Casualties of WNBA roster limits keep dreaming: "I won't stop playing basketball"

Penn State "power guard" Tyra Grant was recently released from the Phoenix Mercury, but still continues searching for a WNBA home. Photo via jlindstr.smugmug.com.

After the Phoenix Mercury's 77-58 exhibition loss to the Seattle Storm last Sunday afternoon, I tweeted that guard Tyra Grant is a candidate for the strongest handshake in the WNBA.

I will now confess that I did not determine this by shaking every single player's hand, but that's not quite the point anyway.

Seeing Grant on film or even on the court from press row, you can see that she has a strong build. Despite acknowledging that "these girls are huge", she lived up to her reputation as a strong, attacking guard taking the ball to the rim and getting an impressive three point play as well. But it wasn't until I stood with Grant outside of the visitor's locker room at Key Arena that I fully understood what an imposing physical presence she really is -- to the extent that it's possible to feel "dwarfed" by someone about half an inch taller, I was honestly caught off guard by just how big she was in person. And having lost 10 pounds in workouts with Yolanda Griffith between leaving Penn State University and the 2010 WNBA Draft in which she was selected 24th, she's a toned athlete even at this early stage in her career.

To the lunkhead male women's basketball haters who say they could take a WNBA player -- believe that if want to but I do know this much: the idea of Grant running into me with a full head of steam on a basketball court evoked thoughts of pain.

With a reputation as a relentless driver to the rim -- without knowing the play calls -- Grant was much more patient and controlled than I imagined and generally chose her spots well, sizing up the situation quickly and making decisive plays with the ball. In a league in which creating scoring opportunities is so important, starting with a strong build and nose for the rim is potentially valuable. If the concern about a ball dominant college scorer was whether she could transition to the role of supporting cast member in the pros, she seemed to demonstrate a capacity to mesh with more talented teammates against the Storm.

"Oh yeah, of course, of course," said a beaming Grant, when asked about whether she was excited about the Mercury's core returning. "They add so many more dimensions to this team...Having all of those players back with the team, seeing what they really are and what they really are about and their mentality, it will obviously enable me to fix my mentality and fix what it is that I need to do to compete with them."

After scoring 12 points on 4-12 shooting, Grant knew she still had some things to work on, but exuded the same type of confidence and passion that defined her play in college. She is a true "power guard", a rarity in the WNBA that might potentially make her a unique asset. With her demonstrated ability to use her strength well, one can only imagine how much better she could become with a little time.

"Obviously there's things I can do better as far as sprinting the floor faster, harder," said Grant, who reiterated the need to remain confident throughout our short conversation. "Just making sure I stay confident in what I'm doing and my shots and I'm sure everything will fall. We have another game coming up against China here in the next couple of days. So I'm sure that it's a learning experience -- just keep learning as you go."

Unfortunately, despite her excitement about learning from the Mercury veterans yet to arrive in camp and the commitment to improve that she demonstrated before even being drafted, Grant never made it to that point -- hours after boarding the bus after our brief chat, the Mercury let her know that they were releasing her.

The Mercury's reasoning was that Grant didn't fit into the system, perhaps a fair critique: as a player whose style of play is coincidentally most similar to fellow Penn State alumnus and Seattle Storm guard Tanisha Wright, she wasn't necessarily the player the prototypical team for the Mercury's run and gun offense. Yet the idea of adding another dimension to that team that would give the Mercury another option to find points in half court sets and potentially make an already dynamic offense more dynamic. So while it's an understandable decision, it seems as though she could have been an asset to the Mercury.

However Wright is also instructive when it comes to thinking about the impact of roster cuts on the WNBA overall: Wright was not an instant impact player in the league by any stretch of the imagination. So the argument for her winning the Most Improved Player award last season was about more than simply increased minutes: watching Wright over the course of the 2009 season, she was a markedly different player, improved in almost every facet of the game. She wasn't necessarily a different player, she just managed to get better at most everything. When asked about what she would work on at the conclusion of last season's first round loss to the Sparks, her answer was simple: "Everything."

