With Griner in jail, WNBA players skip Russia in offseason

SYDNEY — Brittney Griner’s high-profile legal troubles in Russia and the country’s invasion of Ukraine have the WNBA’s top players taking their talents elsewhere this offseason.

For the past few decades, Russia has been the preferred destination for WNBA players during the offseason due to high salaries that can exceed $1 million – nearly four times the base salary of top WNBA players – and resources and equipment that the teams have offered them.

It all ended abruptly.

“Honestly, my time in Russia was wonderful, but especially with BG still wrongfully detained there, no one is going there until she’s home,” said Breanna Stewart, a teammate of Griner on the Russian team that paid the duo millions. “I think, you know, now people want to go overseas and if the money isn’t much different, they want to be in a better place.”

Griner was arrested in February, then detained and later convicted for drug possession during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Griner was sentenced last month to nine years in prison.

Now Stewart and other WNBA All-Stars, including Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot — who have also earned millions playing in Russia — are moving elsewhere this winter. All three played for Yekaterinburg, the same Russian team as Griner. This club has won five EuroLeague titles in the past eight seasons and has dominated for almost two decades with former greats DeLisha Milton Jones and Diana Taurasi playing there.

Nearly a dozen WNBA players competed in Russia last winter and none of them are returning this year.

After the World Cup tournament, Stewart travels to Turkey to play for Fenerbahçe. The best players can earn a few hundred thousand dollars playing in Turkey, much less than their Russian salaries. Playing in Turkey also allows Stewart to be closer to his wife’s family in Spain.

“You want to have a better lifestyle, a better experience off the pitch and still enjoy other countries,” Stewart said.

Like Stewart, Vandersloot is also not returning to Russia, opting to play in Hungary where she was granted citizenship in 2016.

“I’m Hungarian. I thought it would be special since I haven’t played there since I got citizenship,” Vandersloot said.

The 33-year-old guard said a lot would have to change before she plans to return to Russia to play, although she has fond memories of the Russian people.

“The problem is that we have been treated so well by our club and have built such strong relationships with these people, I would never shut the door on that,” she said. “The whole situation with BG makes it really hard to think it’s safe for anyone to go back there right now.”

Jones will join Stewart in Turkey, playing for Mersin. Jones, 6ft 6in, said she would consider returning to Russia if things change politically and Griner is back in the United States.

Griner’s situation also weighs heavily on the minds of young WNBA players.

Rhyne Howard, the 2022 WNBA Rookie of the Year, is playing in Italy this winter – her first overseas experience. She said she was careful when deciding where she wanted to play.

“Everyone is going to be a little cautious as this situation unfolds,” she said.

It’s not just American players who don’t go to Russia anymore. Chicago Sky striker Emma Meesseman, who plays for the Belgian national team, had played in Russia with Stewart, Jones and Vandersloot. She is also heading to Turkey this offseason.

The WNBA has also tried to make staying home in the offseason a better option for players. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said at the WNBA Finals that top players could earn up to $700,000 this year between base salary, marketing deals and bonuses. While only a select few players could reach that amount, about a dozen have decided to strike league marketing deals this offseason.

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