The WNBA Has Too Few Spots for Too Many Talented Players

Raina Perez is used to staring down obstacles. It’s not just her sport, women’s basketball, which seems to always be in the shadow of the men’s game. It’s not just her height, 5 feet 4 inches – diminutive, even for a point guard. It’s not just that she’s Mexican American, and that there are few Mexican American stars in the world of hoops.

“When you look at me, you don’t think ‘basketball player,'” she told me. “I don’t catch the eye like that.”

It’s all of these things, and another – the biggest obstacle of them all. After starring in college and closer to North Carolina State this year’s Final Four, Perez hopes to make it into the WNBA and that’s not easy in the slightest.

Even as the league’s popularity surged – last season it drew its highest viewership since 2008 – making the full-time roster on a WNBA team one of the most challenging tasks in American sports, especially for young players who need seasoning. Each of the league’s 12 teams can carry only 12 players, and most teams play with 11 because of salary cap restrictions.

Said Breanna Stewart, the former league’s most valuable player, who anchors the Seattle Storm: “There are too many teams like ours: no rookies.”

That means the chances are slim for players to start off in a meaningful career in the best league in the world. They’re even slimmer for undrafted talents like Perez.

“I’ve dreamed of playing in the league since I was a young girl,” said Perez, 23, who grew up rooting for her hometown team, the Phoenix Mercury. “I found out this year just how hard that is. No matter how good you are, you’ve got to find a situation that is just right. “

Perez was a powerful core of the North Carolina State Division I college team last season and a contender for the national title. One of her teammates, Elissa Cunane, was drafted with the 17th pick by the Storm. The Minnesota Lynx used the 22nd pick to take another teammate, Kayla Jones.

Perez was not selected in the three-round draft, but Storm Coach Noelle Quinn is looking to sign him as a free agent. Quinn has been following Perez’s unusual journey for years.

Known as a clutch shooter with a soothsayer’s knack for reading action before it was fully developed, Perez finished high school as one of the best players in Arizona. Still, there were doubts about whether she was good enough to make it to big-time Division I basketball.

She went to Northern Arizona and immediately flourished. Then she transferred to Cal State Fullerton and flourished again. Finally, seeking to prove her ability against the best college competition, Perez switched to North Carolina State, where she became a star.

Perez left college on a roll. Her game-winning jumper sealed North Carolina State’s ACC tournament championship. Then she led her team to the NCAA Tournament Round of 8 with a last-minute steal and layup to beat Notre Dame in the Sweet 16.

On April 14, when she signed a training camp contract with the Storm, she felt buoyed by those performances from confidence.

On April 23, she played a preseason game against the Los Angeles Sparks, scoring 9 points and recording 3 rebounds, 2 steals and 1 assist.

Quinn was impressed. So was Stewart. “Raina is someone who just gets it, who just knows how to play,” Stewart told me. “She’s a flat-out hooper.”

On May 2, shortly before the regular season began, Perez was cut from the team. Around the same time, Cunane and Jones were cut, too.

The roller coaster kept on.

Perez headed back to Phoenix, eyes set on training for the women’s professional leagues in Europe, which began in the fall of their seasons.

Then her cellphone rang. “How quickly can you rejoin us?” A Storm official asked. Seattle’s Epiphanny Prince has tested positive for the coronavirus. The Storm needed a quick replacement.

So it was that Perez made it onto a roster for a regular-season game: two minutes against the Mercury, long enough to dish out a pair of assists. She suited up for another game. And then, once again, she was let go.

It shouldn’t be this way, Stewart said. “Women’s basketball needs to find a way to bridge the gap between college and pro.”

My thoughts are definitely, especially since the WNBA is still working to gain traction with American fans besotted with men’s sports.

Stewart is among the veterans of a chorus of stars speaking openly about needing more players like Perez, who gains sizable followings in college only to seemingly disappear after graduation. “They need to be kept in the fold so they can keep learning and then take bigger roles,” said Stewart, citing possible solutions before: a more flexible salary cap; modeled a developmental league after the NBA’s G League; Taxi squads that allow fringe players to stay with teams for practice.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has acknowledged the problem and says growing 12 teams beyond the league is the best solution. That sounds great, but the expansion will probably take years.

Waiting for a solution for too long could take a toll on the league’s future. Suppose the WNBA keeps making it difficult to develop a viable career. How much time must the pass before the younger generation decides that the WNBA is too much of a long shot to aim for?

Perez now suits a newly minted league for Fuerza Regia in Monterrey, Mexico. On Sunday, before 1,800 home fans in Fuerza Regia’s 100-79 victory over Abejas de León, she scored 9 points and had 8 assists.

It’s hardly the biggest stage, and the season will last no longer than mid-July, but it’s professional. The team provides her with an apartment. The crowds are small but boisterous, and they love cheering for an American with Mexican roots.

Perez knows the future is uncertain. She’s still planning on eventually playing in Europe. But more players are looking for fewer jobs overseas. Because of the war in Ukraine, Americans are not playing in Russia anymore. Enthusiasm for playing in China is dimmed because of its politics. And yet, like so many others in her position, Perez vows not to give up.

“I’m a basketball lifer,” she said, voice firm as she prepared for another practice with her new team in a new country. “I’m going to stay with this as long as I possibly can.”

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