‘All the feels’: How WNBA players, teams handle hardship contracts

Destanni Henderson woke up at 5 a.m. in Phoenix, she was a free agent waiting for her next pro basketball opportunity. Less than 12 hours later, she was warming up on the Crypto.com Arena court wearing a freshly printed Sparks jersey.

The hardship contract that brought the second-year point guard to L.A. on a few hours’ notice is a key lifeline for WNBA teams looking for emergency backup when rosters often fall short of the maximum 12 and no affiliated G League or practice squads can help overcome inevitable injuries. The system is a whirlwind for the free agents, who sometimes meet their teammates for the first time hours before a game to just play a handful of minutes until the team gets healthy again.

The undefined, fleeting role didn’t deter Henderson. When she woke up on June 16, preparing for her normal morning workout to instead find a text from the Sparks saying they wanted her in L.A. that night for a game, the former South Carolina star immediately accepted.

“Even if it’s a hardship,” Henderson said, “it’s just one step to get me closer to my goal.”

The most common hardship contract comes when a team has less than 10 players available for a game. That was the rule the Sparks used to sign Karlie Samuelson to start the year when Jasmine Thomas and Azurá Stevens were injured and to add Henderson last week. But with six of the team’s 13 players on the injury report before the game on June 16, including guards Nia Clouden (knee), Lexie Brown (illness) and Layshia Clarendon (foot), Henderson’s arrival still left the Sparks below the 10-player mark.

The next day, the team used a salary cap hardship to re-sign forward Rae Burrell, who joined the Sparks in time for their game against Connecticut on June 18.

It was Burrell’s third stint with the Sparks this year after the team’s 2022 first-round draft pick was cut at the end of training camp and rejoined the Sparks on an extreme hardship contract for one game in Las Vegas when six players missed the game, including three with a non-COVID illness.

In danger of having to forfeit for dropping below the WNBA’s minimum of seven available players, the Sparks reached out to Burrell’s agent the morning of the game. She was already training regularly while preparing to play in Belgium this winter and the arena was just a 20-minute drive from her parents’ home. It’s not like she had other plans, Burrell said laughing.

The 6-foot-2 forward from Tennessee arrived in time to play 15 minutes, scoring five points with four rebounds and one assist as the short-handed Sparks got blown out by the defending champions. When the call for a second hardship came, Burrell didn’t hesitate, especially knowing that injuries to Clarendon and Clouden would allow her to remain with the Sparks for multiple games and make an impression to teams in the league.

“I just want to show myself, show what I can do, show my versatility,” said Burrell, who was limited to just three games as a rookie because of a knee injury. “I feel like I can score on all three levels, I’m a hustler, rebounder.”

After sitting on the bench during her first game on the latest hardship contract, Burrell provided a boost off the bench against the Minnesota Lynx on Tuesday with seven points and two rebounds in eight minutes.

Young players like Burrell and Henderson are eager to jump at any opportunity, Sparks general manager Karen Bryant said, even if it requires last-minute packing to jump on a plane for one or two games. More established veterans, Bryant has noticed, might be apprehensive. A few prorated days of salary at 75% of the applicable minimum doesn’t feel worth the disruption as they shift focus toward preparing for overseas seasons.

Knowing the team might have to juggle hardship contracts all season with Katie Lou Samuelson out while expecting her first child, Bryant has kept in contact with several free agents who could fit with the Sparks at a moment’s notice. She evaluates players on positional fit, familiarity with the coaching staff and location.

Henderson was in the perfect position to pounce as the Sparks were beginning a five-game homestand. The former national champion was only a short plane ride away in Phoenix, where she settled with her girlfriend after getting waived by Indiana on May 16.

Sparks guard Rae Burrell brings the ball up court duirng a WNBA game last season.

Sparks guard Rae Burrell, who was limited to three games last season because of a foot injury, was waived by the team during training camp before she was brought back on a hardship contract.

(Kamil Krzaczynski / Associated Press)

The 5-foot-7 point guard played in 36 games for the rebuilding Fever last season, averaging 5.3 points and 2.5 assists in 16.4 minutes per game. She was one of the team’s last cuts this spring. Crushed and out of a job, Henderson wondered whether she had done enough to fight for her dream.

Then she got back into the gym.

“It’s about character at the end of the day,” said Henderson, who still woke up every day at 5:30 a.m. to work out. “It’s a process in which nothing is guaranteed. … But you have to stay true to yourself and know what you bring to the table. You can’t let that determine the rest of your future.”

The unexpected turn in Henderson’s career left her overwhelmed with gratitude and shock. She boarded a plane in Phoenix at 11 a.m. and landed in L.A. around 12:30 p.m. before unwinding briefly at a hotel. She was in the arena at 4:20 for warmups, wearing a jersey made only hours before. Just seeing the smiling guard stretching on the court 12 hours after speaking with her on the phone felt surreal, Bryant said.

“Literally just all the feels,” Henderson said. “It’s crazy.”

Running on adrenaline from the hectic day, Henderson was spared an emergency stint on the court as point guard Jordin Canada played all 40 minutes. Henderson instead made her impact as a bench energizer, cheering her new teammates and leaping off the bench to dole out high-fives at every break. During game play, Henderson leaned toward Samuelson to ask about different play calls.

Samuelson sympathizes with Henderson’s position. The 27-year-old guard signed eight hardship or seven-day contracts with four teams since 2018 before securing her coveted seasonlong deal on June 6.

“If it’s something you really want to do, don’t get bitter and don’t find excuses and stay confident,” said Samuelson, who is averaging career highs in points (7.4), assists (1.4) and minutes (24) while shooting 50.9% from the field. “But [it’s] just enjoying your opportunities and that’s when you’ll do good instead of being stressed. … Just enjoy it and be confident in yourself and your game will speak for itself.”

Henderson sent a message in her Sparks debut. She scored two points, dished three assists and grabbed one rebound in six minutes against the Connecticut Sun, including a key stretch to begin the fourth quarter when the game was tied.

“Destanni Henderson belongs in this league,” Sparks coach Curt Miller said after the game. “You have to fight your way through your own journey, but I think she has a lot of talent and I’m excited to have her until we get some of our injured players back.”

Miller’s ringing endorsement of the second-year player came with a reality check. Time is ticking on both Henderson’s and Burrell’s contracts, which will be terminated automatically when the Sparks return to full health. They don’t know when that will be, but they intend to make the most of each minute.

After Henderson’s light workload during her debut, she and Burrell retreated to the weight room for an extra postgame workout. They were among the final players to leave the arena. With one opportunity in hand, they’re staying ready for what’s next.