the women’s game, we’re breaking down the rules outlined in the 350-page WNBA Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), covering the 2020 through 2027 seasons, in plain language. Each article will focus on a bite-size chunk of the CBA to make the concepts more digestible. To catch up on the previous 14 pieces in the series, check out the list at the bottom of this article. We are also compiling all of this information on the Her Hoop Stats website in a single FAQ document.

Today, we are going to be breaking down the rules surrounding the WNBA Draft. This will include player eligibility, the draft lottery, and trading draft picks. We will also recap other rules we have discussed previously that are relevant to the draft. Some of the rules discussed in this piece, such as the draft lottery, are not outlined explicitly in the CBA. In that case, we have learned them over many years from league announcements as well as sources, so we will make a note when that occurs and will update this piece if league operating procedures change.

When are domestic players eligible to be selected in the WNBA Draft?

Players who were born in the United States, reside in the United States, or who have played basketball collegiately in the United States are governed by one set of eligibility rules. We will refer to these players as domestic players. International players have a different set of requirements, which are covered in the section below.

To be eligible for the WNBA draft, all domestic players must have no remaining collegiate eligibility, or they must renounce it in writing at least 10 days before the date of the draft. The 10-day timeline has been adjusted for the 2021 draft to account for the fact that all NCAA athletes were granted an extra year of eligibility due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Additionally, domestic players must meet one of three other requirements. The first, and most common one, is for a player to be at least 22 years old by December 31 of the calendar year of the draft.

As a second option, players younger than 22 are eligible to enter the draft if they have graduated from a four-year university or will graduate from a four-year university within three months of the draft. For example, if a player enrolls in college in the Fall of 2021 and graduates in just three years in the Spring of 2024, they would be eligible for the 2024 draft in April regardless of their age, provided they choose to renounce their remaining collegiate eligibility.

Finally, players younger than 22 are also eligible to enter the draft when the player’s original class at a four-year university has graduated or will graduate within three months after the draft.  As an example, if a player enrolls in college at the age of 17 in the Fall of 2021, they would be eligible for the 2025 draft at age 21 even if they do not graduate.

When are international players eligible to be drafted?

Players deemed to be international have a different set of rules determining eligibility for the draft. In order to qualify as an international player, they must have been born and reside outside of the United States. They may play professional or amateur basketball prior to being drafted, but they cannot play collegiately in the United States.

If the player meets those requirements, they will automatically become eligible for the draft in the calendar year that they turn 20 years old. However, if an international player chooses to play collegiately in the United States, they then have to follow the “domestic” draft eligibility rules.

How is the draft order determined?

Although not outlined in the CBA, the league has made clear how the draft order is determined. The four teams who miss the playoffs in a given season make up the first four picks of the next draft, and the order of those teams is selected via the draft lottery. The lottery is conducted by choosing combinations of four ping-pong balls numbered 1 through 14 from a lottery machine. There are 1,001 possible sets of four, ranging from 1-2-3-4 to 1-2-3-5 to 11-12-13-14.

Teams are ranked by their win-loss percentage over the past two seasons, regardless of differences in games played. This means the 2019 season (34 games) held more impact on this calculation for the 2021 draft than the 2020 season (22 games). Based on this ranking, teams receive the following number of combinations from the 1,000 assigned combinations (11-12-13-14 is not assigned to any team):

For each of the top two picks, four balls will be drawn from a lottery machine. Whichever team has been assigned that four-ball combination will receive the No. 1 pick in the draft. The process is repeated to determine the No. 2 pick in the draft. The two teams who are not drawn in the lottery are given the Nos. 3-4 picks in reverse order of their winning percentage over the past two seasons. As a result, the complete set of odds of each of the four lottery teams receiving any of the first four picks is as follows:

The remaining picks, Nos. 5-12 of the first round and the entirety of the second and third rounds are determined by the reverse order of the teams’ regular-season record for the prior season only. This means that for the remaining eight picks of the first round, the playoff team with the highest winning percentage that season gets No. 12, the second-highest percentage gets No. 11, and so on. This is also done with all 12 teams for rounds two and three.

When and how can draft picks be traded?

Draft picks and the exclusive negotiation rights to drafted players can be traded according to the general trade rules we have outlined previously, but draft picks cannot be traded beyond next year’s draft. For example, starting on January 1, 2021, teams can trade 2022 draft picks but not picks covering 2023 or later.  On January 1, 2022, they can begin to trade 2023 picks. This rule is not outlined in the CBA, but Her Hoop Stats sources have confirmed this is league policy. If the exclusive negotiation rights to a drafted player are traded, the new team retains the exact same rights as the drafting team.

What happens if an eligible player goes undrafted?

If a player goes undrafted, they immediately become an unrestricted free agent and are free to sign a rookie-scale contract at the undrafted base salary for either one or two years. Players are not allowed to “re-enter” the draft if they go undrafted.

Rookie-Scale Contract Refresher

Our CBA FAQ section on rookie-scale contracts outlines many of the rules that will govern drafted and undrafted players.  As a refresher, key rules include:

  • Rookie-scale contract terms are specified in the CBA based on season and draft position.

  • Teams are required to tender a contract to drafted rookies within seven days of the draft to retain the player’s draft rights.

  • If the team doesn’t extend the required tender, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent and may sign at the rookie scale with any other team.

  • If the team tenders a contract, but the player doesn’t sign, the team that drafted them retains the rights at least through the following draft.

  • Undrafted players are rookie free agents, and therefore free to negotiate with multiple teams after the draft has concluded, but may only sign one or two-year minimum contracts.

  • Rookie-scale contracts in a player’s first season do not count on the team’s cap until the first day of the regular season.

Missed our previous installments? Here are all the topics we have covered so far…

This series is about learning, so we want to hear from you! If you would like a clarification for any rules, suggestions for future CBA Explained topics, or any other questions, please feel free to let us know in the comments or tweet at us @herhoopstats.

Thanks for reading the Her Hoop Stats Newsletter. If you like our work, be sure to check out our stats site, our podcast, and our social media accounts on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.