Potential Beneficiaries of WNBA Expansion
Who would probably be on an WNBA roster if the league had more teams or a larger roster limit?
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 Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. You can also buy Her Hoop Stats gear, such as laptop stickers, mugs, and shirts!
Haven’t subscribed to the Her Hoop Stats Newsletter yet?
Many WNBA fans feel pain and sadness as they read the names of players cut during training camp (and also the first weeks of the regular season as veterans return from their commitments overseas). This is just one of the multitude of reasons why many of the league’s followers are clamoring for WNBA expansion of team rosters and/or the number of teams in the league. Of course, just because a player makes training camp in a more restrictive league does not guarantee a spot in one with more available spots. Teams bring players into training camp (or not) for all matter of reasons, with availability being one of the most important for marginal players with these overseas commitments. So who might still be in the WNBA if they opened up a couple more teams or another roster spot per franchise? Here are some possibilities:
The Obvious Case: Kaila Charles
Charles is a transparent casualty of the WNBA’s status quo. Connecticut boasts several premium stars and consequently must scrimp for every penny on their bench. Even though Charles made meaningfully less than the veteran’s minimum, it was still too much for the Sun to balance to their satisfaction. Her inconsistent three-point shooting and lack of exemplary ball-handling make her a complicated fit on the offensive end, but earning a start in a Semi-final game in your second season should not lead to being cut before your third, especially since Charles brings real defensive value out on the perimeter.
The First-Round Pick: Mya Hollingshed
While I thought that Hollingshed was a compelling WNBA Draft prospect and would not have batted an eye if the Aces had taken her with any of their subsequent picks, this is not really about Mya Hollingshed. This is more about the fact that the No. 8 overall draft pick got cut, marking the third consecutive draft class that has seen a first-round pick cut before playing a WNBA regular-season game, following Kitija Laksa and Rennia Davis. Hollingshed is also the first of the three to be cut in her draft year and the highest-selected of that unhappy cohort. The current state of the WNBA makes me think that first-rounders might still be cut occasionally if the league expands the number of teams without expanding roster sizes—with rosters having only 12 or even 11 spots, teams need to be sure that every last member of its team can perform in a pinch. However, I still don’t think a top-10 pick would fall out of the league so quickly under such circumstances because of the (marginally) increased risk of doing so. Not only would there be more teams willing to give her a second chance or trade for her outright, but the threshold for being valuable would drop slightly.
The Young Riser Overseas: Kamiah Smalls
This may seem like an unusual choice given how early Smalls was cut from Chicago’s training camp this season. However, that camp was especially competitive, and Smalls’s resume overseas is one of the best of any young American. Playing alongside Natasha Mack, Smalls’s efficient scoring and sound passing ability helped lead her Polish team to its best performances in recent years in both the Polish League and Eurocup Women. In short, she has played better than just about any other young American not currently in the WNBA and should continue to earn opportunities to make the league even without league expansion. Quality guard play is always at a premium in this league, and it stands to reason that her number would be called if the league opened its doors a bit wider.
The Less Malleable Young Riser Overseas: Natasha Mack
Everything I said about Smalls’s team situation and reputation applies to Mack as well. Mack was one of my highest-rated draft prospects as a senior at Oklahoma State, and she brought her superb defensive playmaking and multifaceted (if often less than efficient) offensive game to the start of her overseas career. That overall defensive impact could bring positive value in the WNBA as long as she is able to score at all, either by improving as a pick-and-roller or by improving her turnaround jumper just enough that it is an efficient weapon at the highest level. While I lack any insight into why she was released from Minnesota’s training camp this season before it even started, I think her talent and relative youth make her as good of a candidate as any to fill a roster spot.
