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Megan Gustafson and the uphill road to a WNBA roster spot

More than any other roster cut this season, the waiving of multi-time collegiate Player of the Year by the Dallas Wings this week brought to the forefront the frustration of the WNBA’s rigid exclusivity.

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Greensboro Regional - NC State vs Iowa
Megan Gustafson averaged 27.8 points and 13.4 rebounds per game in the 2018-19 NCAA season. But at least for now, the former Iowa standout won’t be on a WNBA roster.
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The waiving of Megan Gustafson by the Dallas Wings on Wednesday elicited two major reactions from women’s basketball fans: outrage and resigned acceptance.

For Iowa fans, many of whom were showing a brand-new or renewed interest in the WNBA thanks to her No. 17 selection at the draft, Gustafson’s release felt like a betrayal. Any professional team cutting the Big Ten, AP, espnW and Naismith Player of the Year — among her other NCAA accolades — was unconscionable to them.

It’s truly a moot point whether new fans knew going into their Wings fandom how hard it is for players to make a WNBA roster. This cannot be stressed enough. Because, at the end of the day, the one reason they were showing interest in the WNBA no longer had a team to call home, and thus, neither did they.

The “resigned acceptance” crowd also included some Iowa fans and alumni — including yours truly — who saw where she was taken in the draft, the minutes she was allotted in the preseason, how the Wings leveraged Liz Cambage’s trade to bring in several new players and how Dallas was one of many teams who brought in seasoned veterans to bolster their roster.

With so many moving pieces, and so few available roster spots in general, it was more of a “disappointed but not surprised” vibe among this crowd when both Gustafson and preseason standout guard Kennedy Burke (UCLA) were released.

No matter the reactions to news of a WNBA roster cut, the fact remains that Gustafson’s, in particular, has inspired discussion that deserves its due.

All things considered, 2019 has been an especially brutal year to make a WNBA roster.

With a loaded class where any confident prediction of the No. 1 overall pick was up in the air until the day before the draft, and so many teams in need of specific rookie stars, there wasn’t a lot of room for many players — no matter how prolific they were in college — to not fit that mold.

As a simple point of comparison, 53 of the NBA’s 60 draftees in 2018 saw NBA game action, and dozens more undrafted players got a shot at making the league anyway. In a much larger league, there’s more room for players who aren’t the consensus Player of the Year to carve out a career for themselves. However, coming into the draft with that designation in the men’s game can guarantee not just a roster spot, but an unofficial “franchise player” designation.

Of course, in the WNBA it’s not as simple as that. Being one of just 36 draft picks is a huge hurdle to jump anyway, but only around half actually land an opening day roster spot. With only a handful of space available each year for new players, the trade machine going hard between February and May and teams reasonably prioritizing their first-round draft pick, making a WNBA roster is one of the most difficult job application processes in the world — even if you’re hand-selected for an interview.

But just because it is this way, doesn’t mean it has to be this way.

Discussion of league expansion has ramped up in the wake of this week’s cuts, which included not just Gustafson and Burke, but also other standout college players like Megan Huff (Utah), Emese Hof (Miami) and, for the second time in one week, Cierra Dillard (Buffalo). Veterans Kelsey Bone, Lynetta Kizer and Leilani Mitchell, among many others, also found themselves on the wrong end of waivers.

Among people fully immersed in the WNBA as reporters or fans, there have been jokes about buying a team themselves so these players have a place to go, as well as discussions of how the upcoming collective bargaining agreement negotiations might use this situation to address expansion (among more pressing matters).

That there are more professional-caliber players than there are roster spots for them, and that it’s only getting harder to make a WNBA team, prompts this dialogue. And when expansion can address two proximal needs for expansion at once — where adding more teams would give people in the expansion cities a built-in rooting interest, and adding more roster spots could give more college fans a bridge to WNBA fandom — it’s one worth having.

