LOS ANGELES — “Ball! Ball! Ball!” a chorus of players screamed inside the University of Southern California’s Galen Center, where the Los Angeles Sparks were holding training camp.
With the Sparks coming off back-to-back WNBA finals appearances, winning a spot will be no easy feat.
Shakayla Thomas, the team’s second-round pick in last month’s draft, is one of those rookies. A star at Florida State, she is not guaranteed a roster spot despite being drafted, and she could be packing her bags in a matter of days.
“If you played basketball, I’m pretty sure it’s your dream to go to the league,” Thomas said after practice, adding that she planned to “absorb what I can, and if it doesn’t work out, I’m pretty sure I have a basketball career somewhere else.”
The reality for many rookies competing in WNBA training camps is that they will have to look overseas to try to continue their basketball careers.
Only 144 women will make the 12 WNBA rosters announced before the regular season starts May 18. Compare that with the NBA, where each of the 30 teams can carry up to 15 players, creating 450 roster spots. There are 312 more positions available in the developmental league.
Not only are there fewer players in the WNBA, the odds of being drafted are worse than in other sports. According to the NCAA’s 2018 report, which uses data from the 2016-17 season, 0.9 percent of draft-eligible players were chosen by WNBA teams, less than the NBA (1.2 percent), the NFL (1.6 percent), MLS (1.4 percent), the NHL (6.4 percent) and MLB (9.5 percent). Including those who joined teams overseas, only 4.9 percent of eligible women’s basketball players played professionally last season, compared with 19.3 percent for men’s basketball.
Not all of the 36 players selected each season in the three-round WNBA draft will even make a team. Unlike the NBA, which guarantees all first-round picks a two-year contract, nothing is certain for WNBA draft picks. Last season, Tori Jankoska, the No. 9 pick, was waived after the Chicago Sky’s first game.
For Thomas, the task is even harder. The Sparks have two former league most valuable players in Parker and Nneka Ogwumike and several other locks to make the roster, potentially leaving only one or two open spots.
Center Kaylee Jensen, just weeks removed from playing a starring role for Oklahoma State in the NCAA tournament, was not drafted, but she said she received a text message from the Sparks after the draft inviting her to camp.
“It is kind of weird going from one of the higher-up players who gets a lot more attention to coming in here and maybe not being as highly recruited,” Jensen said.
Jensen is from Genoa, Nebraska, a town with fewer than 1,000 residents. She said that while she knew the odds were low, she had defied them before.
“I came from a really, really small town, no one knew of me at all,” she said. “I barely got recruited to a D-I school. To come from such a small place and to be put on a WNBA team would be a dream come true.”
Jensen’s competition does not include only the other rookies; she also has to beat out veterans with WNBA or other professional experience. The Sparks are in win-now mode and could favor a veteran, or hold out for a player waived by another team.
“These rookies are not only battling against people that have been in the league for a period of time, they’re also battling against people that were in their shoes three years ago that keep trying to get back in the league and keep getting invited to camp,” Sparks coach Brian Agler said. “There are a lot of great college players that will be on the outside looking in when the rosters are formed.”
Under the current collective bargaining agreement, rosters are capped at 12, and Agler said that probably would not change until there was a new agreement or more teams were added to the league.
The agreement runs through 2021, but has an opt-out clause after this season. If a new deal added more players to the rosters, each player would, on average, make less money, unless the salary cap went up. The league’s maximum salary in 2018 is $115,500, and the minimum is $41,202. With many teams in the league struggling to make a profit in a given year, it is unclear if owners are willing to raise the cap and risk further financial instability.
Penny Toler, the Sparks’ general manager, said she wished the league could expand the rosters and develop more talent.
“If I can develop a player, then we don’t have to go into the market trying to sign free agents for more money than they’re worth,” Toler said.
She noted that there was a talent gap between college and WNBA players.
“When you get up here, everybody is either All-American, all-world or all-universe,” Toler said. “In college, you can be one of few, but up here, you’re one of many.”
Thomas and Jensen are hoping they are among that tiny percentage of women who play professionally, whether it be for the Sparks or abroad. Ultimately, it may not come down to how talented they are.
“Sometimes it’s not that they’re not good enough; it’s a numbers game,” Toler said.
Toler and Agler said more college players should watch the WNBA and study their future competition to have an edge in training camp.
“I wish a lot more women in college would watch the WNBA, and the coaches have to promote the WNBA,” Toler said. “A lot of them get here, and they’re like a deer in the headlights.”
Agler added: “There’s more to it than just having someone who’s just a great shooter or just a great athlete; there’s a lot of intangible things that will be a deciding factor whether someone makes it or not."
Thomas and Jensen have to show Agler, Toler and the rest of the staff that they are worthy of one of the 12 coveted spots. For Thomas, the fact that she was drafted could be her edge. Jensen, who is 6 feet 4 inches tall, has a chance because of her size. Both are just trying not to make mistakes.
“It is definitely a whole other level,” Jensen said. “This is the big show; every little thing has to be perfect here. You will get critiqued every time if you’re doing something wrong. Sometimes in college, it kind of slips in practice, but it won’t happen here.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.