How Sug Sutton overcame long odds to make and stick on a WNBA roster

Jaelyn Royal immediately realized what day it was as soon as she scrolled her phone that morning. Staying in the house wouldn’t do them any good. Because Sug Sutton can think, and when she thinks hard about something, she thinks heavy. That’s especially true when it comes to her craft.

Royal packed up snacks and brought her girlfriend on a picnic date to Winthrop Park on the Winthrop University campus in South Carolina, where she was a student and Sutton was staying with her. They put on music and Royal checked in, knowing this was the first day of something they had spoken about for weeks.

“No hard feelings, [but] we shouldn’t be in this position right now,” Sutton recalled telling her that spring day in April 2022. “I should be at training camp.”

For the second time in her short career, the WNBA’s Ms. Irrelevant as the 36th and final pick in the 2020 draft was sitting near practice facilities instead of being in one. The first time was her rookie season when teams had to make cuts without camp because of the COVID-19 pandemic and delayed the start of the season. The Washington Mystics brought her back to play 12 games to end the bubble season, but waived her the day of roster cutdowns in 2021.

Sug Sutton plays for the Washington Mystics during the 2020 bubble season in Florida. She spent 12 games with the Mystics that season then bounced around international leagues. (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
Sug Sutton dribbles for the Washington Mystics during the 2020 bubble season in Florida. She spent 12 games with the Mystics that season then bounced around international leagues. (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Sutton, who was still not fully healthy from an overseas back injury, described to Royal the following spring at the picnic how upset she was to not be in a camp, even though she said she realized she wasn’t ready physically. How it felt like nobody took a chance on her, like all she needed was that opportunity, but no one believed in her to fulfill it.

The two had been dating a little over a year at that point after connecting on Instagram in December 2020. Royal kept telling her to stay positive and “clap for other people, because when it’s your time, it’s going to come.”

“‘Right now isn’t the time for you.’ I remember specifically telling her that,” Royal told Yahoo Sports.

Instead of playing in the W, Sutton returned home to play for the St. Louis Surge of the Global Women’s Basketball Association (GWBA). It was life-altering the way her on-court identity and overall mentality shifted with the support of family and coaches that summer. In hindsight, she views those sequence of choices as some of the best she made as a player in her young career.

“It’s pretty cool just to look back and be like, OK, that was a good decision,” Sutton told Yahoo Sports. “But, in that moment, it sucks. It sucks bad.”

“It’s pretty cool just to look back and be like, OK, that was a good decision. But, in that moment, it sucks. It sucks bad.”Sug Sutton

Sutton, 24, is reflecting back from inside the Phoenix Mercury practice facility where she’s finished another midseason practice picking the brain of Diana Taurasi, a childhood icon, and throwing dimes to Brittney Griner. Sutton’s averaging 9.8 points and 5.0 assists with seven starts in 17 games and is one of two Mercury players who has played at least 100 minutes and ranks top 25 in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio.

The young 5-foot-8 point guard has been a bright spot for the struggling Mercury (2-12), which parted ways with second-year head coach Vanessa Nygaard on June 25. And her story showcases how any talented player can find a way onto a tight WNBA roster when given the right opportunity, both outside of the league and within it.

Ms. Irrelevant and the toll of being ‘forgotten’

The WNBA is a notoriously difficult league in which to build a career. Every April, first-round picks are at liberty of being waived because of limited roster spots. Third-round picks rarely go on to play meaningful minutes, let alone stick around to reach the average career length of three to five years.

Sutton counted herself as one of the “144,” the moniker used for the number of rostered players in a WNBA season, when it earned its greatest social clout in the 2020 bubble season held in Bradenton, Florida. After returning home to train with her dad, Larry Sutton, an AAU coach in St. Louis, the Mystics called her in August for a rest-of-season contract. She averaged 9.4 minutes in 12 games with totals of 34 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds. Her strongest performance was going 3-of-5, including 2-of-3 from 3-point range, to score eight points in 12:41 against Phoenix.

She entered her first true WNBA camp the following spring after an overseas season in Poland, but the day before the season started, the Mystics traded to acquire Sydney Wiese from the Los Angeles Sparks. Mike Thibault, then the head coach and general manager, said in a statement they were looking forward to Wiese’s “veteran experience,” and in a corresponding move to fit her onto the roster, they waived Sutton.

It’s a common front office move that impacts players a couple years removed from college every season, but for a Ms. Irrelevant, who shined at Texas but lacked the star-studded national accolades of those drafted higher than her, there was arguably more worry.

