LAS VEGAS — Cameron Brink, Deja Kelly and Hailey Van Lith sat courtside for the WNBA All-Star Game last month, looking directly at their preferred futures.
The three are heading into their senior years — Brink at Stanford, Kelly at North Carolina and Van Lith at LSU. And like the players on the court, their WNBA dreams are so close, they can almost touch them.
“God willing, this is a dream of mine,” Brink said. “So, I think seeing all this is such a good reminder of how much hard work it takes to get there. And what the players sacrifice to be in this league. I think it’s just a really humbling experience, and I’m just really happy to be here.”
Anyone who watches the WNBA or dreams of playing in the league is familiar with the difficulties of making a roster. There’s a lot of talent coming out of college basketball — Brink, Kelly and Van Lith included — but a limited number of spots.
This season, 15 of 36 draftees made opening day rosters, 15 remained on rosters from the 2022 draft, and just eight players drafted in 2021 were rostered to start the season.
For the three seniors, this upcoming season is crucial to raising their draft stock. The next two WNBA drafts could feature the deepest classes the league has ever seen.
As undersized guards, Kelly (5-8) and Van Lith (5-7) are both focusing on extending their range. Kelly shot 28% from beyond the arc last season, while Van Lith made 29% of her attempts. They’ve been effective getting to the rim off the bounce in college, but they know 3-point shooting is vital to success in the WNBA.
“I’m working on a number of things,” Kelly said. “But I think just being as consistent as possible, just playing within my game. That and really extending my range as well. I think as a guard and my size, it’s something I have to have.”
Brink also wants to improve her outside shooting as a skill that can set the 6-4 forward apart from other bigs. She looks to players like Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson for inspiration on how to capitalize on versatility while remaining dominant inside.
Versatility has become increasingly important in the WNBA in the last few years, as traditional, back-to-the-basket posts and guards who can’t create for themselves are becoming less effective. Posts have to have range, and guards need to be able to score in isolation.
Van Lith and Brink are coming off a successful stint in 3×3 basketball, where they claimed gold at the FIBA World Cup in June and Brink was named tournament MVP. The nature of 3×3, they say, promotes versatility.
“I think 3×3 is such a dynamic game, and it’s so volatile,” Brink said. “You have to be able to defend every position, be able to shoot, be confident in your shot. You have to be able to handle the ball and clear the ball in between possessions.”
With only three players on the court at a time, Van Lith even spent time in the paint, playing with her back to the basket. It’s an unexpected skill set that she hopes to show off next season at LSU, after transferring from Louisville to play for the defending NCAA champions.
“I have a post bag, and it is deep,” Van Lith said with a smile. “Just wait until I get to LSU, because it is coming out.”
Changes in women’s basketball are happening off the court, too. Brink, Kelly and Van Lith have witnessed the rapidly evolving landscape firsthand, coming into college during the COVID-19 pandemic and now being some of the first players to benefit from NIL.
The opportunity to accept sponsorships and marketing opportunities has allowed college players to build and monetize their personal brands, bringing more attention to themselves and the game. Players like Aliyah Boston, who is enjoying a successful rookie season, is proof that talent can get players to the next level, but personality and visibility can bring fans from college to the WNBA. Boston already has a strong following from South Carolina, and those fans have continued their support for the Fever post, voting her as an All-Star starter this season.
“NIL plays a huge role in that growth process, just because fans get to see what we are doing for NIL, and it makes them want to watch us play basketball even more,” Kelly said. “NIL hit my sophomore year, and a lot of people wanted to see our team and see what we were about. Once they saw we were actually good, it made them want to come back.”
Of course, not every NIL deal transfers from college to the professional ranks. Branding remains important at the next level, and several players have found ways to benefit despite not going to college during the NIL era.
Wilson, the two-time WNBA MVP, has deals with Starry and Ruffles. Stewart, another of the league’s most well-known players, has a signature shoe with PUMA.
Coinciding with more eyes on the league, fashion has become a big part of WNBA culture. Skylar Diggins-Smith launched an entire clothing collection with PUMA last season, and tunnel pregame tunnel outfits have dominated WNBA Instagram accounts for the last few seasons.
The differing styles among players are one of the many ways they express and market themselves. It’s also something that’s trickling down to the college level.
“I love it,” Van Lith said. “There is no pressure to put a label on it. They can dress masculine one day, and the next day they can show up in a dress. There’s so much range.”
Player fashion, Van Lith says, is bigger than just what brands they are wearing. Like the changing versatility on the court, it represents exactly what the WNBA is about.
“The league is just a great example of diversity in so many ways,” she says. “Fashion is definitely one of those.”
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.