There’s literally nothing 19-year-old UConn freshman phenom Paige Bueckers can’t do on a basketball court. Well, except for the fact that she can’t take the floor with a WNBA team for another three years.
On Wednesday, Bueckers became the first freshman to ever be named the Associated Press women’s basketball player of the year after averaging 20.1 points, 5.9 assists, and 4.8 rebounds per game this season. Earlier this week, her game-high 28 points in a 69-67 win over Baylor sent UConn to their 21st Final Four. On Sunday, Bueckers could be cutting down the nets as the Huskies look to capture their 12th national title. And by Monday, she could become the first freshman to win the John R. Wooden Award in women’s college basketball history.
If Bueckers were a man, she would be expected to go one-and-done and play in the NBA next season. However, that can’t happen. And oddly enough, no one is to blame.
“Why would women have a choice? Half the battle is having the choice to do it then you go on and make the best decision,” Diana Taurasi told the Arizona Republic earlier this week. “The next step is to have that option. Will kids do it? Probably not, but you should have that option. If you’re the best at your profession, you should be able to keep getting better.”
The UConn legend is already on record for calling Bueckers “the best player in basketball already.”
Under the current WNBA collective bargaining agreement, American players have to be 22 before they can declare for the draft, or have earned their degree, or have been out of high school for four years. International players only have to be 20.
Well, because that’s how things have been from the beginning. The draft eligibility rules that exist today are the same ones that were on the books when the WNBA began in 1997. No one was thinking about women coming out of college early at that time, especially when 34-year-old Cynthia Cooper became the best player in the start-up league while leading the Houston Comets to the league’s first four championships.
Twenty-five seasons later, the game and players have changed but the rules haven’t. And as eyes have been on the NBA for years to see if they will repeal their one-and-done rule that requires players to be 19 or have spent a year in college before they can declare for the draft, the idea of a rule change has been at least discussed amongst some in the WNBA.
“The men are dealing with their own issues in terms of draft eligibility. They’re trying to get rid of the one and done,” Sue Bird told the Arizona Republic. “It’s a fluid thing. That will be the case for us. It did come up in the last CBA negotiations, it was just not the priority in the moment. I think players should have a choice, always. What’s interesting is the whole name and likeness thing as it pertains to college (and perhaps staying in school longer).”
The Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) movement has been the hottest topic in collegiate sports the last few years, as player compensation is inevitable. This week, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments on the subject while in Mississippi and Florida, NIL legislation will take effect on July 1.
A recent report by Opendorse listed the combined Twitter and Instagram follower counts for the 20 most-followed players in the men’s and women’s Elite Eights, along with what their estimated annual earnings would be if players had full NIL rights. Bueckers led the list, as she could make an estimated $382,000.
According to the latest CBA, the rookie scale for the Nos. 1-4 picks — where Bueckers would get drafted — gives them a base salary of at least $70,000 that can go to a minimum of $89,000 by their fourth season if their team option is picked up. And don’t forget about the potential and limitless endorsement deals.
There’s an argument to be had that a player like Bueckers could potentially make more money playing at a place like UConn under the NIL rules than she would in her first couple of years in the WNBA. However, Bueckers will play for free for the foreseeable future, as it’s unknown when national NIL rules will be put into play. But, even if she wanted to go pro, she still has to wait.
In March, the league and the Women’s National Basketball Players Association agreed to an opt-in process for this year’s draft. Players who ran out of eligibility used to be automatically entered in the draft, but they now have to notify the league since college players were given an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic. The new mandate can be helpful for seniors, but it does little for players like Bueckers or Iowa freshman Caitlin Clark, who Kevin Durant said: “belongs in the league right now.”
Many point to Kevin Garnett’s decision to skip college and enter the 1995 NBA Draft as the pivotal moment that led to the preps-to-pros pipeline and eventually the one-and-done movement. But, it actually happened 24 years prior. In 1971, Spencer Haywood beat the NBA in court, leading to the eradication of a rule that forced players to be four years out of high school before they could be draft eligible.
Fifty years ago, the men’s game was transformed by a player that was so good that he didn’t need to spend time playing in college if he didn’t want to. Fifty years later, and the women’s game has a player that could transcend the rules of a league that have been in place since its inception.
Paige Bueckers has to wait to play in the WNBA because the league never thought there would ever be a player this good, and this young. She’s proof of just how much the game has evolved.