Sug Sutton had a standout four-year collegiate career at Texas, but was not widely viewed as a WNBA prospect. (AP Photo/Ray Carlin)
Sug Sutton had a standout four-year collegiate career at Texas, but was not widely viewed as a WNBA prospect. (AP Photo/Ray Carlin)

“Being in the W, it’s always been a dream since I was little,” Sutton told Yahoo Sports. “It’s a goal I set for myself when I was little with my dad and so, being the last pick, it didn’t take a toll on me. I didn’t hold my head because I played in the bubble season. But, there is a certain point where I’m the last pick and sometimes you can get forgotten about.”

Players waived on roster cutdown day will often be signed to hardship contracts throughout the season as injuries pop up. It’s a way for players to earn a spot, either that season or when salary-cap room opens up in the offseason. Sutton didn’t sign a short-term contract that year as the Mystics brought on forward Megan Gustafson, a former Naismith Player of the Year who has endured her own share of cuts, and veteran guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, who was on the 2019 Mystics title team and released off a hardship contract by the Connecticut Sun.

Sutton spent her second overseas season in Australia, where late in the schedule she injured her back. She did not participate in WNBA training camps in 2022.

Royal, 24, put the situation in perspective at her impromptu picnic shortly after her own final games at Winthrop University.

“Imagine if you were to get picked up right now,” she said. “And you had to play your hardest basketball ever trying to make a roster, trying to outdo all these players. Imagine that, and if you hurt yourself more.”

But it’s the mental aspect that is often most difficult. That took a toll on Sutton.

“I knew [the] reality of it was I wasn’t going to be in camp that year and that I had to work extremely hard to get in that position again to be back in training camp,” Sutton said. “I think that part of my journey was kind of the hardest, not knowing where I was going to be headed just because the outlook of it and how I was looking at it step by step. I wasn’t there at that point and I didn’t know how to get back to that point in that position that I was in.”

Sug Sutton competes for the Townsville Fire in Australia's WNBL in 2021. (Mike Owen/Getty Images)
Sug Sutton competes for the Townsville Fire in Australia’s WNBL in 2021. (Mike Owen/Getty Images)

In the 27 years of collegiate WNBA Drafts, including the three after Sutton’s 2020 year, eight players who were drafted with the last pick have played in a game. They include the first three Ms. Irrelevants: Catarina Pollini (1997, Houston Comets, 13 games), Monica Lamb (1998, Houston, 36 games) and Elaine Powell (1999, Orlando Miracle), who had the longest career at 265 games over 10 years.

Charel Allen played six games for the Sacramento Monarchs in 2008. In the second season of the current 36-pick format, Krystal Thomas was drafted No. 36 and played 176 games over a seven-year career. Katelan Redmon (2012, Liberty, seven games), Waltiea Rolle (2013, Lynx, six games in ’14) and Asia Taylor (2014, Lynx, 76 games in five seasons) also played.

To become one of the 144 again and extend her own numbers, Sutton would first head home and become one of the approximately 48.

Coming home for a reset and fresh perspective

While WNBA expansion remains in a holding pattern, the outcry over the lack of roster spots for the substantial incoming talent has only grown louder. High-caliber players are on the outside looking in often because they weren’t drafted by a team that had an available roster spot or they need that little extra time to acclimate to the professional level that isn’t afforded them.

“The way that the league is structured with the amount of teams and the amount of players, people can easily get lost in the shuffle,” Surge head coach Petra Jackson told Yahoo Sports. “I mean, look at the league this year. So many people are drafted and so many people got released.”

Ten of the 12 first-round 2023 draft picks made rosters this year. One international first-rounder opted not to play while staying in France, which isn’t uncommon as teams draft-and-stash young talent, and another, Maryland shooter Abby Meyers, was waived and has bounced on and off hardship contracts. Only three of the 11 second-rounders and two of the eight third-rounders who went to camp are still rostered near the midway point of the season.

In the NBA, first-rounders sign large rookie contracts with guaranteed seasons. Barely any of the 60 maximum players drafted are waived ahead of the season because, at the very least, they’ll make a roster in the developmental G League.

The WNBA has no such league, though Yahoo Sports reported last summer a 3×3 league could step into that role in the near future. Instead, players without contracts work out on their own. Or, in the case of Sutton and a select few former draftees, they join the four-team GWBA that Jackson described as similar to Athletes Unlimited without the rotating rosters.

“Our job is to try to get you to where you want to be and the ultimate goal is the W,” Jackson said. “[We] would never hold you back from that. Even if we sign somebody and they get that opportunity to go, [we say] go.”

Jackson is a St. Louis native who coached at St. Louis University when Sutton was the nation’s No. 6 prospect and second-ranked point guard by espnW Hoop Gurlz in the 2016 class out of nearby Parkway North. She never had a chance to see her play in person, though she kept hearing all about the city’s new star. When Sutton left for Texas, Jackson happened to leave for a job in California and tuned into a Longhorns game here or there.

“I thought, ‘OK, all right, that’s what they’re talking about. This is what the hype is about,’” Jackson said.

