Your favorite WNBA rookies didn’t make the cut. So what’s their path back to the league?

Karlie Samuelson arrived in town a few days ahead of Washington Mystics training camp, and for the first time in her career, she unpacked her suitcase knowing she wasn’t going anywhere.

The last seven seasons, Samuelson bounced in, out and around the league on 17 short-term contracts. There were five training-camp contracts, and every time, the 6-foot guard from Stanford was sent packing on cutdown day. Throughout the ensuing regular seasons, she penned her name to six hardship contracts, three seven-day contracts and three rest-of-season contracts.

This is life on the edge of a limited group in the WNBA, statistically the most difficult U.S. sports league for a player to make a roster. There are a maximum of 144 spots over 12 teams, but many franchises carry the minimum 11 to invest more in star talent while staying under the restrictive hard salary cap. Every year, top-level collegiate talent is waived on the eve of the first day of games.

“There’s just so many players out there that can play in this league and it’s so hard to make it,” Samuelson said on a Zoom call during Mystics media day. “I’m proud that I’ve never stopped trying, honestly, with how many times I’ve gotten cut. And I’d love to be an example for the younger generation that’s coming in.”

Nine of the 12 first-round picks are rostered for opening night. The other three, along with their WNBA teams, had already decided not to participate in the league this summer. The teams still hold their rights though.

UCLA guard Charisma Osborne was cut by the Mercury on Monday. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Four popular names drafted in the second round made rosters — UConn favorite Nika Mühl among them in Seattle — but others were among final cuts Monday. They include Gonzaga guard Brynna Maxwell (No. 13, Sky), UCLA point guard Charisma Osborne (No. 25, Mercury), Nebraska guard Jaz Shelley (No. 29, Mercury), USC forward McKenzie Forbes (No. 28, Sparks) and Penn State guard Ashley Owusu (No. 33, Wings).

The climb to their pro dreams is steeper, but the path ahead is well-worn with trail markers of established success. Alongside the five No. 1 overall picks playing in the 2023 WNBA Finals between Las Vegas and New York were four integral teammates who were waived within their first three seasons.

Alysha Clark, the Ace’s reigning Sixth Player of the Year, built a decorated career out of being waived at the deadline each of her first two seasons. Clark, the team’s No. 17 pick in 2010, stuck on the Storm roster in her third season out of college, became a lockdown two-time All-WNBA defender and won two championships with seattle. She added a third last year with Las Vegas, the franchise that drafted her as the San Antonio Silver Stars.

“Nothing in this league is guaranteed, and that’s why you have to come in and work every single day,” Clark said at Aces media day. “I think there’s a valuable lesson in that.”

Aces teammate Sydney Colson, a two-time champion veteran guard, was waived during her second training camp in 2012 and didn’t return to the league until 2015.

The Liberty’s Betnijah Laney-Hamilton did not play in the 2017 season after the Chicago Sky, which drafted her No. 17 overall in 2015, waived her at the preseason deadline. The 6-foot wing out of Rutgers bounced through three teams in three years before winning the 2020 Most Improved Award in Atlanta.

That offseason she signed with New York, where she’s been a lockdown defender and key piece to its superteam. Liberty reserve Kayla Thornton, an undrafted forward, was waived in each of her first two seasons.

Few players take a linear road through the WNBA. The rookies cut from the final rosters this month have ample opportunity to make it back onto a roster in their careers.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MAY 03: Megan Gustafson #17 of the Las Vegas Aces poses for a portrait during the team's media day at Vu Studios on May 03, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Candice Ward/Getty Images)

Before Caitlin Clark, there was Megan Gustafson.

The 6-foot-3 center starred at Iowa ahead of Clark’s freshman year, winning the Naismith Award as the nation’s best collegiate player in 2019 and becoming the fourth women’s college basketball player to reach 1,000 career points in a single season.

Even though Dallas Wings CEO Greg Bibb called it a steal to nab Gustafson at No. 17 overall in that April’s draft, the rebuilding franchise waived her during final roster cuts. One month later, the team brought her back when injuries ravaged the roster. It’s a common move for front offices to bring back players they’ve had in camp to fill short-term spots vacated due to injuries.

“You never take an opportunity for granted,” Aces three-time WNBA champion Chelsea Gray said. “Whether you make this team or not, it’s about competing, and so what you do in this camp matters for in the future.”

There are strict stipulations in the collective bargaining agreement and the most commonly used is the emergency hardship waiver when a team drops below 10 players, a common circumstance on 11-player rosters.

The player on a hardship contract is immediately waived when the rostered player is active again. The requirements for a regular hardship are more stringent, and players will often have to sign multiple seven-day contracts back-to-back.

