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Sunday basketball notes

Interest in women’s basketball is growing, but can the WNBA keep pace?

Coach Dawn Staley and South Carolina are the talk of women's college basketball.Elsa/Getty

Women’s basketball is coming off one of the most-watched NCAA Tournaments in history with South Carolina coasting to a win over UConn to give coach Dawn Staley her second national championship.

With the WNBA season beginning in May, the league’s draft is Monday, eight days after the NCAA championship game. That means fans could watch their favorite prospect flourish in the tournament before being drafted.

Or maybe not.

The WNBA Draft is three rounds with 12 players each round. The league released the early-entry list of 108 players this past week — for a 36-player draft. And that does not count college seniors and international prospects.

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There is no minor league or G League for women’s basketball (maybe there should be), so many of those early entries won’t be drafted and will begin their careers overseas or as undrafted free agents.

And while WNBA salaries have increased, it is not as financially feasible for women to leave school early as it is for men, who have the G League as an option if they want to remain in the United States.

The number of early-entry candidates is bloated this season because many players are bypassing the additional year of eligibility awarded them because of the abbreviated 2019-20 season.

“I totally understand players that felt like, ‘Hey, I’ve done my time in college, don’t necessarily want the extra year,’ ” ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said. “But yeah, I think everyone wants to see the WNBA expand and for there to be more teams.”

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said expansion is being considered. Until then, there will be 144 roster spots in the WNBA. That does not seem nearly enough given the boon of talent and interest in the sport.

“There’s definitely a lot of talent overall in the women’s game,” Robinson said. “But I think before we even start having the conversation about expanding the league, or it seems like it’s not something that’s going to happen immediately, I think roster spots are a value. I think these rookies having an opportunity to make a roster and come in and being developed is the most important aspect of this because it’s a huge jump from college to the WNBA.”

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And the failure rate for high WNBA picks is higher than their NBA counterparts. The Las Vegas Aces on Friday waived former Arkansas standout Destiny Slocum, who was selected 14th overall just a year ago.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert has some work to do as the league tries to keep up with the growth of the women's college game.Ethan Miller/Getty

“I tell people all the time, they’re two different games, in my opinion, because of the speed and the quickness,” Robinson said. “You’re playing against women who have been playing in foreign countries, internationally, against different styles, and have had to adapt and play multiple positions, and so their games are just grown.

“So it’s a big jump. And so while you look at that number and you’re excited about the talent and young women saying, ‘Hey, I want to play at the next level,’ the most important aspect of that is making sure that they’re ready and developed.”

The WNBA needs to devise a system to develop prospects, perhaps those who may have entered the draft too early or may be a year or two from making a roster. Those players, if unable to make a roster, are relegated to go overseas.

Robinson suggested players stay in college for as long as they can.

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“Something I often say is that the majority of college players can’t spend enough time in college diversifying their games because when you get to the WNBA, it’s just another level,” she said. “So stay, work on those perimeter skills, if that’s what it is, get stronger, do whatever you need to do because it’s incredibly hard to make a roster in this league.”

Former UConn All-American and WNBA standout Rebecca Lobo said the league’s financial issues have forced teams to reduce rosters, making it harder for prospects to succeed.

”We certainly would love to see the roster size expanded,” Lobo said. “Only three teams are going to be at 12. The other nine will most likely be at 11. I covered a game last year where Washington had six healthy players for a game on television. We showed the layup lines at the beginning of the game because it was just so striking how few players they had.

“I think the next step for the league, whether it’s — I don’t know how many it would be, but maybe you add two roster spots for practice players that you can dip into when you get to that situation when you have injury. You have those players who continue to develop.”

Lobo also pointed out that the uneasy situation in Eastern Europe, which has flourishing women’s leagues, could make it more difficult for prospects to find teams.

The biggest stars, like UConn's Paige Bueckers, should transition to the next level just fine, but the waters are choppier for others.Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

“As things get a little bit different overseas,” Lobo said, “will players be less willing to go play over there and therefore have less opportunity to refine their game in that way where they could really benefit if they had the time during the WNBA season to work on their games? Even if they weren’t a part of the active roster the entire season.”

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Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault said coaches would love to use their full 12-women roster but financial constraints generally prevent that, reducing 144 spots to closer to 132.

“I think every general manager and coach, when it’s not coming out of their own pocket and paycheck, would love to have a bigger roster,” he said. “I think that’s a safe thing to say. But we don’t write the checks. We don’t have to balance the books. That ultimately is an ownership decision.

“I think we’re at a point right now, because we’ve had COVID and injuries and condensed schedule this year, that everybody feels the strain to have healthy players, and obviously if you had a bigger roster, that would help. But again, that’s not our decision.”

The NBA has developed two-way contracts in addition to the G League to develop players. Yet the money and resources just aren’t there.

“I think [a bigger roster] would also allow for longer player development, that we would be able to take some players and let them develop at the rate they need to develop rather than cutting them and hoping that they develop when they go overseas,” Thibault said. “It’s a very big Catch-22. Coaches always want to have a little bit more to work with and a little bit more to do, and we’ve gotten to the point now where because of the salary cap and the collective bargaining agreement, a lot of us are going to play with 11 players this year. It does make it tough when you have some injuries.

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“I would love to find a way to get more players in the league so that we as coaches can develop them, because there are ones that are going to get cut that probably would have a future in our league. But there’s no simple answer to that.”

ETC.

Play-in games add interest

Last year's play-in games included a thrilling duel between stars LeBron James (right) and Stephen Curry.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The final week of the NBA’s regular season has added intrigue for the second consecutive year because of the Play-In Tournament, something the league experimented with in the bubble before adjusting the format last season.

While it allows two-thirds of the teams to play beyond the regular season, it has become wildly popular and changed how teams with losing records approach their short-term futures.

