- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Ashley Walker is showing up at the gym every day with her hopes high, but with her expectations grounded in a reality she has already experienced.
"I'm out here trying to make a team," Walker said. "I know you have to prove yourself."
Walker has been trying to prove herself since the Seattle Storm drafted her in the first round of the WNBA draft out of Cal in 2009. Walker had an outstanding college career in Berkeley, establishing herself as one of the top players in what was then the Pac-10.
Three years later, she's trying to establish herself as a player worthy of one of the 132 roster spots in the WNBA, or more specifically, one of the 11 players worthy of being a Washington Mystic.
She's hardly alone in the quest. Walker, a 6-foot-1 forward, is among a large group of players who are not stars -- not even veterans -- but talented players who spend the winter playing overseas before returning to the United States to compete for a spot at the end of a WNBA roster.
Walker is in her fourth WNBA training camp since she was drafted three years ago.
In her first season in Seattle, she played only 13 games because of a broken bone in her foot -- the first major injury of her career.
"I had never been injured in college," Walker said. "And then in my first year as a pro I break my foot. There's your dumb luck."
After what she thought was a strong camp for Seattle in 2010, she was the last player waived before the season.
Walker was surprised she was released by the Storm. "I'd played well and had a good preseason," Walker said. "But it proves that you can still get cut."
She was picked up by Tulsa, played in two games for the Shock in their inaugural season and was waived again.
Last year, she was invited to camp by the San Antonio Silver Stars but did not make the roster.
"I struggled there," Walker said.
And now Mystics coach Trudi Lacey has brought her to Washington, looking for depth at forward. Walker, who has always been considered undersized for a post, said she had a handful of camp invitations when she returned from playing in Turkey, but chose the Mystics because she thought they might be the best fit.
The Mystics have 17 players in camp.
"I was looking for some players with experience," Lacey said. "I wanted somebody with a multiple skill set who could play face-up, at the high post, hit the 3-point shot. Ashley fit those prerequisites. She's got an opportunity."
Walker has played overseas the past three years, not only to make money, but also to hone her skills with the aim of landing in the WNBA.
She played in Israel after her first season with Seattle. This past season, she played for Ceyhan Belediyespor in Turkey, averaging 17.0 points and 8.2 rebounds a game, the best numbers of her pro career.
In summer, she has returned home to Modesto, Calif., to live with her parents. "When I'm overseas I miss Christmas and holidays and I've been able to spend time with family and friends," Walker said. "My parents don't mind having me around."
She's put off plans to buy a house. Her brother, Tiran, who played professionally overseas, teases her that one day she'll have to get a "real job."
Players aren't paid a salary for WNBA camp, but are given a per diem of around $70 a day and are provided housing. Salaries don't kick in until you've made a roster. First paychecks don't come until June.
"You feel like you are on the outside looking in," Walker said. "I've been invited to two or three teams, and it's a matter of finding the right fit. Every team is different. Everybody wants different things. You have to find the team that fits what you do."
Lacey said players such as Walker, who have been through WNBA camps, understand something that rookies often don't. "It's a dog-eat-dog fight, every practice is a three-hour job interview," Lacey said. "You have to be at the top of your game, do the little things. It can be very physically and mentally demanding for players, because every play can determine your future."
Walker certainly seems to grasp that. She understands her margin for error is slim.
"As I've gotten older, I understand it's hard to make a roster," she said. "My goal is to go overseas, play well, make sure that seven or eight or nine teams want to sign me there, because that's where we get paid.
"A select few get paid big in the States and I might not be one of those, so I'll focus on the overseas season. But I want to play in the WNBA, I want to have my name associated with it. And I'll strive for that, but I understand there are only 11 roster spots.
"My brother tells me, 'The day will come where you will have to be an adult,'" Walker said. "I'm looking forward to it, but I'm definitely not ready for it. I'm not sad that I'm missing out on that now. I get to travel the world and play a sport and do a job that I love."
16dBonnie D. Ford