Sutton finished her four-year career at Texas ranked ninth in assists (419) and 39th in points (1,091) with multiple Big 12 honors as well as making the Nancy Lieberman Award Top-10 finalists list for the nation’s best point guard in 2019 and 2020. She was not on any major 2020 mock drafts.

Jackson had kept an eye on Sutton and when she injured her back, Jackson met with Surge team owner Khalia Collier about bringing the point guard home. The coach reached out to Sutton on Instagram, later laying out a plan for her over brunch with Surge associate head coach Justin Tatum, the father of Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum.

“I said, ‘Look, if things don’t work [with the WNBA], come back home,’” Jackson said. “This is what we’ll do. This is the contract, this is everything.”

The Surge announced Sutton signed on May 2, four days before the WNBA season tipped off, and the team tipped off its own 10th anniversary season later that month. In 10 games, Sutton averaged 14.1 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists on a 48/36/90 shooting clip. On off days, she worked with trainers she knew back home.

“Throughout that process with the Surge, and being able to have the game reps and being able to get better as an individual player, it prepared me for what I’m doing now and the positions that Phoenix are putting me in on the court and off the court,” Sutton said. “I’m really thankful to the Surge and everybody on the Surge for giving me that opportunity.”

Jackson said since Tatum was doing the floor coaching, she finally had the chance to sit back and watch Sutton play in person. It was a joy to watch her handles and the excitement of how she kept fans guessing her next move. But she noticed Sutton playing in reserve, “trying to make everything happen for everybody,” and pulled her to the side.

“Here’s the deal,” Jackson told her. “I need you to do you. I need you to be Sug Sutton. I need you to be that kid that everybody talked about. That’s what I need you to do.”

Amid the regular reps and coach’s directive, Sutton shifted her attitude away from being the point guard who always passed up shots and second-guessed herself. It was like a switch in her brain flipped, she said. Jackson said Sutton “took off like a rocket.”

“She knew that I had the ability to take over and to just be the player that I wanted to be,” Sutton said. “And after that conversation I think that’s what changed it. And for the rest of that Surge season, I changed everything. I always looked to score, pass, everything. I think that kind of changed everything for me to put me in a position to where I am now.”

Jackson credited Sutton’s work ethic, unselfish mannerisms and her tight circle for reaching the WNBA ranks again. She knew Sutton would be invited to a training camp, she only hoped it was the right fit. Because if it was, “It’s no doubt in my mind she’s going to stay,” she said.

“Throughout that process with the Surge, and being able to have the game reps and being able to get better as an individual player, it prepared me for what I’m doing now and the positions that Phoenix are putting me in on the court and off the court.”Sug Sutton

Royal watched her resilience and hard work up close every day, even when Sutton wasn’t fully in it mentally. Now, she said, “Her mind space is better than ever.” It was the mental hump of putting herself in an opportunity to earn a contract that Sutton said was most difficult over the past three years.

“If you get the opportunity, you have to take advantage of that opportunity,” Sutton said. “And it was like, I needed the opportunity, and how was I going to get that opportunity?”

With another training camp deadline ahead of her, and a successful season in Poland underway, Sutton received a couple of potential offers to try and land a WNBA spot. She and her agent decided Phoenix, where starting point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith was out on maternity leave likely for the entire season, was the best fit.

It was the right opportunity that paid off, and it was her family that made the long journey to it a little bit easier.

From nearly giving up the dream to seeing it blossom

There are seven players of the 36 taken in the 2020 WNBA Draft who are currently rostered. Larry Sutton did not expect his daughter to be one of them.

“I kind of gave it up,” Larry told Yahoo Sports, “because of the back injury [and] a lot of kids coming in from college trying to go to the WNBA, it’s hard to get back in there.”

Larry said his daughter wants to coach one day, so when she came back home from Australia, he tried to set up interviews with college programs to help her start her post-basketball career. But determination has always led Sutton, and it was as true as ever that spring.

“She’s like, no, I’m determined to get back in there,” Larry said. “When I see that light light up in her eyes, I just left it alone.”

A couple of rare tears dropped from his own eyes a year later when she told him she’d made the Mercury regular-season roster. In her first set of games, and with a massive audience because of Griner’s return, Sutton scored in double digits with multiple assists. It was only the start to a strong supporting role. She set a goal, achieved it, and continues to blossom.

Larry, the St. Louis youth director of the AAU Missouri Phenom program, watched her play last month in Indiana, her second career start. He’s planning a trip to Chicago later this month. He wasn’t able to see Sutton play much in person when she was at Texas or playing overseas. The bubble season did not allow visitors other than certain close family members who were required to quarantine and stay. Watching her chase the final feet of her dream while in St. Louis will always be special.

“Her coming back home and playing, it was just like a dream come true for me to watch my baby play again on the court live,” he said. “And to keep her dream alive of trying to get back in that league. It was a pleasure.”

