WNBA players’ offseason playing options shrink as wars in Israel, Ukraine continue

Last offseason nearly half the league’s 144 players made the trek to Israel, Australia, Turkey, Italy and about a half-dozen other countries to supplement their incomes.

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 WNBA players Alysha Clark and Jonquel Jones.

After losing Russia as an option for playing overseas during the offseason, WNBA players like Alysha Clark and Jonquel Jones can’t play in Israel during that country’s war against Hamas.

Frank Franklin II/AP

NEW YORK — Alysha Clark has spent the past five WNBA offseasons playing overseas in Israel, but with the country at war with Hamas she probably won’t be going back this year — if it’s even an option.

The Israel women’s basketball league has suspended play amid the war.

“It’s another home for me when I go there. I don’t know,” Clark, the Las Vegas Aces’ top reserve said of possibly returning to Israel. “Honestly my gut feeling is saying no. I’d prefer to stay home and be with my family, be in the market in Vegas and do that type of thing.”

As Clark and other players evaluate their next moves with the WNBA season coming to an end this week, the overseas job market continues to shrink, between the situation in Israel and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. Last offseason nearly half the league’s 144 players made the trek to Israel, Australia, Turkey, Italy and about a half-dozen other countries to supplement their incomes.

While it’s easier for veterans like Clark, and former league MVPs Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart to find places to play, younger players are having a more difficult time, especially with the 10-team league in Israel now out of the picture.

Connecticut Sun rookie Leigha Brown was all set to head to Israel a day before the conflict began. She’s thankful she hadn’t gotten on a flight yet to head there, unlike a few other WNBA players.

“My flight was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on that Saturday morning,” she said. “I was already right at the airport hotel, getting ready when my coach from Israel called me and said don’t come. He said the league is suspended until further notice.”

About a dozen current or former WNBA players played in Israel last season but Brown said her family was happy she didn’t make the trip in the middle of the conflict. Especially since this was going to be her first prolonged trip overseas.

“They didn’t really voice that until after the fact,” she said. “My whole family was grateful. It put a lot of perspective that basketball is my life and it’s something I love to do, but it’s not the end all be all. There are a lot more important things.”

After not getting much playing time as a rookie with the Sun, Brown was hoping to hone her skills in Israel — a place that has helped many young WNBA players improve their game. For now she is training in Colorado, hoping for a chance to play either somewhere else overseas or in the domestic Athletes Unlimited league.

“I just want to find somewhere else to play, get the experience,” Brown said. “At this point I’m not picky, I just want to find something.”

Russia will not be an option for her.

After the wrongful detainment of Brittney Griner in 2022 and its war with Ukraine, Russia is off players’ lists.

“I thought I was going to be playing in Russia until I was done playing basketball,” said Jones, who is from the Bahamas. “The money was great. They treated us great. It was amazing, the living conditions were amazing. I had no problem signing a five-year contract and going back there because I enjoyed my experience. Then the Ukraine war happened.”

Though top players like Jones and Griner can now make $700,000 in the United States when factoring in all possible revenue streams offered by the WNBA, players continue to play overseas.

China has returned as a top landing spot, with Jones and Connecticut Sun MVP candidate Alyssa Thomas both planning on playing there this offseason. The country had been closed to international players because of its COVID-19 policy for the past few years.

The season in China is shorter then some of the other international leagues, and has worked out well for Jones.

“I didn’t think twice about it. I went to China before and it was a really, really good experience,” said Jones, who has also played in South Korea and Russia.

Players have always weighed several factors when deciding where they would like to play overseas, including security, health, finances, family obligations and quality of life.

Now they have one more: the WNBA prioritization rules. For the 2024 season and beyond, players with more than two years of experience must report to teams by May 1 or the start of training camp — whichever is later — or be suspended for the whole season.

With the Paris Olympics next year, the WNBA season may begin earlier to fit in the 40-game schedule and the usual nearly month-long break for the Games.

New York guard Marine Johannes said she plans to start the season with the Liberty before heading to France to prep with the national team for the Olympics. France has already gotten an automatic bid as the host nation.

Playing for your national team is one of the few exceptions to the prioritization rule.

Stewart, like many other WNBA players, continues to consider her options.

She might end up joining Jones in China, but that’s far from decided with her wife, Marta, expected to give birth to the couple’s second child later this month.

“I haven’t figured it out yet,” Stewart said, “I’m going to take some time.”

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