Don’t sleep on the WNBA

by Clay Kallam

So I’m talking to a guy who runs a scouting service for college coaches looking for high school girls to recruit–and he says he never watches the WNBA.

I didn’t pursue the reasons why, because he looked like one of those purists who hates the NBA, and thinks the college game is the pinnacle of the sport. I don’t need to go into that argument, and try to convince someone that just playing hard doesn’t necessarily equate to good basketball–after all, the girls on my high school team play pretty hard, but I still wouldn’t recommend that a random basketball fan pay $5 to watch us play.

But regardless of his reasons, it is simply foolish for anyone associated with women’s basketball to not pay attention the WNBA–and here a few reasons why:

1) It’s the best women’s basketball league in the world. The Euroleague, which brings together the top club teams from all the European countries, has some pretty good players, but they’re spread across a lot of teams, and the limitations on the number of Americans on each roster definitely dilutes the talent.

And though the WNBA doesn’t have all the top Euros, due to its relatively low salaries, there’s no doubt that the 11-woman rosters in the W are deeper and better than their counterparts in Europe, or anywhere else.

Which means, simply, that anyone who wants to know about what the best women’s basketball looks like needs to watch the WNBA. (It is true, however, that the coaching isn’t the best in the world–the best coaches, for the most part, follow the money and thus are in the NCAA.) A professional or semi-professional worker bee in women’s basketball, regardless of level, must be familiar with the WNBA.

There is one problem: On TV, the WNBA doesn’t look nearly as good as it actually is. To truly appreciate the level of play, it’s almost a necessity to be in the first few rows of a WNBA game–and then the strength, size, skill and physicality of the players becomes impossible to ignore.

Unfortunately, not many people can do that, and so when, for example, a talent evaluator used to watching high school players from the second row of the bleachers sees a WNBA game on TV, or from 40 rows up, it’s very hard for him to grasp how good the players really are.

2) It sets the standard. Those young players with serious ambitions in the sport absolutely must watch the WNBA, because there they’ll see what they must do to compete at the highest level. A 5-11 high school power forward may be all that in 3-D in summer basketball, but it won’t take many viewings of the WNBA to realize that there’s a very limited future for 5-11 power forwards–and that transitioning to the three sooner rather than later is an excellent idea.

More lessons: Smaller guards (anyone 5-9 or smaller) clearly must make three-pointers, and post players (6-3 or taller) must learn to love contact, and preferably initiate it.

A perceptive reader will note that most girls won’t make the WNBA – but first, who’s to say what 14-year-old will and what 14-year-old won’t. Angel McCoughtry was barely recruited out of high school, and was the top overall pick in the 2009 draft. Equally important, the best college players are preparing for the WNBA, and those are the players that young hopefuls will be playing against throughout their high school years.

So knowing the WNBA means knowing the competition, and that’s very valuable information, especially to someone who’s trying to evaluate high school talent.

3) It is crucial for the future of the sport. Because the WNBA is by far the most visible American professional team sport for women, it attracts young athletes into the game. Why would any great young female athlete choose lacrosse as her top sport? Sure, there are scholarships here and there, but there’s no money in it after college, and no fame or glory.

With the WNBA on TV most Tuesday nights in the summer, it’s pretty clear that there’s a future in women’s basketball, and a future that includes not only a salary, but national TV exposure. But should the WNBA disappear, all of a sudden that motivation disappears, and no longer is basketball more attractive than volleyball, softball, soccer, lacrosse or water polo.

So anyone who cares about women’s and girls’ basketball needs to pay attention, acknowledge and promote the WNBA, if only for the good of the game.

And what they’ll find, as they watch the league more and more, is that it can stand on its own as quality basketball, worth watching for its own sake–and played at a much higher level than NCAA teams can ever dream of.