The Pelicans and Spurs would be headed for the draft lottery if not for the Play-In Tournament. Instead, they will play a winner-take-all game Wednesday for the right to face the Timberwolves or Clippers in another elimination game to reach the playoffs.

One of the bigger story lines this weekend is the fate of the Nets, who have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant and will be a dangerous playoff opponent. Brooklyn could be the seventh or eighth seed and possibly a difficult matchup in the first round.

Commissioner Adam Silver confirmed the league will continue the Play-In Tournament, which offers hope to fringe teams seeking postseason experience.

“We’re very pleased with what we’re seeing so far,” Silver said. “When examining it we were very focused on the actual Play-In games themselves, and what we’re seeing is a far greater impact essentially on the last month of the season where teams are either jockeying to get into the Play-In Tournament itself or jockeying to get out of the Play-In Tournament with a locked-in sixth seed.”

One change could be to adjust the incentive for the seventh seed in each conference, which now has to win to merely keep its seed. The other teams have the opportunity to better their seed.

“We’re pleased with it; there may be a need to tweak it additionally,” Silver said. “We’ll see how it goes this year, but I think it’s going to become a fixture in this league.”

Meanwhile, any team that plays in Toronto cannot take unvaccinated players into Canada. The 76ers were missing guard Matisse Thybulle in Thursday’s loss because he is unvaccinated. The Raptors are all vaccinated. Silver said the league cannot challenge a country’s COVID restrictions.

“I’m not sure if I’d refer to it as a conflict,” he said. “I mean, we have no choice but to operate under the laws of the jurisdictions in which we play.

“In some cases, as we saw here in New York City, those are city ordinances. In other cases, they’re state. And in the case of Toronto, there are Canadian issues that we have to comply with.”

Some teams might want to avoid playing Toronto in the playoffs, as Canada's COVID-19 vaccine requirements could complicate things.Chris Young/Associated Press

Understandably, teams are trying to avoid the Raptors in the playoffs if they have unvaccinated players.

“Those rules are well known to all players, and for any player who chooses not to get vaccinated, they know they are at risk of not being allowed to play in Toronto,” Silver said. “That’s the facts that we’re all going to have to operate under.

“The greater concern to me is a trend of star players not participating in a full complement of games. I think that’s something we, together with the Players Association, need to address. I’m not standing here saying I have a great solution. Part of the issue is injuries. One of the things we have focused on at the league office and we’re spending — we had begun to spend a lot of time on pre-pandemic — are there things we can do in terms of sharing information, resources around the league to improve best practices, rehabilitation, etc.?”

Silver suggested offering “incentives” for players to play in more games. How would that work? Would stars get salary boosts for participating in 70 or more games? What does that mean for non-star players? How would the Players Association react?

“The Play-In Tournament I thought was a beginning of creating renewed incentives for teams to remain competitive and be fighting for playoff position,” Silver said. “It may be through in-season tournaments and changes in format where we can get at it.”

Another idea is to reduce the number of games. That is not going to happen. The league governors are not going to pay the same salaries for fewer games and players are not going to accept reduced salaries.

“I also have said in the past, if we have too many games, that’s something we should look at, as well,” Silver said. “It’s something, as we sit down and we’re looking at new media deals and looking at a new collective bargaining agreement, we will be studying.

“There wasn’t any banging of the table or anything like that. From my discussions with players, they recognize it’s an issue, too. The style of the game has changed in terms of the impact on their bodies. I think we’ve got to constantly assess and look at a marketplace going forward and say, what’s the best way to present our product and over how long a season?”

Layups

The Nets waived James Johnson this week.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

The Nets waived James Johnson, who had missed the last few games with a non-COVID illness, to make room for a standard contract for rookie Kessler Edwards, a second-round pick from Pepperdine. Edwards had carved out a role but wasn’t eligible for the playoffs on a two-way deal. Even if he signs with another team, Johnson is not eligible for the playoffs because the deadline to add waived players for the postseason has passed. The Celtics have two two-way contract players — Matt Ryan and Brodric Thomas — but neither would be considered for standard contracts before the postseason. The Celtics are expected to go with Nik Stauskas and Malik Fitts to fill out their roster. The 10-day contract of Juwan Morgan will expire before the playoffs. The Bucks created a roster spot by waiving the injured DeAndre’ Bembry, who signed with Milwaukee after the Nets waived him following their trade for Ben Simmons … The Pistons, impressed by Carsen Edwards’s G League performance with Salt Lake City, signed the former Celtic to a two-year contract. Prior to the season, the Celtics traded Edwards to Memphis, which waived him soon after. The second year of Edwards’s contract is nonguaranteed, meaning he’ll get an invitation to training camp with a chance to make the team … The Clippers could give the Suns or Grizzlies trouble in the first round because they are nearly at full health. Not only is former All-Star Paul George back from a torn elbow ligament but Norman Powell returned Wednesday from a broken foot and will be ready for the team’s Play-In Tournament opener against the Timberwolves. The Clippers would have to beat the Timberwolves to earn the seventh seed and face Memphis. If the Clippers lose to the Timberwolves, they would have to beat the San Antonio-New Orleans winner to earn the eighth seed and face Phoenix. The Suns enter the playoffs as the favorite to return to the Finals … The NBA used a Major League Baseball tactic of waiting until this past week to set the game times for the final day of the season, eliminating any competitive advantage for teams vying for playoff seeding. The Celtics end the season next Sunday at 7 p.m. against the Grizzlies, the same time Miami and Philadelphia both play. Milwaukee ends the season against Cleveland at 3:30 p.m. Cleveland and Brooklyn are fighting for the seventh seed and a home game in the Play-In Tournament.


Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.