WNBA in good hands as young talent takes reins

ByMechelle Voepel via ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 6, 2015

LAS VEGAS -- There's a sentiment that this offseason has been nothing but bad news for the WNBA in regard to players' so-called "commitment" to the league and their individual teams. With many of the best American players gathered here in Las Vegas for a three-day USA Basketball training camp, it's a good time to take a closer look at this issue.

Sure, it's disconcerting to think that two Olympians, Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker -- and possibly a third, Sylvia Fowles -- won't be in action when the WNBA tips off this season in June. But watching the collection of young talent participating in the camp at UNLV's Mendenhall Center reminds us that established stars deciding to not play in the WNBA is a concern for the league, but not a crisis.

"Every offseason, you don't know which teams or players it might be, but we kind of deal with something," said Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, who is an assistant to Geno Auriemma for the U.S. national team. "They're all individual situations with the players.

"As for the organizations' side of it, we have to be nimble. Sometimes things disappoint you, but nothing should surprise you. That's why it's important that you build your team in a way that if something happens, you're able to still thrive and have a plan."

Phoenix's Taurasi, who turns 33 in June, is sitting out this WNBA season to rest at the behest of her Russian team, which paid her almost $1.5 million this winter. Los Angeles' Parker, who turned 29 in April, will take a break at the start of the season, although she hasn't specified for how long.

And Chicago's Fowles, who will be 30 in October, might be on the sidelines as well. That's if the Sky and the unnamed team she has requested a trade to -- WNBA insiders speculate that's Minnesota, but neither Fowles nor either franchise have confirmed that -- can't come to agreement on a deal.

There's no reason to be critical of any of these players. Taurasi, Parker and Fowles all have demonstrated very strong commitment to the WNBA and USA Basketball. They all started their pro careers with the same kind of jam-packed schedules: going nearly non-stop from the Final Four to the WNBA draft, WNBA season, Olympics and overseas play.

Taurasi began that treadmill in 2004; Parker and Fowles in 2008, with Parker also having her daughter in May 2009. Taurasi and Parker both say their bodies need rest time now; Taurasi is also recovering from a broken hand, although she announced she would sit out this WNBA season before that happened.

"It's hard; Phoenix is a place that has stuck by me through thick and thin, and vice-versa," said Taurasi, a three-time WNBA champion who is aiming for her fourth Olympics next year. "I've given them my all. But in the big picture, this is a 3-month break. It's a small part of my career that I need right now to fuel the last stretch."

As for Parker, who has looked good in the two days so far of U.S. practice and has even dunked a few times outside of scrimmages, she said it's necessary to take a planned rest, not just one that's forced by injury. Parker had knee surgery after last WNBA season and did not play in the 2014 FIBA world championship.

"This is about taking my best interest to heart," Parker said of her break to start this WNBA season. "I've played through a lot of injuries; I was not healthy last season. If I'm going to try to be a leader of the team, I need to bring it hard every day. If I can't, I don't need to be out there. If I can, I will be. I'm older now, and coming off surgery after the season last year, it was a little more difficult than it's been in the past."

Meanwhile, Fowles' possible absence won't be about a need for rest -- although she probably could use that, too -- but because she feels it's time to move on from the Sky.

"This isn't always accepted in women's basketball, but I don't see what the big deal is," Fowles said of her desire to play for another WNBA franchise. "I've spent seven seasons in Chicago. I have nothing bad to say about Chicago; they've treated me well. But I'm just at a point of my career where I want to explore other things."

Fowles has the "core player" designation, though, so her freedom to move is restricted. Because she can veto trades, the Sky's options are also limited, and you can empathize with them not wanting to give her up for less than fair market value. But if sitting out is one of the only forms of leverage Fowles has, it's understandable why she might use it.

If you talk to WNBA players, most will say they would prefer not to have the core-player designation as part of the collective-bargaining agreement. But they also understand why it exists.

"From the players' standpoint, I don't think there should be a core," Seattle and U.S. team veteran Sue Bird said. "But I do see, with the way the CBA is currently structured, why franchises need that to protect themselves. So I don't think it's as simple as eliminating the core. I think other things have to change with it."

One thing that won't be changing anytime soon, though, is the disparity between the salaries top players can make overseas versus in the WNBA. There are a variety of reasons for that, most of which involve how women's franchises and leagues are owned and managed overseas.

Until the WNBA becomes the perennial highest bidder for the world's best talent, the league faces losing out at times with certain players. What the WNBA has, though, is its status as the league that the players value most as competitors. Plus, it's home for the Americans.

Same story, different year, right? Yes, this has been an issue since the WNBA began in 1997, although it takes center stage more in years like this when some of the biggest talents in the sport are involved. As Reeve said, franchises have to be aware of when these situations on the horizon, especially as their stars age.

"The players that play year around, in the seventh or eighth year or so of their careers, they develop concerns physically as to what their body can handle, how long they can play," Reeve said. "They have to make really hard decisions.

"And it's double-edged: On one hand, I celebrate that a professional female athlete can make the kind of money that she should make. At the same time, I'm really passionate about the WNBA and thankful for the pioneers, like the Dawn Staleys of the world, that helped get this league where it is. So I want to take good care of the league."

The players want that, too.

"It's still the best competition, and I will miss it this year. I will watch the Mercury, though, and I will be talking to everybody there," Taurasi said. "I still feel like part of the team. I will give them space, of course, because they need their own chemistry and personality without me. But it's a really good roster."

And as for the league as a whole, Taurasi said, "There's great talent coming up. There is the next crop of players that will take the reins. This isn't a start-up business anymore. This is an established professional league."

Which brings us back to the rising standouts, most of whom for now wouldn't consider skipping a WNBA season. It's too important to establishing their reputations. This USA Basketball team camp has several young stars-in-the-making, including collegians Breanna Stewart and Tiffany Mitchell, both age 20, who'll be at the top of the WNBA draft chart next year.

Tulsa's Skylar Diggins, who was the WNBA's most improved player in her second season in the league last year, is 24 and has a very good perspective on the big picture.

"The best players in the world are in our league, and you want to compete against them," Diggins said. "You think of Diana Taurasi -- the most competitive player in the league and the face of the WNBA. If you look good facing her, that's how you earn your stripes. Same with Candace Parker.

"WNBA fans will miss them; WNBA players will miss them. They deserve the rest, and I support that 100 percent. But it gives other people opportunities. As a competitor, I'm excited for the Shock. You want to beat the best, but you have to play no matter what. The show must go on."