The exodus of fans after the Gustafson announcement could have happened to any team, and certainly happens when a player from a college with no other current WNBA presence doesn’t make the team that drafted her. (It’s here that I’ll gently remind eastern Iowans that Linn-Mar graduate Kiah Stokes plays for the New York Liberty.)

But in Gustafson’s case, it was the Dallas Wings who faced the ire of Iowa fans, as well as fans from Gustafson’s home state of Wisconsin.

Within 24 hours of the roster cuts announcement, the Wings’ Twitter account lost more than 400 followers, many of whom were Iowa fans with no issue making themselves known. During that same time period, the tweet itself received more righteously angry replies than retweets and likes combined. Twitter even compiled a Moment that featured a mixture of analysis and expressions of shock — and, again, resigned acceptance — from reporters and fans alike.

All that said, there are legitimate reasons Gustafson didn’t make the Wings (though even the “legitimacy” of any decision by higher-ups is subjective in sports, as fans know well).

With a new head coach at the helm in Brian Agler, the coaching staff likely has some specific plans for how they want this season to progress, plans that ended up including experienced post players instead of rookies. Gustafson’s preseason playing time dropped off after her first appearance — from 19 minutes against the Atlanta Dream to five and nine minutes against the Connecticut Sun and Indiana Fever, respectively — marking one of the early preseason indications that the final roster decision wouldn’t go her way.

Along with this came concerns of Gustafson’s fit at her position. Mostly, whether her abilities as a center that worked so well for her at Iowa would work in the WNBA, where centers tend to be taller than her 6-foot-3 (among other differences).

Agler knew, of course, that both of Wednesday night’s cuts would raise eyebrows. We can’t forget that Kennedy Burke, who had a much more solid preseason showing than Gustafson by the numbers — and thus, perhaps a better argument for a roster spot — also didn’t make the team.

The only 2019 draftee on the Dallas Wings this year is Arike Ogunbowale. Her spot, similarly well-deserved, was all but guaranteed because of the Wings’ immediate need for a high-caliber player at her position. With Skylar Diggins-Smith set to miss an unspecified amount of time as she comes back from pregnancy, Ogunbowale looks to be the Wings’ starting point guard.

But it makes sense that Gustafson’s fans may not want to pay any mind to these intricacies. It seems that much of the drop-off from college fandom to WNBA fandom lies in the fact that, for a lot of people, there’s no clear team to root for at the next level unless there’s a player already within their rooting interests to bridge that gap.

While Notre Dame saw all five of its 2018-19 starters drafted in April — one of which was Ogunbowale, and all of whom made a 2019 opening day roster — schools like Iowa saw just one player drafted, a player who would have been the sole current representative in the league for the program.

When my home-state Sacramento Monarchs folded after the 2009 season, I tried going the route of following a player from my pre-Iowa college, Gonzaga. For just under a month in 2010, I was a Tulsa Shock fan — and then, when No. 31 overall pick Vivian Frieson was released, I wasn’t anymore. It was that simple.

Courtney Vandersloot’s emergence the next year was, similarly, the only reason I initially held the Sky in any favor as a fan. It’s nothing against the other teams; it’s just that with no WNBA teams in my original home of Northern California or my current state of Iowa, latching onto my college players’ teams was an effortless way to fold into a fandom.

The Wings’ difficult roster decisions weren’t made with any malice, but it’s not altogether unreasonable for Iowa fans to have the reactions they’re having. There’s simply not enough room in the WNBA as it exists today for every player — even an NCAA multi-time Player of the Year — to find a spot in the league right out of college. But no matter one’s familiarity with the league, it’s a frustrating prospect.

That said, if there’s one thing Iowa fans know well, it’s that Gustafson isn’t one to give up in the face of adversity. For a player who needed until her senior season to win an NCAA Tournament game despite her own individual successes, it’s outlandish to think she’ll hold any ill will toward the Wings organization for determining she wasn’t a fit for their team this season.

Soon enough, the Iowa faithful should see their star on a WNBA regular-season roster. And although having to wait on that debut isn’t how they wanted it to happen, they can’t say they haven’t been through it before.