WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert: It’s more than just a weight room
The WNBA commissioner speaks out on the NCAA weight room and what it represents.
After the “Wubble” season triumphantly concluded in mid-October, with zero positive Covid-19 cases and a 68% increase in viewership, a large portion of the W’s players began their annual voyage to leagues across the globe, where they earn the bulk of their annual basketball income.
Surprisingly, the ongoing pandemic had little effect on the total number of athletes who went overseas this “off season.” Both this year and the one before, roughly 90 WNBA players took their skills abroad. It appears the substantial income (relatively speaking) and valuable court time were too important to pass up. As the WNBA’s reigning points leader, Arike Ogunbowale, explained to Breanna Stewart on a recent pod episode of Stewie’s World, “I’m still young and I need to make money and there’s a lot of money overseas for me.”
Both Stewart and Ogunbowale are playing in Russia this winter. While Stewie feels much the same way as her counterpart, she also emphasizes the need to get minutes on the court since her 2019 Achilles rupture.
“For me it’s like, coming back from an injury, I can’t imagine not playing basketball just by choice,” she tells her listeners. “I want to be able to play as much as possible. In the situation where in our country so many people are unemployed, if we have a job, we need to take that job and go and do what we need to do.”
Someone may want to tell Stewie her “recovery” appears well behind her given the outstanding season she had in Bradenton, Florida. She placed fourth in the league in scoring, fifth overall in blocks, and won her second WNBA Championship in three years with the Seattle Storm.
Unfortunately for Stewart, and all her colleagues abroad this year, the risk of Covid-19 is very real. Stewie tested positive within a week of arriving in Russia despite strict travel precautions and safety measures from her UMMC Ekateringburg team. Luckily, she had no symptoms and was able to return to play after a thorough quarantine period. Alongside the contagion risk is a wide disparity in players’ confidence in their team’s testing protocol.
“It’s pretty much up in the air for us to be honest. There was like weeks and weeks I went without getting tested and another week I got tested like three times,” Ogunbowale laments to Stewie.
Within Russia, Stewart’s UMMC Ekateringburg has been a ridiculous gold mine of WNBA talent. Alongside Stewie, who has a claim to being the best player in the world, is Brittney Griner (6x WNBA All-Star), Emma Meeseman (2019 WNBA Finals MVP), Jonquel Jones (2x WNBA All-Star) and WNBA power couple Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley (aka The Vanderquigs).
Quigley, a three-time WNBA All-Star and two-time 3-point contest champ, and Vandersloot, an assist queen who set a new single game assist record (18) this past season, both play stateside for the Chicago Sky.
Even with all that talent, it’s actually Ogunbowale’s Dynamo Kursk squad, which includes NY Liberty center Amanda Zahui B, that has the best record in the Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League. They sit at 12-1, while UMMC, though undefeated, is only 11-0.
Russia’s track record of recruiting some of the best WNBA talent goes way back. (For an entertaining look inside the world of Russian women’s basketball, check out this 30 for 30 podcast featuring Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi discussing their years playing together for a kind but crooked team owner in Moscow.) But while Russia attracts some of the WNBA’s biggest stars, it’s the aptly-named Women’s Basketball Super League in Turkey that attracts the largest number of WNBA players.
This year almost 30% of all those playing overseas are in Turkey. With roughly three WNBA players per team, it’s the place to go if you want non-stop competitive minutes on the court. Second overall 2020 draft pick from Oregon, Satou Sabally, and her stacked Fenerbahce team, which includes Kayla McBride, Kia Vaughn, Jasmine Thomas, and Kiah Stokes, currently hold the top spot in the league with a 17-0 record.
In the WNBA, both Sabally and Ogunbowale play for the Dallas Wings. (If you’re a fan of young, talented teams which have the potential to make the jump to serious league contender will before anyone really expects it, then keep your eyes on Dallas.) Several of Sabally and Ogunbowale’s Wings teammates are likewise honing their craft internationally this year. Allisha Gray, Bella Alarie, Ty Harris, and sharp-shooter Katie Lou Samuelson are all WNBA players currently hooping overseas.
After not following in her two older sisters’ Stanford footsteps and playing for rival UConn instead, Samuelson and her older sister Karli are finally able to play some family ball this year on Team Avenida in Spain.
Hopping down to the southern hemisphere, Australian-born Elizabeth Cambage spent 2020 putting on a clinic in the Australian Women’s National Basketball League after receiving a medical exemption for the WNBA 2020 bubble season. Cambage and her Melbourne-based Southside Fliers won the league championship in mid-December on the shoulders of the 3x WNBA All-Star’s 23.5 PPG and 8.7 rebounds per game.
The Las Vegas Aces 6’8” center is one of a handful of Australians in the WNBA. Alongside last year’s league MVP, A’ja Wilson, Cambage looks ready to help lead the Aces to another Finals run in 2021.
Fellow Aussie and Seattle Storm back-up guard Sami Whitcomb left the Wubble prior to the Finals in order to make it home to her wife in time for the birth of their first child. A week or so later, she watched from her hotel room as her teammates beat Cambage’s Aces in three straight to win their fourth WNBA Championship, tying them with the Minnesota Lynx and the legendary Houston Comets for most all-time league titles.
Whitcomb, who usually plays the off-season either in Europe or Australia, is taking a break this year to be with her new family of three. She isn’t the only veteran player sitting this international season out.
While the total number of players abroad held steady, there are several athletes who went overseas last year but decided against it this season. Among them are DeWonna Bonner, Jewell Loyd, Sydney Weise, Teira McCowan, Ariel Atkins, and Bria Hartley, to name a few.
If you’re a Minnesota Lynx fan, keep your nose to the grindstone to hear whether 2020 Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield and 2019 Rookie of the Year (and co-host of a gem of a podcast) Napheesa Collier head overseas later this winter or spring.
There are also mumblings that number one overall 2020 draft pick, Sabrina Ionescu, is considering going abroad soon to get some playing time. Ionescu missed most of her rookie season after severely spraining her ankle in just her third professional game. The injury robbed us all of the dream of what Ionescu’s rookie WNBA season could have been, especially after she dropped 33 points in her second game. It was also salt in the wound of 2020 after the pandemic first robbed us of watching Ionescu and her Oregon Ducks compete for a NCAA Championship.
Then there’s a long list of vets who have closed the book on their year-round playing days: Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Candace Parker, Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, Elene Della Donne, Sylvia Fowles, Skylar Diggins-Smith, etc. But the one vet we’d love to hear any and all whispers about getting back to the court? The one and only Maya Moore.
If 2021 is going to redeem the dumpster fire that was 2020, re-gifting the world the honor of watching Moore do her magic on the hardwood would be a fantastic start.
That may just be a pipe dream, the result of too many hours in quarantine. But while the pandemic has turned normal life upside down for most Americans, the year-round grind of the WNBA’s biggest stars remains a constant. And though we love catching highlights on Twitter, we can’t wait to see them all stateside for this next WNBA season.
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