Gustafson played sparse minutes for Dallas over two years and the franchise waived her ahead of the 2021 season. She signed five different contracts with the Mystics in 2021 and was again waived while 2022 training camp was ongoing. The extra time allowed her to sign for the remainder of camp and the season with the Mercury, who needed frontcourt help while star Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained in Russia.

“What was most important to focus on is the little details that the coaches are looking for [and] not necessarily coming in trying to score a bunch of points,” Gustafson said. “There are superstars for that. And so being able to come in and find your role and really paying attention to what coach is saying. If coach is saying set better screens as a team, make sure that you’re the first one that is going to set great screens.”

Coming off the bench for a second consecutive season in Phoenix, Gustafson set career highs, averaging 7.9 points and 3.9 rebounds in 15.1 minutes per game. In January, she signed a two-year deal with the two-time defending champion Aces as an unrestricted free agent. She could see more playing time after Candace Parker’s retirement.

“If this is your goal, if this is your dream, then take the feedback that you’re given and find ways to work on that and get better and come back again,” Alysha Clark said.

Las Vegas pulled off a rare feat Monday when not only did one of their rookies drafted outside of the first round make the final roster, but two did.

The Aces drafted Dyaisha Fair, the point guard out of Syracuse who finished her NCAA career third on the Division I women’s all-time scoring list, at No. 16 overall. Two picks later, the franchise brought in Iowa sixth-year shooting guard Kate Martin, and both made the team. Martin and Gustafson overlapped for one season with the Hawkeyes.

“Megan’s been through pretty much everything in her six years in the league,” Martin said at Aces media day. “Been through cuts, been through making teams, heartbreak [and] a lot of good times as well. It’s been really nice to be able to talk to her and bounce ideas off of her. If I’m ever struggling, [I’m] able to talk to her about it, because Lord knows she’s been through it.”

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 29: Guard Karlie Samuelson #44 of the Los Angeles Sparks reacts to her basket in the second half against the Chicago Sky at Crypto.com Arena on August 29, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Samuelson’s breakout season developed in Los Angeles out of the absence of her younger sister, Katie Lou Samuelson, and through a myriad of roster gymnastics by the franchise’s front office.

After a one-game spot appearance with Phoenix amid its difficult 2022 campaign, Karlie Samuelson went to Australia to play for the JCU Townsville Fire. Top players in the WNBA often spend their domestic offseason overseas for paychecks that dwarf their base WNBA salaries, while end-of-the-bench players do it for a decent paycheck, to hone their skills and develop new ones, and to work toward opportunities in the WNBA. Sug Sutton, the league’s “Ms. Irrelevant” as the last pick in the 2020 draft, parlayed her overseas success into a spot with the Mercury last year.

“It’s always about that opportunity to get that spot,” said Karlie Samuelson, who won various titles playing in Italy, Belgium and Spain. “Right timing. Whatever it may be. But you can always improve, whether you’re in the league or not.”

While Karlie Samuelson put up a 55.3/48.1/94.4 midseason line in Australia, Katie Lou announced she was pregnant with her first child due in August.

Katie Lou, the 2019 No. 4 overall pick out of UConn who was traded each offseason, would be unable to participate in Los Angeles Sparks training camp. Two weeks later, the Sparks signed Karlie to a training camp contract for a fourth stint with the franchise and first under head coach Curt Miller.

Karlie did not make Miller’s final roster, but two days later she re-signed on a hardship contract. In June, the Sparks were required to release Samuelson, whose strong shooting year carried over from Australia, when the injured players she replaced returned. But the front office pulled off summersaults under quietly changed WNBA rules, in the simplest version of a complicated explanation, and brought her back as the designated pregnancy replacement player for her sister.

It was essentially an end-of-season contract since Katie Lou was unlikely to return, and Karlie played her first full season with a single team with averages of 7.7 points, three rebounds, two assists and a WNBA career-best shooting line of 46.3/42.6/94.1.

Mystics front office personnel traveled to London during free agency to meet with Karlie, who won the EuroCup championship and EuroCup Finals MVP with the London Lions. They signed her to her first multi-year guaranteed contract worth $115,000 (55% of the player maximum) in 2024, per Her Hoop Stats.

“I know I’ve made [it], I’ve gotten this contract, but I’m still looking to improve every day,” Samuelson said. “Basketball is a crazy journey. It is validating [to be here]. But I’d like to just be a testament to other people that are trying to do the same thing.”

There’s a chance one day, some of the 2024 draft class rookies who were waived will unpack their own suitcases with the confidence that they’ll be staying in town.


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