On Sunday, former University of Washington star Kelsey Plum will make her first trip back to Seattle since the San Antonio Stars selected her No. 1 overall in this year's WNBA draft.
As Huskies fans who packed KeyArena to watch Plum in the Pac-12 tournament come out to see her again, Seattle Storm president and GM Alisha Valavanis expects one of the season's best crowds.
But what if there had been a way for Plum to stay in Seattle and play in front of the home crowd full time? As the WNBA tries to figure out how to turn alumni who love their local college teams into fans of the pro game, it's worth exploring whether a territorial draft might make sense for the league.
A brief history of territorial drafts in basketball
There's precedent for a fledgling pro basketball league that keeps its stars at home after college. That's what the NBA did for its first 16 years of existence, keeping a rule that had originated in the final season of the NBA's predecessor, the Basketball Association of America (BAA).
During that span, teams had the option prior to the regular draft of using their first-round pick to select a player who played college ball within a 50-mile radius. (That limit wasn't apparently hard and fast, as the Cincinnati Royals were able to use territorial picks on Hall of Famer Jerry Lucas and George Wilson from Ohio State, which is about 100 miles away.)
Eleven Hall of Famers were selected with territorial picks, including Lucas and MVPs Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. The league voted in 1963 to phase out the territorial draft by 1966. According to an Associated Press account at the time, other owners feared the Boston Celtics would have a pipeline of talent from nearby Boston College after former Celtics star Bob Cousy retired and became BC's head coach.
While that was the last of the territorial draft in men's pro hoops, the women's American Basketball League utilized territorial picks during its brief existence in the late 1990s. How might a similar rule work in the WNBA? Here are some pros and cons.
Pro: Local stars make financial sense, want to stay home
Over its first two decades, the WNBA has had a difficult time converting college fans to the WNBA. There's even a name for this effect: "Our goals syndrome," popularized by writer Clay Kallam, to refer to fans who are interested in local college stars but not women's basketball as a whole.
Asked about Plum's return on Tuesday, when she was in Seattle to promote the beginning of voting for this summer's All-Star Game at KeyArena, WNBA president Lisa Borders directly addressed a camera and made her impassioned case to college fans.
"What I would say to college basketball fans is we miss you," Borders said. "Where are you? The same players that played with you at UW or Georgetown or Georgia or Notre Dame, wherever you played -- and God knows those UConn kids come out and they're amazing -- those are exactly the same athletes that are playing now in the professional ranks. ... Come on out. We're looking for you."
"What I would say to college basketball fans is we miss you. Where are you? The same players that played with you at UW or Georgetown or Georgia or Notre Dame ... those are exactly the same athletes that are playing now in the [WNBA]."WNBA president Lisa Borders
We have seen the WNBA utilize local ties. At its founding, the league allocated its first three players -- Lisa Leslie (Los Angeles Sparks), Rebecca Lobo (New York Liberty) and Sheryl Swoopes (Houston Comets) -- to the nearest possible hometown team, both for the benefit of ticket sales and also to help convince them to choose the WNBA over the ABL.
That's the other element of a territorial draft that seems reasonable: WNBA stars are already finding their way home, most recently with Delaware native Elena Delle Donne engineering a trade to the Washington Mystics in February. Since top WNBA players make most of their income playing overseas, they can use the credible threat of sitting out as leverage to force a trade to their desired destination.
Sometimes, teams have managed to make mutually beneficial trades that send players on both sides back home. In 2010, the Connecticut Sun traded Lindsay Whalen home to the Minnesota Lynx in a deal that landed the No. 1 overall pick in that year's draft -- used on UConn center Tina Charles. (Charles later forced a trade to her hometown Liberty.) However, players can't count on such trades making sense for both teams.
"We traded to get Tina Charles and we were rebuilding, so that was a natural one for both teams," noted Mystics coach Mike Thibault, who was coaching the Sun at the time. "That happens once every eight to 10 years that the karma is right to make a trade like that. New York and Chicago did it a few years ago with Cappie [Pondexter] for Epiphanny Prince, but that's a rare occurrence. It's hard to do."
Con: UConn (and parity)
There's one obvious obstacle to implementing a territorial draft rule identical to the early NBA version: the way the Connecticut Huskies dominate the supply of WNBA talent.
"When I was in Connecticut," Thibault said, "I would've loved it because I would've gotten Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore."
Including those three, plus Charles and 2016 No. 1 overall pick Breanna Stewart, five of the 12 players on last year's U.S. Olympic team were UConn products. Naturally, funneling all those players to the Sun wouldn't leave much star talent for the rest of the league.
The case of Wilt Chamberlain offers a possible alternative. You'll note that he was a territorial draft pick of the Philadelphia Warriors despite the fact that Philadelphia is considerably more than 50 miles from Lawrence, Kansas, where Chamberlain matriculated at the University of Kansas. The Warriors were able to successfully argue that they owned Chamberlain's territorial rights because he had grown up and attended high school in Philadelphia.
Because players might move throughout their formative years, determining hometown is a bit trickier if we take college out of the equation. Still, it solves the UConn problem. In terms of hometown, Bird and Charles would have been eligible for territorial picks by the Liberty, Moore the Atlanta Dream and Taurasi the Sparks. (Stewart's hometown of Syracuse is several hundred miles from the nearest WNBA team, so she would have been ineligible for a territorial pick.)
At the same time, even going by hometown doesn't entirely eliminate the problem of parity. What happens when the defending WNBA champions just happen to have a local star in the next year's draft?
"The team that won the lottery really could use a Maya Moore," Thibault said. "Why should they lose that opportunity?"
So while there are compelling arguments in favor of a WNBA territorial draft, ultimately I didn't find much support for the idea.
"I'm not in favor of it only because I don't think there's a fair way to do it," Thibault said. "I've tried to come up with different ways to do it and it's pretty hard, especially with a 12-team league."
"Obviously, we would have loved to have had those rights with Kelsey Plum coming out last year," Valavanis said. "But I'm not sure we can figure out yet how it makes sense to build 12 strong teams and it's one league that needs visibility and support across the country."