WNBA roster spots are so scant that every opportunity a player receives is vital to continuing a domestic career.
To put that harsh reality into perspective, 108 prospects entered this year’s draft. As of Thursday, only 136 active players are on WNBA rosters.
So when Chicago Sky coach/general manager James Wade decided to retain 31-year-old rookie Rebekah Gardner over players with league experience, some were surprised. Through three games, all questions about Gardner’s capability of handling life in the WNBA have been silenced.
“I feel like we hit the lottery,” Wade said. “She definitely completes us for what we want to be and it’s been good so far. She’s proven she is a WNBA player.”
After playing 10 years overseas, Gardner scored 14 points in her WNBA debut against the New York Liberty. She is averaging 9.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists through three games, and opponents have had no answer for her scoring off the dribble.
For Gardner, a shot in the WNBA was a long time coming.
“I would say, ‘Yes,’ ” Gardner said when asked if she thought she wasn’t ever going to make it in the league. “I just love basketball. I made the decision if an opportunity comes my way, I’ll take it. There’s a lot of great players who aren’t in the WNBA, but I used this opportunity to come out and take it.”
Gardner’s 10-year odyssey to crack a WNBA roster started in 2012 at UCLA. The Bruins went 14-16 her senior year and didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. Gardner felt her draft stock fell by not being on the national stage, and she ultimately went undrafted.
At 22, Gardner played in Israel for a year before Atlanta Dream coach Michael Cooper invited her to training camp. She was in camp for only two weeks before pulling both quads.
In 2017, the Sky brought her in but didn’t have room on the roster. She admitted she didn’t play her best during that training camp but had a revelation about what she wanted out of her career.
“I decided after those two experiences I would only go to camp if there was a real opportunity to make the team,” Gardner said. “If somebody liked me or was interested in me, they would reach out. I just love basketball, kept playing overseas and if something were to come up, I would go — like what happened with this situation.”
The Sky on March 9 waived recently signed forward Crystal Bradford after she suffered a right foot injury during the offseason. It was a brutal hit for the Sky from on-court and financial standpoints: WNBA players with more than three years of league experience make a minimum of $72,141 per season, but those with two years or fewer make a minimum of $60,471.
Bradford played two seasons in the WNBA and would’ve commanded a higher contract if it wasn’t for an off-the-court incident last May. Dealing with the league’s hard cap, Wade had to search for an effective wing to back up Kahleah Copper at a low price.
Wade lives in Southern France in the offseason and was located only 1 hour, 45 minutes from Gardner’s overseas team, Spar Girona, in Spain. He routinely travels around Europe to check up on players, something that allows him to find hidden gems.
Wade said he doesn’t remember the exact game in which he first saw Gardner but was impressed enough to go see her two more times. He immediately was impressed with her quickness going against WNBA players such as Copper, Gabby Williams, Arike Ogunbowale and former Sky All-Star Diamond DeShields.
“My whole mindset going into free agency knowing we probably couldn’t afford to keep Diamond was, ‘How do we replace that speed and athleticism?’ ” Wade said. “I saw (Gardner) once and a light bulb went off. I knew we had something there. The wing market was only dried out depending on where you were looking.”
Wade has been known for taking gambles in the past. He detonated mock drafts when he selected Katie Lou Samuelson with the fourth pick in 2019 and 19-year-old Shyla Heal with the eighth pick in 2021. Despite the criticism of those moves, Wade’s big swings as general manager have paid off. He took risks in acquiring often-injured Azurá Stevens in 2020, traded Heal for guard Dana Evans in the middle of last season and signed Kahleah Copper to a max contract the year before she evolved into an All-Star and Finals MVP.
Wade swung for the fences again and told Gardner if she came to the United States she would have a spot on the roster. Her $60,141 salary this season fit neatly into the cap, and the early returns on Wade’s investment have been promising. She has a comparable skill set to Copper as a slasher who can initiate offense. In what was a gaping hole behind the Sky’s All-Star backcourt, they have found their centerpiece off the bench.
“She fit in so well with us right from the beginning,” guard Courtney Vandersloot said. “Right off the plane, she came in, knew what she was good at and was able to do it. It was huge for us for her to step in. We rely a lot on her, and she makes the right play all of the time. She’s been playing professional basketball for a very long time and fits perfectly within our system.”
It’s one thing to make the league and another to stay in it. Gardner knows that as well as anyone, and she’s relishing every moment with the Sky.
“It’s been 10 long years,” she said after her May 11 debut. “It’s nice when your hard work begins to pay off.”
James Kay is a freelance reporter for the Chicago Tribune.