The WNBA draft is an annual draft held by the WNBA through which WNBA teams can select new players from a talent pool of college and professional women's basketball players. The first WNBA draft was held in 1997.
The WNBA "requires players to be at least 22, to have completed their college eligibility, to have graduated from a four-year college or to be four years removed from high school". Since the WNBA draft is currently held in April, before most U.S. colleges and universities have ended their academic years, the league considers anyone scheduled to graduate in the 3 months after the draft to be a "graduate" for draft purposes. The current rules for draft eligibility have been in place since at least 2014.
- Both drafts make a distinction between U.S. and "international" players. However, the definition of "international player" differs slightly between the two drafts. The NBA defines an "international player" as an individual who has permanently resided outside the U.S. for the three years preceding the draft while playing basketball (amateur or professional), did not complete high school education in the U.S., and has never enrolled in a U.S. college or university. A prospective NBA player's birthplace or citizenship is not relevant to his status as an "international player". On the other hand, the WNBA defines an "international player" as "any person born and residing outside the United States who participates in the game of basketball as an amateur or professional" (emphasis added), and who has never "exercised intercollegiate basketball eligibility" in the U.S. This means that a prospective WNBA player who was born in the United States is treated as a U.S. player, regardless of where she was educated or trained in basketball. Likewise, the association also defines as an "international player" a prospect with non-U.S. nationality even if one of her parents is a natural-born American, unless she has enrolled in a U.S. postsecondary institution.
- The current age limit for NBA draft eligibility is 19, measured on December 31 of the calendar year of the draft. The WNBA's age limit is 20 for "international players" and 22 for U.S. players, both also being measured as of December 31 of the calendar year of the draft.
- A WNBA prospect who graduates from college while under the age limit can be eligible, but only if the calendar year of her college graduation is no earlier than the fourth after her high school graduation.
- In both drafts, players subject to the rules for U.S. players can declare early eligibility; however, the WNBA's higher age limit means that very few such players have the option to make such a declaration.
- For those players who are eligible to declare early, the timing of the declaration process is dramatically different.
- NBA prospects must notify the league office of their intent to enter the draft no later than 60 days prior to the draft, which is currently held in June. Current rules allow prospects to withdraw from the draft and retain college eligibility, as long as they comply with NCAA rules regarding relationships with agents, do not sign a professional contract, and notify the league office of their withdrawal no later than 10 days after the end of the NBA Draft Combine.
- WNBA prospects must notify the league office no later than 10 days before the draft, and must renounce any remaining college eligibility to enter the draft. However, because postseason national tournaments (most notably the NCAA Division I tournament) are still ongoing during the 10 days prior to the draft, certain players who would otherwise be eligible to declare cannot do so before the standard deadline. A prospect whose team is still playing during the 10-day window must make her declaration within the 24 hours following her team's final game of the season, but no less than 3 hours before the scheduled start of the draft. The 3-hour period is a historic artifact that stems from the former scheduling of the WNBA draft; from 2006 to 2008, it was held in the city of the women's Final Four on the day after the championship game. Despite media commentary that argued that players involved in the NCAA tournament needed more time to make draft decisions, the most recent WNBA CBA, agreed to in 2020, did not change any draft eligibility rules.
The 1997 WNBA draft was divided into three parts. The first part was the initial allocation of 16 players into individual teams. Players such as Cynthia Cooper and Michelle Timms were assigned to different teams. The second part was the WNBA Elite draft, which was composed of professional women's basketball players who had competed in other leagues. The last part would be the 4 rounds of the regular draft.
In 2003 and 2004, there would be dispersal drafts due to the folding of the Cleveland Rockers, Miami Sol and Portland Fire. The players were reallocated to existing teams. There were also dispersal drafts in 2007 with the folding of the Charlotte Sting, 2009 with the shuttering of the Houston Comets, and in 2010 when the Maloofs cast off the Sacramento Monarchs to focus their resources on the Kings franchise in the NBA.
There are no restrictions on what part of the world the players come from (though under varying rules, international players have been subject to tighter age restrictions within the draft than college players). However, college sports governing bodies, most notably the NCAA, prohibit players from competing in professional leagues simultaneously with their college eligibility. Once the player has joined the WNBA, she is eligible to participate in overseas leagues during the WNBA offseason (many WNBA players play in Europe, Australia, or more recently China).
Dena Head is the oldest #1 draft pick (she was 27 years old), having graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1992 and the first player ever drafted to the WNBA. Lauren Jackson is the youngest #1 draft pick, being drafted at the age of 19. As of 2012, six first picks have gone on to win WNBA Championships, with 12 rings amongst them. In the seventeen seasons that the WNBA has been in existence, eight #1 draft picks have helped lead their teams to a playoff berth in their rookie year.
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- Analyzing the WNBA's Mandatory Age/Education Policy from a Legal, Cultural, and Ethical Perspective: Women, Men, and the Professional Sports Landscape See Note #100
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