The WNBA, scheduled to open May 15, has no idea when it will begin its season. One thing commissioner Cathy Engelbert will guarantee is that the league will follow all guidelines and try to set the trail for other professional sports to resume play.
The coronavirus caused the league to postpone its opening but it did conduct a stellar virtual draft that began by making the three young female basketball players who perished in the tragic helicopter crash that took the life of Kobe Bryant — Gianna Bryant, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester — honorary draft picks.
The league moved forward and the New York Liberty made Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu the No. 1 overall pick. In an offseason littered with trades and a new collective bargaining agreement, the WNBA was prepped for an exciting season.
That will have to wait, but Engelbert said the plan is to play, even if that pushes the season into the fall. The WNBA will benefit by the postponement of the Olympics. The league had planned to take a month off to allow Team USA and players who represent other countries to compete, but the Olympics are postponed until 2021.
“Our guiding principle is the health and safety of everyone,” she said. “We haven’t taken any of our scenario plans off the table. Our goal is to have a season and we have an opportunity because of the month we were going to take off with the Olympics.”
The WNBA conducted its draft with the prospects at home and Engelbert announcing the picks from her New Jersey home. It provided a blueprint for next week’s NFL Draft and it allowed the sports world some type of normalcy.
“Prospects worked so hard and they didn’t get their NCAA Tournament and I think we’re going to make some dreams come true for sure,” Engelbert said. “[Determining the next step] is a little bit of a Rubik’s Cube because everything can change. I also believe coronavirus will change sports forever from a perspective of how you engage fans and how fans come into the arena and how fans interact with staff and plans and how we do a better job of engaging fans at home. That’s how we’re thinking how broad the impact of this could be.”
For the first time, the WNBA and NBA could play regular-season games at the same time.
“I think we don’t share as many arenas as you think we share probably across our 12 teams,” she said. “But I also think where we do share an arena, it’s a time of opportunity that we could probably do back-to-backs or doubleheaders or look at a variety of things around our current arenas. Or maybe bring some games to — if it gets to the point where we’re in arenas with fans, we go into arenas in other cities where there’s not a WNBA team, especially some of these big college markets where women’s basketball is extremely popular.
“That’s all part of the scenarios we’re looking at. I look at playing at the same time as the NBA as an opportunity to kind of do live look-ins across networks and things like that. I’m looking at it as an opportunity, not as a challenge. With the month of July into August opening up for us and having arena availability if we were to get back into our arenas — and we don’t know right now — we’re just scenario planning around that.”
WHO GOES WITH KG?
Garnett undecided on Hall presenter
Kevin Garnett is entering the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, a ceremony that is scheduled for Aug. 28 in Springfield. The Hall of Fame allows inductees to pick as many as three current Hall of Famers to present them, standing on stage as they make their acceptance speech.
Garnett said he had no idea about that tradition until he was reminded of it, and then recalled when Michael Jordan chose childhood hero David Thompson to be his presenter when he was inducted in 2009.
When asked who would be his presenter, Garnett pondered the choice.
“[Shaq] O’Neal is my big brother, him and Gary Payton are kind of like my big brothers,” Garnett said. “When you say it like that, I’ll probably end up asking Shaq or Gary. I don’t even know. I’m so new to this that someone is going to have to sit me down and take me through the process.
“I’ve watched so many enshrinements and so many inductees coming in that I don’t actually know all the inductions. I remember some of the speeches. I remember Dennis Rodman’s speech. I remember Michael Jordan, and now that you say that, I remember David Thompson. But no, I do not have that information.”
Garnett has received two special honors: The Celtics will retire his No. 5 next season. For a man who takes his privacy as fiercely as he took his defensive responsibilities, all of the accolades are appreciated, yet uncomfortable.
“I’m still a shy person,” he said. “I’m trying to absorb some of the achievements. It’s a time to reflect. That’s what I’ve done. When I played I didn’t want the whole thing to simultaneously be on me because it was so many other parts with teammates that you play with and the chemistry and the certain way you have to play.