Larry said his daughter coming home gave her a “breath of fresh air to revive herself, energize herself [and] refuel herself” from the churn of year-round play most WNBA players, especially ones on the bubble of roster spots, experience.

“To come back home, being with family and little ones and enjoy yourself, I think that helped out on her making [the Mercury],” he said. “Now she goes in with a clear mind and body just refreshed coming off that back injury, body just refreshed.”

Sutton lived with her oldest sister, Alexis, when she was home and helped take care of her three nieces and newborn nephew, whom Larry said looks just like his aunt. She’s looked up to Alexis, 32, and middle sister Alantis, 27, since she was young, and they’re the reason she plays. They helped her stay on top of things within basketball when she was in St. Louis and provided a vital part of her journey. Family members who hadn’t seen her play in person in years were able to attend games.

“I kind of needed that family aspect just because I needed that extra push because I was mentally down and mentally just kind of almost checking out when I was going through that injury,” Sutton said. “[Alexis] kind of helped me stay levelheaded [and] my whole family within that whole situation, they helped me stay levelheaded, and spending time with my nieces and my nephew and just being there for them.”

The Suttons are big on family, and Larry said he saw the smiles and joy on her face that summer. As the father, and as her basketball coach through about 10th grade, he instilled in her the benefit of observation. It’s been a guiding principle of her ascension.

“If you don’t know, ask. Sit back, observe and ask later,” Larry said. “I think it helped her out tremendously in her growth [and] in life, period.”

As Sutton puts it, “Sometimes when you feel like you know too much, that can get in the way of you succeeding a little bit. I just sit back, I try to soak in everything, try to learn as much as I can.”

Jackson saw it benefit her in St. Louis and believes it’s what makes her so coachable and a player who can sustain in the WNBA. Larry saw the results of it before that when she returned from Australia more confident and a better leader.

“She [was] on her own, [she’s] growing up and saying she’s got to figure it out [herself],” Larry said. “Some veterans over there were helping her out, showing her the ropes, and once again, she’s just a kid that will sit back and soak everything in.”

There’s a lot of soaking it all in for Sutton lately. She made “SportsCenter’s” Top 10 plays in her third game of the season. A video of her dropping in a reverse layup on Candace Parker, an idol she grew up watching, made its rounds.

Griner, one of the game’s best centers and the league’s most popular names, is smiling near her at shootarounds. Every day Sutton enters a team facility where Taurasi, one of the game’s GOATs, has won them three championships and wants more.

Sophie Cunningham, an X-Factor favorite, is also from Missouri and met Sutton in high school before playing 3×3 together for Team USA. She’s credited Sutton in multiple postgame news conferences for her contributions, pace and rhythm while the team figures itself out.

“She always has the hardest offensive player on every team,” Cunningham said after a mid-June loss. “And for her to keep that intensity on offense after she’s defending the best players on their team the whole freaking game, you’re doing great.”

A week later, Sutton scored a career-high 21 points, shooting 56%.

Sutton hasn’t been able to sit and absorb all of those relevant moments. It’s an overwhelming process, she said, and she’ll absorb all of that later. Right now, her focus is on turning one solid season into a second. She’s played 29 games, fourth-most of any last pick in one of the most difficult leagues to make and stay on a roster.

“I just sit back and try to soak in everything that everybody on the team is telling me,” Sutton said. “I’m still learning day by day, even though I’m succeeding a little bit in my first full season in the W. I’m still learning and I’m still a rookie a little bit, so I’m just taking it day by day.”

The Mercury return to the West Coast for a couple of games and the All-Star break. While Sutton was out of town, Royal returned home to Las Vegas for the July 4 holiday where she called Yahoo Sports from the airport to add one more thing.

“I just feel like [the Mercury] really appreciate her and let her be the player that she’s meant to be,” Royal said. “Because I feel like oftentimes, teams can kind of put players in a shell or a bubble.”

“I just feel like [the Mercury] really appreciate her and let her be the player that she’s meant to be. Because I feel like oftentimes, teams can kind of put players in a shell or a bubble.”Jaelyn Royal, Sug Sutton’s girlfriend

It’s a case of “the perfect time, perfect place” that might not have happened if even one thing was different. If she had gone to camp last season, if she had stuck on a roster in 2021, if she had opted out of Jackson’s offer, if she had missed out on enjoying her family for a summer.

When Sutton told Royal the Mercury roster was finalized and she was on it, Royal teared up. She gets emotional thinking about it still. Royal reminded Sutton of their picnic of little snacks a year prior and how her opportunity was coming, it just wasn’t her time yet.

They had spoken about this moment for years, and containing their excitement in the confines of a hotel room wouldn’t be good enough. Instead, they went out for a celebratory brunch in Phoenix where Sutton was back living her dream.

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