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Why Rebekah Gardner’s journey to the WNBA matters

She’s become known around the WNBA as “the 32-year old rookie,” but what Rebekah Gardner means to the Chicago Sky can’t possibly be condensed into a one-line descriptor.

Las Vegas Aces v Chicago Sky - 2022 Commissioner’s Cup Championship Game
At 32 years old, Rebekah Gardner has seized her first true WNBA opportunity, playing a key role for the defending champion Chicago Sky.
Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

If you’ve watched the Chicago Sky at all this season, chances are you’ve heard of the team’s 32-year old rookie, Rebekah Gardner.

The line has been used over and over on WNBA broadcasts throughout the 2022 season, to the point where it may as well be Gardner’s defining characteristic. A quick Twitter search gives the impression that fans are somewhat tired of hearing about it, especially because Gardner’s play since her WNBA debut has rightfully warranted more up-to-date analysis: specifically, her seamless fit into a championship-caliber Sky rotation and her candidacy for several end-of-season awards.

As an undrafted free agent who spent nearly a decade honing her craft overseas before getting her first true opportunity in the WNBA, however, Gardner’s story is worth telling down to the detail. It also has the potential to influence how WNBA teams operate when charting the increasingly unpredictable waters of free agency.

First, a quick refresher.

Gardner, a 6’1 wing, played her collegiate basketball at UCLA. She put up averages of 15.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game as a senior but ultimately went undrafted after graduating in 2012. She then chose to continue her career overseas, making stops in Israel, Turkey, Romania and, most recently, Spain, playing for a total of nine different clubs to date.

During that time period, Gardner caught on briefly in the WNBA, signing training camp contracts with the Atlanta Dream in 2014 and the Sky in 2017. Both times she was waived prior to the regular season.

Fast forward to 2022, and Gardner was still grinding away, playing alongside younger WNBA talents (and, incidentally, fellow UCLA alumnae Kennedy Burke and Michaela Onyenwere) on Spanish club Spar Girona. Girona was competing in the EuroLeague, an annual international competition hosted by FIBA and typically regarded as fielding Europe’s absolute top level of all-around talent.

EuroLeague is where current Sky head coach and general manager James Wade, spending his winter in France, took note of how Gardner stacked up against some of the world’s best. Wade signed her to a training camp contract even though Girona’s domestic league schedule ran through the beginning of the 2022 WNBA season, essentially trusting Gardner to report to the Sky and make an immediate impact without having any sort of camp, workouts or preseason to get acclimated.

Chicago Sky v New York Liberty
Gardner’s defense may be her calling card, but she’s quietly having a highly efficient offensive season as well.
Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s a move that has paid off immensely. Gardner quickly became an integral part of the Sky’s rotation thanks to her activity on defense and nose for the basketball, filling a void left on the wing by Diamond DeShields, who the Sky dealt to Phoenix in a sign-and-trade last February. As of August 8, Gardner ranks third in the WNBA in steal percentage (3.3 percent; Basketball-Reference) and has taken on the invaluable role of being the Sky’s go-to perimeter defender, guarding everyone from Sabrina Ionescu and Rhyne Howard to Betnijah Laney and Diana Taurasi, relentless both off the ball and at the point of attack.

Gardner has proven herself to be far more than just a defensive specialist, however. Right away, she committed to playing within a Sky offensive system that places a strong emphasis on dribble handoffs and backdoor basket cuts — 10.4 percent of Chicago’s halfcourt offensive possessions come on cuts (Synergy Sports), by far the highest frequency of any WNBA team — and the results have been spectacular. Gardner’s 61.9 percent true shooting percentage ranks fourth in the WNBA (second to Atlanta’s Tiffany Hayes among guards), and she’s converting on nearly 68 percent of her halfcourt shot attempts at the basket, thanks in large part to well-timed cuts and a general willingness to hunt efficient shots within the flow the Sky’s offense.

Altogether, Gardner’s play has made her a strong candidate for the 2022 WNBA All-Rookie team, and many expect her to also be in consideration for the league’s All-Defensive Team. Not bad for a 32-year old rookie. Her impact, however, may very well continue into the offseason and beyond.

Let’s now consider the circumstances of Gardner’s signing with the Sky. How did such an impact player seemingly come out of nowhere after a decade playing overseas?

It’s impossible to speak for every team that passed on her previously, but the reason why Chicago was such a logical fit for Gardner in 2022 is simple: money. The Sky, fresh off a championship run in 2021, had quite a bit to take care of in free agency, and it was extremely unlikely that they’d have space under the salary cap to bring back all of DeShields, Stefanie Dolson, Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Kahleah Copper. The Sky had won the 2021 WNBA championship and were in a far better position to run it back and try to repeat than any other offseason strategy, but Wade had some critical choices to make in order to make that a reality.

The Sky ended up choosing Vandersloot, Quigley and Copper, while also signing forward Emma Meesseman in what has turned out to be one of the most successful moves of that free agency period. But they’d have to cut costs elsewhere to field a championship-caliber 11-player roster while staying under the salary cap, and they had no picks in the 2022 WNBA Draft to use on a young player who would command less money.

This is where Gardner comes in. Under the WNBA’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the minimum salary an undrafted player with 0-2 years of WNBA experience could make in 2022 was $60,471 (Her Hoop Stats). A player with three or more years of experience could be paid no less than $72,141.

A negligible difference? Not if you’re trying to keep as much of your championship core together as you can. Wade’s offseason was a masterclass of maintaining (and, one could easily argue, upgrading) his roster while maneuvering underneath the salary cap, and the difference between Gardner’s 2022 salary and that of another player with more WNBA experience was a crucial part of that puzzle.

Regardless of how Chicago’s 2022 season ends, its prior offseason was an abject success, and could be the blueprint for general managers who find themselves in similar positions in the future. The WNBA’s current CBA is getting higher-level players paid significantly more than in the past, but with no way for teams to go over the salary cap, it’s often at the expense of veterans who would otherwise command even just the minimum salary; drafted rookies are finding it easier and easier to stick on rosters — sometimes for no reason other than teams jumping over countless cap hurdles just to pay their stars every dollar they can — while players who can’t get paid either the very most or the very least are squeezed out.

This is, obviously, a problem, and with the player maximum salary rising every year, it’s not one that’s going to disappear under the CBA as currently structured.

The question, then, becomes this: How can teams pay up to keep their best players while not completely gutting their bench at the same time? Ideally, they’d be able to fill out their reserves with WNBA-ready players who would command less while being worth so much more. From those players’ perspectives, it would be an opportunity to compete in a league they’re plenty qualified for (one that may not have been there in prior years), reintroducing themselves to local basketball circles and putting themselves in a position to earn larger contracts down the road.

The answer, at least for the 2022 Sky: look internationally and see what you can find. Chicago has found something special in Gardner.