WNBA draft: Is it time to change the early entry rules?

UConn's Paige Bueckers, left, and Iowa's Caitlin Clark just completed their freshman seasons, but were two of the best players in women's college basketball in 2020-21. AP Photo/Eric Gay

Freshman point guards dominated the storylines around the 2021 NCAA basketball tournaments.

On the men's side, Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs hit one of the most memorable shots in March Madness history, banking in a 3-pointer from just across midcourt to beat UCLA in overtime and send the Bulldogs to the championship game undefeated.

Long shots were also a storyline for Iowa star Caitlin Clark, who knocked down six 3-pointers as the Hawkeyes defeated Kentucky to reach the Sweet 16, while Suggs' fellow Minnesotan Paige Bueckers led UConn to the Final Four and became the first freshman on the women's side to win the Wooden and Naismith awards as national player of the year.

Once the buzzer sounded and the confetti fell, however, the storylines of Suggs, Clark and Bueckers diverged. With Suggs expected to soon declare for the NBA draft, the debate has become how high his heroics should push him up draft boards. Meanwhile, Bueckers and Clark headed back to campus as the 2021 WNBA draft (7 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN/ESPN App) approaches.

Bueckers won't be eligible for the WNBA draft until 2023, when she'll turn 22. Because she was born in 2002, Clark would need to be on track to graduate in three years to enter the draft early. Otherwise, she can't play in the WNBA until 2024.

The precocious success of Bueckers and Clark has sparked renewed conversation about the WNBA's age limit and whether it's time for a change.

Early entry a possible future CBA topic

The Women's National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) had plenty on its plate during negotiations on the groundbreaking collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the league that went into effect last year. With the focus on increased salaries, total cash compensation, free agency changes and improved travel conditions, the WNBA's age limit wasn't a prominent part of discussions.

"It is something that we discussed in our CBA negotiations," WNBPA vice president Sue Bird said. "The truth is, sometimes in CBA talks when there's so much that needs to be addressed or fixed, you don't get to everything. And sadly, that was one thing. If anyone's been involved in a negotiation, they know you've got to have a priority list. "

At that point, early entry wasn't a topic of discussion in the media like it has become in the wake of the freshman seasons enjoyed by Bueckers and Clark.

"I think the beauty is there's a reason we're talking about it now," Bird said, "because these players are showing their talent, they're showing how good they are."

Along with Bird, other WNBA veterans asked about the topic during USA Basketball's mini-camp held in San Antonio during the NCAA tournament expressed support for the idea of giving prospects more flexibility -- even if players might not necessarily elect to declare early for the WNBA draft as often as in the NBA.

Bird, who has noted that her experience at UConn was in many ways more first class than what she found after arriving in the early WNBA as the No. 1 pick in 2002, pointed out that pending changes to the NCAA's "name, image and likeness" rules could allow players to monetize their social media following while remaining in college. Still, the more choices, the better.

"I think the next step is to have that option," said Diana Taurasi, the No. 1 pick in 2004 who is now the WNBA's all-time leading scorer. "Will kids do it? Probably not. But you should have that option. It is a career path you're taking and if you're the best at your profession, you should be able to keep getting better. Not saying that they won't in college, but it's just a different level when you get to the pros."

The level of competition was a motivating factor for Seattle Storm All-Star guard Jewell Loyd, who elected to forego her senior season at Notre Dame in favor of being the No. 1 pick of the 2015 draft. Loyd was eligible for the draft after her junior season because she turned 22 that year.

"That's a question that I asked myself when I was leaving -- if I wanted to go play against the best and learn from the best, well, the best players aren't in college," Loyd said. "The best players are in the league. I want to go challenge myself and get better. ...

"I think the talent's getting better, the game is clearly growing, so if it's right for you, you should have the choice just like anything else."

If players continue to support changes to the age limit, WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike -- herself the No. 1 pick in 2012 -- could see the players association pushing the topic when discussions begin on a new CBA, which would not take effect until the 2026 season at the earliest.

"I look forward to seeing how this CBA will evolve after we kind of created a lot of new modalities that we're going to see unfold over the years," Ogwumike said. "But I think if the conversation is happening now, then as we see how basketball is in college and ultimately the league, it can be a conversation that comes up in subsequent negotiations."

Early entry better for stars than projects

Especially by comparison to what is not considered a particularly strong draft class, Bueckers and Clark look like more promising prospects. Bird expressed certainty that Bueckers would be the No. 1 pick were she eligible for Thursday's draft.

"Obviously Paige has to mature," Bird said. "She's only a kid. She's like 19, right? She's going to mature. She's going to get stronger. She's only going to get better when that happens. But draft picks, to me, are investments. And there's no doubt in my mind that people would want to invest in a player like Paige right now in this year's draft."

"Those would be the top two players coming out of college," added Taurasi, referring to Bueckers and Clark.

"Draft picks, to me, are investments. And there's no doubt in my mind that people would want to invest in a player like Paige right now in this year's draft." Sue Bird on Paige Bueckers

The statistics back up that potential. Based on my translations of NCAA performance to the WNBA, adjusted for strength of schedule, both Bueckers and Clark had better seasons in 2020-21 than any player eligible for the draft. As a result, it's reasonable to think they could contribute in the WNBA as teenagers.

Based on those translations, I project that Bueckers would average 10.3 points and 3.8 assists if she played starter's minutes (30 MPG) in the WNBA this season, production similar to Jasmine Thomas of the Connecticut Sun (10.2 PPG and 4.0 APG in 25.5 MPG). Clark, who was responsible for a far greater share of Iowa's offense -- her 37% usage rate led all Division I players who saw more than 100 minutes of action -- has even stronger per-game projections of 16.0 points and 4.9 assists. No player in the WNBA topped both of those marks.

The question is whether leaving for the WNBA early would work as well for less polished prospects. My research has suggested that men's players develop better in the NBA as one-and-dones than by returning for their sophomore season in the NCAA. However, there are a few reasons to believe that might not translate in the women's game.

The simplest issue is one of roster spots. While NBA teams can carry 15 players plus two more on two-way contracts that split their time between the NBA and the G League, WNBA rosters feature a maximum of 12 players. Because of the league's hard salary cap, half of the WNBA's 12 teams might begin the season with just 11 active players -- leaving precious little room for long-term projects.

There's also less in the way of developmental infrastructure. The WNBA has no equivalent to the development-focused G League, where inexperienced prospects can earn more playing time than they do in the NBA. And by contrast to NBA coaching staffs that have exploded in the past two decades with the addition of multiple player development specialists, WNBA teams typically have no more than four or five total coaches, giving them less ability to work individually with young prospects.

Ideally, WNBA early entry would look something like the NBA's model during the early 1990s prior to the preps-to-pros era, before the league put as much emphasis on player development. The very best prospects would have the option to come out early, giving them a chance to start their professional careers and strengthening the WNBA's talent base. Meanwhile, other players would stay at least three years in college, preparing them for the challenging battle to stick on a professional roster.

Most importantly, the choice would be up to the players and not up to their birthday.

"I think half the battle is having the choice to do it," Taurasi said. "And then you go on and you make the best decision."