WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said Tuesday that the league is hopeful to get Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner home as quickly as possible.
Griner, a seven-time All-Star center for the Mercury, has been detained in Russia since February. Russian authorities searched Griner’s bag at an airport and said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. The Biden administration announced last week that Griner was being wrongfully detained in Russia, raising the stakes as the United States tries to negotiate her release while the legal process plays out.
Engelbert, speaking to a group representing the Associated Press Sports Editors at NBA headquarters in New York City on Tuesday, said it was a positive development for the U.S. to classify Griner as wrongfully detained. She said Griner has a court date in Russia on May 19, but not much is expected to happen.
“It’s an incredibly complex situation, both legally, diplomatically, as you can imagine,” Engelbert said. “But, again, this was a positive development last week.”
The WNBA announced before the start of the regular season that Griner’s initials and No. 42 jersey number would be displayed along the sideline of all 12 courts in the league.
“It’s not a memorial,” Engelbert said. “It’s to acknowledge her importance to the league until she gets home safely.”
Engelbert was asked about the surprising cuts some teams made before the season. The Minnesota Lynx cut veteran guard Layshia Clarendon, who started 20 games last season, 2020 rookie of the year Crystal Dangerfield and 2021 first-round pick Rennia Davis. The Las Vegas Aces cut 2022 draft picks Mya Hollingshed, who was selected No. 8 overall, and Khayla Pointer, who was selected No. 13 overall.
WNBA star Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm was critical of the moves in a Twitter thread last week, acknowledging that salaries in the league went up but “a very hard restrictive cap has our teams in a bind.” Stewart wrote that the league is now “at a tipping point.”
“Interest in the WNBA is higher than ever and without some easy tweaks, we are no longer a league that has 12 teams and 144 players — it’s more like 133,” Stewart wrote.
Some teams are carrying less than 12 players to fit under the cap, which is $1,379,200 per team this season.
Engelbert said the quality of the game is high, which is creating tougher competition for roster spots and contributing to teams having to make difficult cuts. She acknowledged that the super max salary for top players and a hard salary cap have been factors. Engelbert said top players in the league can make up to $650,000 in compensation for a season.
“There’s a lot more strategy involved for a general manager of a WNBA team now that didn’t exist before because of tripling the pay of the top player but not tripling the cap,” Engelbert said.
Expansion could be a future solution to create more roster spots. Engelbert said the league has done a data analysis of 100 cities and some “rise right to the top immediately that we’re obviously looking at.”
“I see the path being team expansion, for sure,” Engelbert said.