The Valuable Archetype: Arella Guirantes
Like Mack, Guirantes was one of the most highly regarded prospects by many in the media during the 2021 WNBA Draft cycle. Players do get second chances in this league, and the fact that Guirantes garnered minutes in her rookie season is a signal toward her getting one, even if she was really inefficient. However, something that separates Guirantes from other marginal players is the relative scarcity of her archetype. Multi-positional scoring wings are far from common in the WNBA, and many of the players who profile as that role in college either migrate into other play styles (like Nia Coffey or Brittney Sykes) or fall out of the league entirely (like Jaime Nared). Of course, Guirantes was a higher-volume passer in college than most of those other players, and the fact that she fulfilled such a role to the standard expected of her in the admittedly very weak Ukrainian league in her first overseas season (averaging 6.6 assists per 40 minutes) provides a reason for WNBA teams to keep her around even before she directly proves her capabilities at this level.
The Stuck in Limbo: Cecilia Zandalasini
This may seem to be a bit of a bizarre inclusion given the Italian forward’s status as a suspended non-contract player with rights held by the Minnesota Lynx. Zandalasini demonstrated interest in joining the league after Eurobasket Women 2021, but the Lynx were unable to make it work and have struggled with cap constraints even to field eleven players this season. Zandalasini is a talented shooter and ballhandler but is unproven at the WNBA level and needs to adjust to a smaller role in the league, largely by shooting fewer pull-up jumpers from the mid-range. Increasing the number of spots would increase the chances that the Lynx would try to make a Zandalasini signing work or that another team would be willing to trade a minor asset to do so.
The Shooting Star: Kitija Laksa
The Latvian and former South Florida star has many broad similarities to Zandalasini. They are of a similar size and both do their best work on offense from beyond the arc. Both have expressed interest in joining the WNBA that went unrealized. Of course, both players often have overseas commitments that extend beyond the start of training camp. However, Laksa has two major advantages over Zandalasini. For one, regardless of Seattle’s motivation for selecting her and its decision to cut her during training camp in 2021, she carries the branding of a former first-round draft choice. For another, Laksa has zero years of WNBA regular season experience, meaning that she has more time before she is affected by prioritization rules. Laksa’s status as one of the world’s best movement three-point shooters and the potential she flashes for other forms of offensive dynamism might encourage a team to take a risk and wait for her arrival if they think she brings value meaningfully above replacement level, a threshold that drops slightly if the league expands.
The Forgotten Developmental Player: Lauren Cox
We close by discussing one of the most speculative (and, depending on your viewpoint, most tragic) additions to the list. As a definitively defense-first player, Cox’s overseas journey is even more perilous on the court than most Americans’, both because international teams often need on-ball scoring and playmaking from their import players and because it is harder to record the gaudy statistics that might catch talent evaluators’ attention. This makes it less surprising that Cox played for IDK Eustotren, a relatively average team in the Spanish League. Those weaker teams in Spain do not always provide statistically helpful context, but Cox averaged 1.3 steals and 1.8 blocks per 40 minutes while attempting 3.8 three-point attempts per 40 minutes. Her statistical play was still far below the standard level for a WNBA player overseas (she failed to average 10 points per game), but these ancillary numbers provide room for optimism before diving into any film. Cox burnished her reputation as someone deserving of WNBA intrigue before injuries marred her senior season at Baylor but just has not been able to find her footing since. More roster spots mean more potential developmental slots, either because there might be an increase in the number of rebuilding teams or because contending teams might be more patient with players outside their playoff rotations.
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 Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.
Sadly, this is a group of not-all-that impressive players. Kaila Charles has a PER of 10.0 in her two years, shooting 38.9% from the field and having a 52/45 A/TO. None of the others, except Zandalasini, have shown any indication they can make a roster, much less start. If this is what expansion means, it may not be that good an idea.
Now that Lauren Cox joined the 'old-new' Spanish Powerhouse Valencia and is more focused on 3*3 (probably with the focus of the Olympics), it's going to be a challenge for her join the league without an expansion. Also Laksa joined Uni Girona in Spain (two teams that normally plays until final days of April or even May) and like Zandalasini are going to face another Eurobasket this summer, which probably won't help at all if the goal is join the Association this summer.