Crunching the Numbers: 2020 WNBA Rosters

With rosters set in place last week ahead of the May 26 deadline, how do the numbers shake out?

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For the WNBA to begin paying players starting on June 1, teams were given the directive to pare their teams down to the analog to a typical season’s “opening night roster” by May 26.

With a potential 2020 season on the court still a question mark, we can’t assume anything about the finality of these rosters, but by and large we can assume these reflect roughly what teams will look like if they do take the court any time this summer.

That said, I’m going to empty my spreadsheets, so to speak, to break down some statistics on the rosters as they stand now, with some historical context sprinkled in.

All statistics include all 141 players currently listed on team rosters as announced at the May 26 deadline, including players who are inactive to begin the season but may play in 2020. All data is courtesy of Across the Timeline’s player, draft, and game data. All age-related statistics reflect player ages as of June 1 of the relevant season. All references to players in the league prior to 2020 reflect players to appear in at least one game in the last month of that season.

Player Ages

Much has been made of the youth movement in Dallas and New York, and it’s not for nothing. The Liberty have six rookies listed on their roster, and if they were to play all six in any game in 2020, it would stand as a record for the most first-year players to appear in the same game for the same team in the last 20 years. The Wings have just three newcomers this year, but add in their four second-year players and it’s not hard to see why they are the youngest team in the league, at just over 24 years-old on average.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Seattle Storm clock in at 29 years-old on average, led by 39 year-old Sue Bird, the oldest player in the league. The Los Angeles Sparks are not far behind at just under 29 years-old on average themselves.

If you’re looking for a historical reason to use age when picking your title-winner, recent numbers might suggest the older teams now have the edge. Here are the past 15 seasons for reference:

In each of the last six seasons a team in the top-3 in terms of average age went on to win the title. Prior to that it was all teams from the middle-to-bottom of the pack, except the anomalous 2008 Detroit Shock.

Here are some fast facts around WNBA roster age:

  • The oldest team in league history was the 2016 Minnesota Lynx, who were right around 30.6 years-old on average.

  • The Lynx have also had the youngest team in history, when their 2007 squad averaged 23.9 years of age on average.

  • Have I mentioned the Lynx lately? Their 2017 team is the oldest team to win a league title, when they were 30.0 years-old on average.

  • On the other hand, no WNBA team has won a championship earlier in their lives than the 2003 Shock, who averaged 25.0 years of age.

  • As a whole, the league’s “oldest” season came in 2012, when the players were 27.5 years-old on average. 2000 was the youngest at 26.3 years-old on average.

Game Experience

Maybe age is just a number after all, but most will agree in-game experience matters, and that’s where the Sparks take the lead over the Storm, with their players having appeared in about 186 regular season games on average.

If we focus instead on postseason experience, the Sparks still prevail, but the rest of the top 5 shifts around a bit, with the Mystics’ past two Finals runs boosting their postseason numbers.

Some more fast facts:

  • It’s no surprise that the most experienced team in the last 15 years was the 2017 Lynx, who had played an average of 225.9 regular season games as a team. The same holds for postseason experience, where they lead with 30.8 games on average.

  • Prior to this season, the 2009 Minnesota Lynx were the least experienced since the 2005 season, with an average of 48.5 regular season games played across the team. This year’s Wings squad looks prepared to set a new mark at just under 47 regular season games played on average.

Team Consistency

Well, how much do you care about total team experience as opposed to experience playing with one another? The past several championship teams have made a strong case for keeping a roster together as much as possible. With a busy free agency period, most teams have seen a big chunk of their 2019 active roster move, leaving an interesting group with a mostly retained roster.

Keep in mind the Fever technically have 13 players on their roster, but it’s likely that Stephanie Mavunga’s return will displace a new face. In that case, they would have 9 of this year’s 12 (75%) returning from last year, which would lead the league.

At the bottom of this list are teams who made major overhauls in the offseason: the Atlanta Dream and New York Liberty each return just four players from last season.

While attempting to look historically, finding any correlation between how many players return and who ends up winning the title falls short, except if you look short-term. In each of the last three years, championship-winning teams have returners making up at least two-thirds of their roster. However, between 2005 and 2016, champions range from returnees making up as little as 45% (2014 Phoenix Mercury) of the roster up to 75% (2019 Washington Mystics).

One team that is especially interesting is the 2014 Phoenix Mercury, who returned just five of their players from 2013 but went on to win the title that year. That is the fewest players returned for a title team in the WNBA, but in that case they happen to be Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, DeWanna Bonner, Candice Dupree, and Penny Taylor, their core and arguably the best starting five in franchise history.

So maybe it’s the starters returning that matters most? You can make a stronger case there. In league history, the championship team has returned all five regular starters (started at least half of the team’s games) from the previous year to some role in their roster six times, including each of the past three seasons (2001, 2006, and 2010 were the others). 13 out of the past 22 years has the championship team returned at least four of their starters from the previous year, and only 2000 and 2004 saw both teams in the Finals who returned three or fewer starters from the previous year to an active role.

Draft Positioning

This year there has been a lot of talk of draft picks from the 2020 class getting stashed or cut, so I couldn’t resist taking a look at where draft picks fit in the current group of WNBA players.

It’s not too surprising that after the first six picks, exactly which picks hang on is pretty up in the air. In fact, there are more undrafted players on rosters right now than No. 7 overall picks.

Finally, I’ll close out with a few draft position-specific fast facts:

  • 15 No. 1 overall picks on rosters matches the league high; 2016 had 15 top picks appear on rosters to end the season.

  • There are currently 101 first-round picks currently on rosters. That beats 2018, the previous high which had 95 first-rounders competing.

  • Last season saw the fewest undrafted players competing to end the season with 12 total across all teams. In 2020, the league enters with just seven undrafted players on rosters.