The WNBA loves to build off the momentum of the NCAA tournament, and the 2021 women’s championship proved to be as popular as ever. Every tournament game was nationally televised for the first time, and ratings were up for every round from the Sweet 16 to the title game.

All of that increased attention, however, brought some of the WNBA’s policies into question as underclassmen such as Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark dominated headlines. Bueckers was the first freshman named the Associated Press national player of the year, and Clark led the nation in scoring as a freshman, but neither is eligible for Thursday’s WNBA draft because of the collective bargaining agreement.

The CBA states that a domestic player must be 22 years old by Dec. 31 of the draft year to be eligible. If she is under 22, she must be graduating from a four-year institution within three months of the draft or her original freshman class must be graduating within those three months. The 2021 draft class is widely considered weaker compared with recent groups or the ones coming up in two or three years, sparking a conversation on whether the age restriction is appropriate.

The topic wasn’t a priority when the CBA was reached in January 2020, but it is likely to be a bigger discussion when the agreement expires after the 2027 season.

“I think it’s great to be having this conversation, and it really speaks to the evolution of the women’s game,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said. “It’s a great signal for the league that people are really talking about freshmen in the women’s game and how they should become professional sooner.

“As with all topics, we’re running a player-first league, and we’re open and willing to discuss the current rule that’s in place. … If that’s what the players want us to look at, we’re certainly willing to look at it. … As we evolve and as the conversation evolves, I think it’s great to be having the conversation.”

The debate has resurfaced across professional American sports over the years. The NBA’s one-and-done rule dictates a player must be 19 and one season from his senior high school class’s graduating year. Athletes must be out of high school for three years to be eligible for the NFL draft. Major League Baseball teams can draft players who have graduated high school but have yet to play in college or junior college.

The WNBA finds itself in a different situation with just 12 teams and 12-player roster limits. Even those drafted can find it difficult to make a roster, so discussions about freshmen and sophomores being draft eligible haven’t been widespread. The talent, however, of younger players continues to increase, and general managers already have an eye on the 2023 and 2024 classes.

“I’m a big believer in the right to work,” Washington Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault said. “If you are a great computer analyst and you’re brilliant, should you have to go to college for four years if somebody’s going to offer you hundreds of thousands of dollars to go work at Microsoft or Google or Apple or somebody? You aren’t restricted.

“If you’re a 20-year-old genius, you aren’t kept out of the workforce, right? Well, why is that not the same in every other part of life?”

A boring night in Washington

Draft night is expected to be an uneventful evening for the Mystics because they don’t have a pick. The organization moved all three from this year as part of a deal that brought former league MVP Tina Charles to Washington a year ago.

“It’s so weird to not be totally immersed in a draft,” Thibault said. “Every year you are, and we just aren’t. We’ve watched players, we’ve paid attention, we’ve taken notes, we’ve got our scouting reports, but we have no picks and no desire to acquire any particularly.”

The Mystics’ approach is a byproduct of what’s considered a weaker draft. Thibault knew the depth of this class and considered the three picks, particularly this year, well worth it for a player of Charles’s caliber. The 2012 MVP is a seven-time all-star, a two-time NCAA champion at Connecticut and a two-time Olympic gold medalist. She has yet to play for a WNBA title, and the Mystics are considered a contender despite losing Alysha Clark to foot surgery, Aerial Powers to the Minnesota Lynx, Tianna Hawkins to the Atlanta Dream and LaToya Sanders to retirement.

Thibault said there are no plans to trade future picks during Thursday’s draft, particularly the team’s 2022 first-round pick.

“I have no desire to do [that],” Thibault said. “I’d rather have my pick in next year’s draft than this draft.”

Players to watch

Texas’s Charli Collier is widely considered the top prospect and the likely pick by the Dallas Wings at No. 1 overall. The 6-foot-5 center averaged 19 points and 11.3 rebounds while shooting 51.1 percent from the field this past season, helping the Longhorns reach the region finals. Awak Kuier, a versatile 6-5 center from Finland, is largely thought of as the No. 2 overall pick for the Wings. The 19-year-old is playing professionally in Italy.

Things get a bit muddier after that. Arizona’s Aari McDonald, Rutgers guard Arella Guirantes, Tennessee wing Rennia Davis and Louisville guard Dana Evans are considered the next tier. McDonald may be the most well known after the diminutive point guard led the Wildcats to the program’s first NCAA championship game with a spectacular tournament that included being named to the all-tournament team.

“People kind of understand that this class isn’t as strong as maybe last year’s class and not as strong as the classes in the next couple years,” ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said. "I think that’s pretty much how everyone feels about it.”

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