ANALYSIS: Kelsey Plum, San Antonio Stars and WNBA’s Evolution

SAN ANTONIO, TX - APRIL 25: Kelsey Plum of the San Antonio Stars throws shirts to the crowd during Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2017 NBA Playoffs on April 25, 2017 at AT
SAN ANTONIO, TX - APRIL 25: Kelsey Plum of the San Antonio Stars throws shirts to the crowd during Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2017 NBA Playoffs on April 25, 2017 at AT /

Obviously, the contours of the drafting and signing of Kelsey Plum by the San Antonio Stars differed from what we typically expect with a top overall pick in the WNBA Draft.

For those who weren’t following, the Stars, already featuring backcourt stalwarts Moriah Jefferson and Kayla McBride, weighed dealing Plum amid disagreement within the organization of how to properly deploy Plum. A trade very nearly happened, and the level of frustration from Plum’s camp when that didn’t ultimately led to her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, going public with her frustrations.

A fair amount of consternation surrounded the entire thing.

Leave aside that “the quest for clicks” is literally the manifestation of the shared goal everyone has in women’s basketball, which is greater attention, leading to both more respect and more revenue to be used on growing the game. (Also worth remembering: in no league in the history of sports would it not be a story when the team picking first is divided over their pick’s role and that player is making an effort to play elsewhere.)

But beyond that obvious framing, let’s consider an alternate scenario: there were no villains here. And the entire process represents signs of WNBA growth.

To the former point: consider it from all points of view. For Ruth Riley and company, getting a number one overall pick doesn’t happen very often. The memory of former Stars coach and GM Dan Hughes, long face and all, discussing the WNBA lottery after the Seattle Storm won the right to draft Breanna Stewart back in 2016 should still be fresh. It wasn’t as if Hughes didn’t recognize that Moriah Jefferson could help a franchise. It’s that getting the top player in any draft, especially a generational talent like Stewart, is always the goal out of a lottery.

And unlike that draft, there is a perception around the league that there is one potential all star in this class, and that all star is Plum. So trading that pick requires a deal in which the Stars can add an all star-level talent. The proposed deal from Chicago, the others on the table—none of them really did that (unless you consider potential 2018 draft picks to be all stars in waiting, a not-unfair way to think of that coming harvest of talent).

Meanwhile, for her part, Plum obviously wants to go somewhere she can maximize her talents while making the significant jump from college to the pros. So she did precisely what any athlete should: said all the right things, allowed her high-powered agent to press the case on her behalf, and once it shook out this way, reported to camp and made every effort on the court and off.

The commitment a WNBA draft pick makes to a team is not a small one. There’s a rookie contract lasting four years. Should she excel, her team then has a chance to designate her as a core player, repeatedly. When it’s all said and done, there’s the reality that if a team decides to keep a player, nearly a decade can go by before that player can choose her own team.

That reality has led a number of high-profile players to seek alternate exits—Tina Charles, Sylvia Fowles, Elena Delle Donne. The strange part isn’t that Plum attempted to steer her career at draft time—it’s that such a thing hasn’t happened sooner. The more restrictive the CBA, the more individual players can, and arguably should, push back against it. You can bet that reality, paired with the grumbling about core designation and other areas, will manifest itself in the next round of CBA talks, which could come sooner than many people think thanks to an opt-out clause in the current agreement.

And having an agent do this is common practice in MLB, NBA, virtually any league around. It’s relatively new for the WNBA. But that doesn’t mean it’s problematic, not when this is a league that wants to grow, and whose players deserve the better pay and treatment that should follow an increase in revenue that is tied directly to growth.

So if the goal is a league with all of the accoutrements of, say, the NBA, think about how this process worked. A decorated, knowledgeable veteran of the WNBA is now a GM, hired a former teammate as a coach, and navigated a difficult process. The league’s best chance at breakout stardom is represented by a high-profile agent who can maximize her ability to do so, with that player reporting to camp and dedicated to living out her professional dream.

And the drama as the two sides worked toward a solution only brought further attention to the league—and yes, contract negotiations, conversations that allow fans to access the league from a general manager point of view, and the debates that come with it are precisely how the WNBA can continue adding fans and growing the overall financial pot, something vital for all parties involved. Or put another way:

Oh, and where is Kelsey Plum going to make her professional debut? That’s right: Madison Square Garden, May 13, The World’s Most Famous Arena. Game 2 comes against the new Mystics, led by Elena Delle Donne, another player represented by a high-profile agent (Erin Kane, Octagon) who used a public process and produced some unrehearsed drama to bring about an offseason move. The resulting storylines? Those are column inches the WNBA doesn’t usually get, either.

And now, less than a week later? Here’s Plum, whose profile was only elevated by these talks, showing up at a Spurs playoff game and appearing on television.

(Here’s a reminder to ESPN: if Markelle Fultz belonged at the WNBA Draft, make sure you have Kelsey Plum at the NBA Draft. It’s in season for the WNBA, and you are the national TV provider for the league. It’s elemental cross promotion. Thanks in advance.)

So a win for the Stars? Check. A win for Plum as a brand? Check. A win for WNBA players flexing their muscles and bringing CBA issues into sharper focus? Check. A win for the league? Check.

This is how a growing league works. Sometimes it’s messy. The less sanitized it is, the better for everyone.