So the comparison to Wright is fitting in more ways than one for Grant: without time to develop and learn the pro game, there's no way that Wright would have turned into the fringe All-Star she was last season. Granted, one could argue that Wright was the better defender coming out of college as a three-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year (2003-05) in addition to being one of Penn State's all-time leading scorers. But the bottom line is that she has gone from a marginal contributor as a rookie to a very productive core player on a perennial playoff team, much to the surprise of the most knowledgeable observers. If she is the model of WNBA development, Grant has the tools to follow that path at some level.

Near the end of last season, Storm President and CEO Karen Bryant suggested that being limited to 11 player rosters "doesn’t leave a whole lot of margin for error in terms of injuries". But another area that the roster limits obviously affect is the delicate balance of choosing between potential versus production at the end of the roster. Hanging on to a player like Grant -- who needs refinement by her own admission and might not fit a championship franchise's vision for what they want to do -- is a risky proposition when the team needs to field ten players just to practice. Although we could speculate about how Grant might develop, as teams continue to make roster decisions it will be interesting to watch how they balance the patience of teaching with the pressure to put together a productive team.

Syracuse University guard Juanita Ward shared with Swish Appeal how that balance played out in her similarly unexpected recent release from the Tulsa Shock.

"[Shock coach and general manager Nolan Richardson] really knows we have talent to play in the league but there are two other players coming and the numbers got me," said Ward in a phone conversation with Swish Appeal's freelantz this afternoon, after being cut by the Tulsa Shock on Wednesday along with forward Vivian Frieson. "The veterans know a little bit more about the WNBA game and what to expect and coach Richardson wants to use veterans which I respect."

That's hardly to say that the Shock's staff had an excessive focus on the present as Richardson tries to make a successful transition to women's basketball and the franchise as a whole looks to get off to a successful start in a new city. To the contrary, a few Shock players and coaches commented on how struck they were by Richardson as a teacher of the game and Ward concurred.

"I learned you can be taught and it's ok to be taught," said Ward, who is already back in Syracuse trying to complete her coursework before graduation day. "This coaching staff is the best. You really learn from all of them."

freelantz chats with Juanita Ward at Tulsa Shock Media Day

Learning was the name of the game for Ward, even from her short time in a training camp with a lot of roster uncertainty after guard Deanna Nolan's unofficial decision to stay overseas this season, Katie Smith going to Washington as a free agent, and Cheryl Ford unable to play this year due to bad knees. As a young player just completing her college career, like Grant she was looking forward to the opportunity to grow as a basketball player.

"I learned who I am now as far as being pro and I would be there if it weren't for the numbers," said Ward. "My basketball game is never going to stay the same, I'm not going to let this learning experience go to waste."

And that's perhaps the saddest emergent theme of this WNBA season, before it's even started "for real": so many players with so much hope for themselves and potential for growth in the future will in fact be left out of the action this summer simply because of the numbers game. As the league as a whole continues to grow, it appears that a certain cross-section of players may not get quite the opportunity to grow along with it, as Wright did.

With about a week left until final roster decisions need to be made, there is still hope for players like Grant or Ward to catch on with another team. But even with the odds theoretically stacked against them, there's no reason to believe players like Grant or Ward will be deterred from achieving the dream they've worked so hard to reach.

"I am too passionate and too determined to give up on my dream," said Ward. "I won't stop playing basketball. I will be playing basketball this summer."

Related links:

From tryouts to training camp - Juanita Ward is "playing from day to day"

What it takes to make the Mercury: "You don't sprint for yourself, you sprint for everybody."

WNBA draft shooting guard prospects: Balancing taste and tournament performance

Tyra Grant Readies for the Draft With the Help of WNBA Legend Yolanda Griffith

WNBA Draft Capsule: Tyra Grant, shooting guard, Penn State

Transition Points:

  • As much as I hate to see players like Grant and Ward without teams, the the reasoning for the roster limits can be easily understood as a "necessary evil": by cutting costs now at the end of the bench -- players that ultimately don't impact the product on the floor that much over the course of a season -- the league makes itself more fiscally viable in the future. If this is seen as a short term measure until the league grows financially, then it makes a lot of sense: developing player for a future that is too costly to exist is pointless.
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