How WNBA expansion will lead to better player development

When the NBA’s G League started, it was with a handful of teams all based in the south. Nothing against Roanoke, Fort Worth, Fayetteville, Fort Myers or Little Rock (also: Albuquerque), but these were small cities and their outpost quality did nothing to stir up big attention and excitement for the teams that took up residence in them. Which is perhaps why four out of the six folded, and the other two were shuffled into former NBA commissioner David Stern’s budding amalgamation of his G (then D, for development) League with the failing Continental Basketball Association (CBA).

Compared to how shrewdly Adam Silver and his NBA make their decisions — an eye always to optics, the financial bottom line, and with plenty of market research — the previous administration, under Stern, can seem like such a freewheeling thing.

But it feels fair to say that after the G League’s uncertain start, a more pragmatic administrative group might not have pushed for it to continue amidst a fluctuating landscape, with teams folding, relocating, and being absorbed from more peripheral leagues, like the ABA, so frequently in those early days.

The G League went on to thrive. As of 2022, 54% of rostered NBA players had stops in the G League, with current, high-caliber head NBA coaches like Nick Nurse and Quin Snyder spending time there. Pascal Siakam, Dejounte Murray, Lu Dort, Fred VanVleet, Alex Caruso, and Duncan Robinson all played significant minutes in the G League, and with the introduction of Exhibition 10 and two-way contracts, the rebranded league really dug into its originally named roots as a conduit of development for rookies and less experienced prospects alike.

In the last few years – no doubt due to pressure from athletes and a vocal, expanding fanbase – the WNBA has accelerated its growth. Expansion talks, which used to seem like they were being kicked down the road by commissioner Cathy Engelbert whenever the issue was raised, revved up. Two expansion franchises, the Golden State Valkyries and the as-yet-unnamed Toronto expansion team, were announced in the last year, and the overwhelmingly positive feedback and excitement around their reveals should be acceleration enough to get the next two named.

A good thing too, because beyond increasing salaries and establishing equity stakes in revenue share deals for athletes, expansion is the next most impactful move toward overall development for current and future W players.

Development in the W has been approached much differently than it has in the NBA. The majority of W athletes have played three to four years in college which, while not at the same competitive or polished level of the pros, does allow for a little more runway in skill development. The W also doesn’t have the same infrastructure as the NBA, and certainly not an entire developmental league’s worth. While the W boasts its share of storied careers, the longevity experienced by players like Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker, Sylvia Fowles, and Sue Bird is still more exception than rule.

Some of that is for reasons related to financial security. It’s hard to physically and mentally stick it out, playing the two competitive seasons a year — one in the W, and one to make more money overseas during the wintertime — necessary for women’s basketball players to financially prosper. Some of it is also just the physical toll. Team training staffs have improved broadly in the W, but the investment in that arm, in terms of sophisticated equipment and specialized personnel, has a ways to go. It wouldn’t happen to the biggest names in the league, but for younger players, role players, and reserves, injuries can prove more precarious — there just aren’t as many roster spots to go around. With 12 teams and 12 roster sports apiece, injuries have far more potential to be career-ending if players can’t crack the door open for themselves after a cut. All this trickles down to a person’s psyche, too. No matter how passionate athletes in the W are — frankly, there has to be a deep-rooted drive to even get that far, given all they’ve had to go up against — the conditions for success are steep, and at some point reality rears up.

Is it sustainable to put your body through so much, without consequential financial security in return? Is it worthwhile to play overseas, given the all-too-recent dangers underscored by Brittney Griner’s harrowing apprehension and detainment in Russia?

There’s also the question of career and sacrifice when it comes to family, namely, would athletes in the W like to start one? Fertility treatments like IVF, egg and embryo freezing weren’t subsidized in the league’s healthcare coverage until 2022, and even then it only covers reimbursement up to $60,000 for adoption, surrogacy, or fertility treatments. One round of IVF can cost upwards of $25,000, and requires daily injections and regular doctor’s appointments. That’s a difficult schedule for anyone, and much harder in a doubled-up playing season.

These are questions no one ever asks of NBA players, because the answers are assumed.

While a full-scale model like the G League isn’t necessarily a realistic fit for the WNBA right now, expansion offers a glimpse into a possible future. A developmental league, maybe at a smaller scale, could run in concert with the W season and dovetail into player-led offshoots – like Breanna Stewart and Napheesa Collier’s recently announced 3×3 league, Unrivaled. Players could still opt for offseasons spent abroad, but the point is to offer more paid, accessible choices.

Expansion, beyond getting more athletes into the league, tends to increase competition. Styles make fights, as the saying goes, and more teams means more dynamic diversity in on-court action and off-court development, as teams and athletes adjust in order to stay competitive. Stephen Curry changed the NBA and basketball at large because, to put it simply, he’s adept at shooting threes. Front offices were forced to respond and at a granular level, so were players. Now everyone, from guards to bigs, is expected to have a halfway decent outside shot. Player development coaches, especially those who specialize in very specific skills like three-point shooting, haven’t always been prioritized in the W. As the game changes on a technical level, pushed ahead by a wider spectrum of skillsets entering it, that will change. The Aces hired former NBA, G League and NCAA coach, Tyler Marsh, in March 2022, since then he helped Jackie Young improve her three-point shooting — in 2021 Young shot 25% from beyond the arc, in 2022 it jumped to 43.1%.

Development can also translate to time. Rookies in the NBA are given a year or two to adjust to the pace, conditioning, expectations and learning curve of pro basketball. Some will be assigned to their G League teams for more minutes, but all enter the NBA’s ecosystem with plenty of runway. They have time to make mistakes. Top WNBA rookies get a few weeks off before their draft and season starts, then they hit the floor hard. Second and first-round picks are cut regularly from rosters in training camps, or after their first season, and broadly have to be competitive from the moment they first step on the floor in order to stay in the league. With more roster spots to go around, expansion promises an extended runway, and space for project players to develop at the ends of their benches.

Away from the court, there have also been developmental initiatives. The Dream hired a Director of Player Engagement, Kiara McClendon, this past March, who’ll help incoming players acclimatize to Atlanta, while individually coaching them on things like financial literacy and entrepreneurship. Concurrently, the Dream also launched a retired player transition program focused on helping players figure out life after basketball, including opportunities to stay in the game, whether through coaching or working in a front office. This kind of retention is valuable not just for individual franchises, but the health of the W’s ecosystem overall, considering how much knowledge athletes carry with them. When they leave, it goes with them.

Even if the model we know best now looks something like the NBA’s G League, meaningful development can take on a lot of different forms. The G League looked wildly different at its inception than in its current, well-oiled iteration. It’s exciting to consider all the ways the WNBA could push even the concept of development forward in getting necessarily creative, fine-tuning it to serve its unique needs and the individualized growth of its players on and off the court, and even after it.

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