Roster cuts reflect an increasingly elite WNBA

Oregon forward Jillian Alleyne backs down a defender on her way to the basket. Photo by Michael Shaw/Emerald.
Oregon forward Jillian Alleyne backs down a defender on her way to the basket. Photo by Michael Shaw/Emerald.

Watching WNBA teams trim their rosters in preparation for the season deadline each year is never easy. This year, however, it is especially excruciating.

The release of veterans like Erin Phillips, Roneeka Hodges, Allison Hightower, Tiffany Bias, Kayla Pedersen and Jenna O’Hea was shocking. The waiving of many other athletes is downright sorrowful.

The Phoenix Mercury cut Jillian Alleyne last weekend after she spent the last 15 months in a rehabilitation measured every day by the goal of playing in the WNBA. The University of Oregon stand out had grabbed the third-most career rebounds in NCAA history and was an NCAA second in career double-doubles when she tore her ACL in February of her senior year in 2016. Widely projected as a WNBA Draft first-round pick, Alleyne fell to 20 in the second round, as Phoenix grabbed her. They traded her to Connecticut, who traded her back.

Throughout her recovery Alleyne was open on social media about the tough grind of rehab, while maintaining a positive attitude. She stayed at Oregon an extra year for treatment, then packed up all her belongings in March for the pilgrimage to Arizona. And less than two weeks into training camp, her dream was over.

Jacki Gemelos brings the ball up court. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.
Jacki Gemelos brings the ball up court. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

This past Tuesday saw the New York Liberty waive Jacki Gemelos, who has rehabilitated from an incredible five ACL tears. The former USC Trojan has made fans nationwide just for her strength and resilience through recovery. But it hasn’t been enough to keep her on a WNBA roster for more than one full season, which she spent with the Chicago Sky in 2015. Gemelos has come very close several times to making other rosters, but always seems to fall just short. She has been a star in the Greek league for many years, but still gives the WNBA a shot each year. This season, however, it wasn’t meant to be.

The same day Gemelos departed, the Connecticut Sun cut Reshanda Gray after two seasons in the league. Gray went from being an average basketball player in South Central Los Angeles to one of the best in Cal school history to suit up. She was the first in her family to graduate from college, and was drafted by the Minnesota Lynx. She was traded to the Atlanta Dream, where she played sparingly, for some reason. She was traded to Connecticut over the winter.

“What happens now?” one of her mentors said to me when I broke the news to him.

It’s a question that has different answers for every woman who plays professional basketball.

Reshanda Gray prepares to shoot a free throw. Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images.
Reshanda Gray prepares to shoot a free throw. Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images.

The NBA has 30 teams with 15 players on each squad. That’s 450 open spots. The WNBA has 12 teams with 12 players for a mere 144 spots. The NBA would have room for a Shayla Cooper, a Nina Davis, a Chantel Osahor and a Miah Spencer (all were top NCAA players waived this week). The WNBA does not. It is said that people of color have to be twice as good to be considered for opportunities, and the same could be said for women. Pro players have to be the best of the best of the best to play in the WNBA, and the stakes gett higher every year. Playing overseas is great money and a learning experience, but wouldn’t everyone like to play in their home country in front of family, friends and fans who know them? You bet.

Those who make a final WNBA roster aren’t necessarily always the best players from college; many times it’s whether or not they can fill a particular role on a team. If it’s a good fit, a franchise will keep them. But in the NBA there is room for extra bodies who may not fit perfectly, but who are great to keep around. The WNBA doesn’t have any extra room on their bench whatsoever. Opportunities are extremely limited, and players often have to make choices.

There is a lot to admire in athletes who keep trying to make a WNBA roster. Sometimes it works, as it did for Danielle Adams today. Cut from the San Antonio Stars roster last season, Adams showed out in Sun camp and in games, and made the final cut.

Sometimes it doesn’t work. Darxia Morris was just let go from the Dream yesterday; she has tried out for a WNBA team almost every year since she graduated from UCLA in 2011. Jennifer Hamson was cut from her second WNBA roster earlier this week, as was Bashaara Graves and Whitney Knight.

They would all have spots if the WNBA was the size of the NBA. That’s a hard pill to swallow.

As the WNBA season commences tomorrow, it’s worth remembering that this is the most elite league in the world.

For better, or for worse.

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