Layshia Clarendon won’t take this for granted. She knows what it’s like to be on the other side.
The 10-year veteran guard was one of 12 players to make the Sparks’ opening-day roster Thursday and will make her official return to the WNBA after a one-year hiatus Friday against the Phoenix Mercury at Crypto.com Arena.
Familiar faces such as Nneka Ogwumike, her sister Chiney Ogwumike and guard Lexie Brown headline the Sparks roster along with top offseason acquisitions Azurá Stevens, Jasmine Thomas and Dearica Hamby as the team hopes to return to the postseason for the first time since 2020. It will be coach Curt Miller‘s first season leading the team.
Clarendon, guard Jordin Canada and third-year forward Joyner Holmes survived the uncertainty of non-guaranteed training camp contracts to make the final cut along with rookie Zia Cooke. With forward Katie Lou Samuelson still on the roster but unable to play this season as she is expecting her first child, the Sparks claimed guard Nia Clouden off waivers after the No. 12 pick in the 2022 draft was waived by the Connecticut Sun, where she played 28 regular-season games for Miller last season.
Despite earning All-Star honors in 2017 and playing nine consecutive seasons across five different teams, Clarendon had to re-earn a spot in the league after getting waived by the Minnesota Lynx in 2022. Agreeing to a tryout where any small mistake could have cost them a job required a maddening level of vulnerability, Clarendon said, but while standing in the shower after the Sparks’ first preseason game against Phoenix last week, Clarendon was overcome with emotion realizing that returning to the WNBA was a reality again.
“I don’t even know if you could put into words the gumption and the determination and the heartbreak and the grief that you go through when you’re not in this league for a year,” Clarendon said after practice Thursday. “I was completely heartbroken and I wasn’t sure I had what it took to get back or I was willing to give what it takes.”
But, Clarendon said, making a final roster also came with “survivor’s guilt.” Everyone who remained in the WNBA on Thursday did so only after watching other capable teammates get waived.
“There’s 144 players at home that could be in the WNBA,” Nneka Ogwumike said after practice Thursday.
This week, the Sparks cut Karlie Samuelson, a WNBA journeywoman who starred in Australia this past offseason; second-year, former first-round draft pick forward Rae Burrell; and rookies Monika Czinano and Yang Liwei. After delivering the news to Samuelson on Tuesday, Miller grabbed general manager Karen Bryant’s arm and half-jokingly slammed his head on Bryant’s shoulder out of frustration as Samuelson walked off the practice floor with her head bowed.
“The mental and emotional labor of doing this job is something that’s hard to tell the average person about what it takes to show up and perform on a nightly basis,” Clarendon said. “I’m heartbroken for the rookies who don’t get a fair shot. Because it’s a veteran’s league … the veterans are going to have an advantage because we know the game. Our game is so different than college.”
Cooke, the 10th overall pick in last month’s draft, is the lone rookie on the Sparks roster, and the only Sparks first-round draft pick since Nneka Ogwumike in 2012 to still be in the WNBA this season. With rookies finding it increasingly difficult to break into the WNBA, the high standard might also hinder the league’s growth as new players aren’t able to carry their college popularity directly to the professional level.
Alexis Morris, who was drafted 22nd overall after helping Louisiana State to a national championship this year, sparked controversy on Twitter after getting waived by the Connecticut Sun on Wednesday, posting, and later deleting, “If we can’t make roster spots for rookies, cut the vets,” and “the vets gotta know when to cut the net, and pass the torch bro.”
As the WNBA enters its 27th season and players push for growth, including charter flights, bigger rosters and more teams, veterans share in the newcomers’ frustrations, but stressed the importance of respecting the pro game.
“The league is older than almost every player that is entering the league now so there’s also the respect aspect of knowing your history and knowing who came before you and knowing the organizations that came before you to understand just how hard it is to play at this level,” Nneka Ogwumike said. “I’m not sure with NIL that that’s necessarily translating, and it’s not to say that players aren’t good enough, but it would behoove some of these players to understand just how hard it is to make it here. We want more players.”
While teams can carry as many as 12 players, the hard salary cap limits most teams to 11. Ogwumike, the president of the players union, said recent discussions about roster expansion have stalled because players have been told the solution is “not lucrative.” But with the WNBA playing a record 40 regular-season games this season, the question of roster size goes beyond just giving new players professional opportunities and becomes an issue of player health.
“If we’re not going to create more jobs on the teams, we need more teams and we need more planes because we have more games,” Ogwumike said. “We can’t have 11 players on every team playing 40 games and not feeling like they’re up to it.”