WNBA Salary Cap and CBA Explained: Rookie Contracts Part Two

Part two of a three-part series exploring rookie-scale contracts

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Welcome back to our WNBA Salary Cap and CBA Explained series. As part of our mission to unlock better insight about the women’s game, we’ll be breaking down the rules outlined in the 350-page WNBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, 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. We’ll also be compiling all of these entries on the Her Hoop Stats website in a single reference FAQ document.

This is the second of a three-part deep dive into rookie contracts. In part one, we went through the basics of rookie contracts: eligibility, contract terms, and the process of receiving a contract. This installment will review some unique situations that can arise with rookie contracts and how the league deals with those. Part three will look at what happens at the end of contracts — whether they are extended or simply expire.

What happens if a player gets cut?

The core component of rookie contracts is that the player can not have previously signed a WNBA contract, even if they never appeared in a single game under that contract. Therefore, once a player is cut they become an unrestricted free agent who is no longer governed by the rookie scale.

An example of this is Dallas’ Megan Gustafson. After being drafted in the second round by Dallas in 2019, she signed a rookie-scale contract with 2019’s base salary for a second-round pick, $42,750.

Prior to the first day of the regular season, the Wings waived Gustafson in their final roster cuts. Without ever playing a game in the WNBA, Gustafson was no longer governed by the rules of a rookie scale contract. The Iowa alum was signed to a contract later that season and then signed a three-year contract in February.

Gustafson is slated to make $62,000 this season under her current contract, which is an improvement compared to the $57,000 she would have earned from her original rookie contract bumped up to the new league minimum. Barring getting released from the team, Gustafson will now earn approximately $5,000 more per season than in her initial contract.

These same rules apply no matter what stage in a rookie contract the player is in when they are cut. This means Gustafson could have gone through the same procedure even if she had been cut midseason or after the season had concluded.

With rosters being cut down to the 12-player maximum in the past few weeks, a number of rookies were cut and are now no longer governed by the rookie scale. For example, 2020 second-round draft picks Beatrice Mompremier, Te’a Cooper, and Joyner Holmes were all waived and are free to sign with any team without the rookie scale applying. If they sign for the league minimum, they would earn $2,750 less than their original 2020 base salaries. However, it is possible for those players to sign for more than what they would have earned on their rookie scale deal if they can successfully negotiate those terms.

What if a player doesn’t play in the WNBA right after being drafted?

If a player is drafted into the WNBA, they may choose to sign a contract even if they do not plan to play in the upcoming season. In this situation, the player and their team may work out an agreement to suspend the player for that season. Alternatively, the player may decide to just not show up. Players who simply do not show up can be fined by their teams, but as long as an agreement is made, there are no further consequences. Players who work out a deal with their team do not get paid for the seasons they are suspended nor do they gain years of service, but it “starts the clock” on their rookie contract to bring players closer to graduating to larger contracts. Players may choose to do this rather than force a team to cut them if they want to stay connected to the team that drafted them in the hopes that it will increase their chances in subsequent seasons.

The team benefits from this agreement because they do not have to lose their player to free agency, which would happen if they cut the player. This is often used for foreign players when a team drafts a player they believe could use a year off after an injury, and in some recent cases, teams who are very deep and don’t have room for all the draft picks they would like.

In the past two seasons, the Seattle Storm have employed this tactic. Ezi Magbegor, who was drafted No. 12 overall in 2019, will join the team in 2020 after signing her rookie contract but remaining in Australia for the 2019 season. Magbegor was only 19 the year she was drafted, and the Storm already had a tight roster. This year’s No. 11 pick, Kitija Laksa, will not join the Storm until 2021. The Storm once again didn’t have room on their roster, and Laksa will be staying in her native Latvia where she has been playing for TTT Riga. Other recent examples include Kiah Gillespie (the No. 32 pick for Chicago) and Mikayla Pivec (the No. 25 pick for Atlanta), but 2020 has been unique with uncertainty surrounding the season.

What if a drafted player doesn’t sign a contract?

There are a couple of reasons a player would not sign a contract with the team that drafted them, but both are very rare. Both situations affect the terms of the player’s contract when they do eventually join the WNBA team.

The first possible reason is that a player simply doesn’t want to play for the team that drafted them. This is an impractical decision because they would be better off signing the contract anyway and just opting to sit out, like the situation described above. Additionally, the exclusive negotiating rights to a player are valuable to a team with little financial commitment, so it is unlikely their team would give in to a holdout like this.

If a player did attempt to do this, they would have to commit to not playing any professional basketball for upwards of two seasons. If the player was under contract internationally, the team would continue to retain the player’s rights for every season the player continued to make no attempt to sign with them.

They would then have to go one season without playing professionally, making them eligible for the next WNBA draft. If they go undrafted, then they are free to sign as a rookie free agent. However, if they are drafted again, they will have to go through the process of remaining out of the professional game for one more season. After the second season — two seasons with no salary for playing basketball — they would become a rookie free agent.

The other reason a player might not sign a contract is if they are inhibited by an existing contract. This is functionally the same as refusing to sign with a WNBA team, but the blame isn’t placed on the player in this case. If it were to happen, the team that drafted the player will retain the exclusive WNBA rights to negotiate a contract for one year once the player is no longer inhibited from signing a contract by the other league.

To be clear, almost all players who are already under contract internationally are not inhibited from signing with a WNBA team, because other leagues typically don’t interfere with the WNBA’s May-October schedule.

In both of those situations, the rookie contract is signed in a year other than the year the player is drafted, so the player would sign for the rookie scale salary for that year rather than the year they were drafted. This means a 2020 second-round pick who doesn’t sign until 2021 would sign for the 2021 base salary for second-rounders, $61,543, instead of the 2020 base salary, $59,750.

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, Facebook, and Instagram.