“I’ve been just very appreciative of all the attention and I’ve been absorbing all of it. I’m still shy. But I’m able to appreciate everything I was able to accomplish with all the guys I played with.”
When asked the significance of playing six years with the Celtics and the impact it had on his life, Garnett was honest and reflective.
“First of all, playing for Boston was like a dream,” he said. “Every night that I suited up I felt like I was in a dream. I felt a lot of pride putting the jersey on and what it represented to me and what I felt like it meant to me. The only thing I would change is I probably would have gotten to Boston a little earlier. I should came in ’06, ’05 window. I had a window to be able to make some changes and didn’t think the opportunities were better to the ones I was in and I was assuming Minnesota was going to get better but it didn’t. I would have gotten to Boston sooner and played with Paul [Pierce] since they were a lot more serious about winning titles.
“But I don’t regret anything, man. We all get our chances. We all get our opportunities. It’s what you do with those opportunities, and for me, I did everything I could. I’d like to think that even though I came to Boston and made that decision, Paul, Ray [Allen], [Rajon] Rondo, everybody who stayed together for as long as we stayed together helped change that whole mentality or help changed the narrative for what it was.”
Garnett said he feels grateful that people credit him with helping resurrect the Celtics brand and reputation, and he said he understood the importance of regaining franchise pride.
“Everybody knows the Boston history and I wanted to get it back to that,” he said. “You have to remember how you get that back. You get it back with special players. You get it back with special coaches. For the six years I was there, everything was special. I can actually say that and really believe it.
"From [trainer] Ed Lacerte to [equipment manager] Johnny Joe [Connor], to [team security Phil] Lynch, to the [person] who massaged you Vladimir [Shulman], to the security to whoever, the bus driver, the assistant, to Kwame [Graves], the dude who rebounded for you. When we see each other, it’s like you just left each other, you can’t just wake up and get that. That’s synergy, that’s really who you are.
“The Ray [Allen] thing is a lot bigger. It’s 2020, people want to move on and yeah, we’re moving on but I ain’t never forgot nothing and I don’t take that [expletive] lightly. That’s a real brotherhood there.”
IS HARDSHIP AN ISSUE?
New WNBA CBA may entice early entries
Two of the WNBA’s top five picks are juniors who decided to forgo their senior seasons to enter the draft: Oregon’s Satou Sabally and Texas A&M’s Chennedy Carter. Early entries have not been common in the WNBA for two reasons: 1. the money for entering early has not been enticing enough, and 2. players are only eligible if they turn 22 the year of the draft (age 20 for international players).
Sabally, who went second to the Dallas Wings, turns 22 this month, while Carter, picked fourth by the Atlanta Dream, will be 22 in November. But a new collective bargaining agreement that will begin next season may encourage more players to enter the league for the better working conditions.
Players who are eligible following their junior seasons have to consider whether: 1. being a WNBA rookie is more important than potentially chasing an NCAA title or tournament berth, or 2. how likely is it for these players to make a roster or play as a rookie.
The WNBA has 12 players on each roster, meaning 144 players are in the league. The draft is three rounds, making it one of the tougher leagues to make as an entry player.
“I was just talking to Kelly Graves from Oregon,” ESPN’s Holly Rowe said. “In the past, we don’t consider that the WNBA money has been life-changing because the salary has been a little lower. But the CBA and what they have changed for this coming season, salaries will rise, more players will get more money.
“I think, for example, Satou Sabally, she wants to be able to help her family in Germany. She’ll have a wonderful pro career here and in Germany. I think that we sometimes think these kids don’t need help financially, and that might be a misnomer. Kids want to make money. She is an example of someone who has already graduated, she has her degree, and she is ready to move on to the next phase of her life and help her family financially.”
NCAA women’s basketball is not tainted by early-entry candidates. Let’s face it, if Sabrina Ionescu was a male, she doesn’t stay at Oregon beyond her sophomore year. But women’s basketball fans got the pleasure of seeing her for four years — minus a final NCAA Tournament run — and she was the No. 1 overall WNBA pick. But will losing players such as Sabally and Carter hurt women’s college basketball, because more players will consider leaving school for a revamped WNBA?
“I don’t see that it hurts the NCAA,” Rowe said. “The numbers are so small. We have three in this entire class this year. If anything, I think it adds some excitement as we have really talented women who are ready for the next step. Chennedy Carter is ready. Will they improve? Of course. But I don’t think it hurts because I think it adds some excitement to both the NCAA and the WNBA.”
Former player Rebecca Lobo, also of ESPN, said the uncertainty of which players will enter the draft makes scouting and determining rosters more difficult.
“I think a small interesting piece of it, at least as it relates to the WNBA Draft, is if you look at next year, next year is a good draft class, but you can’t just look at the seniors,” she said. “You also then have to scour the birthdays of some of the top juniors in the country because you don’t know which ones will be eligible, which ones might come out.
“So I would imagine, in terms of teams possibly trading picks from one year to the next year based on the strength of a draft class, you don’t truly know the strength of a draft class anymore unless you can try to project some of the early entrants who might make themselves available.”
Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said she invites eligible players to enter the draft if they are ready. She also has not had any conversations with the NCAA about brokering an agreement or reconsideration of the early-entry rules.
“I think if you look the history of the juniors that were eligible to enter our draft, this year is no different in numbers,” she said. “It’s only a few, and while we have a later age requirement than some of the other professional sports and juniors are eligible by age, most of our draft class will be seniors who are graduating. What we want out of the [new] CBA is to give a vision for those rookie players that they can get to high-end salary ranges, which are excellent, whether they come in one [year] early or not. We look forward to them being in the league.
“It’s not just the salary and compensation, it’s about all the other benefits for [players who have children], family planning, for travel. I’m pretty proud of where we came out, and if that entices young players to come into the league and that’s their dream and they’re ready for it and they have the mature level for it and their game is up to it, we welcome that.”
Cavaliers center Andre Drummond is contributing $160,000 to the COVID-19 effort, $60,000 to the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse staff in Cleveland who are not working during the NBA suspension and $100,000 to the Middlesex (Conn.) Health Emergency Response Fund for protective equipment for staff and patients. Drummond, a former UConn standout, also helped donate 10,000 headphones to schools in Cleveland and Detroit areas who are affected by the pandemic. Drummond played eight seasons with the Pistons … It’s been a crushing week for the NBA with the tragic death of Jacqueline Towns, mother of Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns, Karl Anthony-Towns, to the coronavirus. She was 58. About a month ago, Towns posted on social media that his mother was on a ventilator. Towns is popular among his NBA brethren and several players posted condolences on social media. “Words cannot express the extreme sadness each of us feels at the news of the passing of Karl Anthony-Towns’ loving Mother, Jacqueline Towns. Our hearts break for Karl and his family and we send them our love and support at this very difficult time,” the NBA Players Association said in a statement … Just before the NBA season was suspended, the Players Association announced that executive director Michele Roberts was stepping down and the union was in search of a new leader. Roberts is still serving on the board, however, as the pandemic has curtailed the search. The union still has critical business to discuss with owners about salaries during the suspension. Players received their regular checks for April 1 and 15, and will for May 1. But there could be a salary reduction because of the lack of revenue for league owners because of the shutdown … Vince Carter had announced this would be his final season prior to the start of the 2019-20 campaign. Since his Atlanta Hawks were far short of the playoffs, Carter may have played his final game if the regular season does not resume. Could Carter return for one final season next year? He has not said a word, but he is considered a positive locker room presence, although his play tailed off this season. He was averaging 5 points in 14 minutes, shooting 35.2 percent, the second worst of his career. Carter turned 43 in January but still showed the physical capabilities of being able to play in the NBA.