CHICAGO -- Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, Emma Meesseman, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley made sure to get a photo together after the 2022 WNBA All-Star Game in Chicago. The quintet wasn't all on Team Stewart or Team Wilson. In fact, Quigley wasn't even an All-Star. But their shared experience playing together the past couple seasons on Russian club team UMMC Ekaterinburg prompted them to snag a quick pic.
"Special place in my heart #ekat," Quigley captioned the Instagram story of the five of them -- plus Stewart's baby, Ruby -- before adding "missing BG."
Brittney Griner, an eight-time WNBA All-Star and their former Ekaterinburg teammate, has been detained in Russia for 166 days after Russian officials said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil as she was entering the country in February to play for the team. Griner's trial began July 1, and sources expect a verdict and sentence later this week as Secretary of State Antony Blinken continues to urge Russia to accept a deal for the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, another American the U.S. government considers to be a wrongful detainee.
For decades, Russian clubs such as Ekaterinburg were the crown jewel of the overseas playing experience for WNBA and other international stars, where superteams were formed, dominated and won championships, and where some players earned seven-figure salaries and received the amenities and resources befitting of the top professional basketball players in the world. Between 2013 and 2021, Ekaterinburg won five EuroLeague titles.
That won't be the case this coming WNBA offseason. Given Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, strained U.S.-Russian relations and Griner's prolonged detainment, returning to play in Russia was not a viable option for the former Ekaterinburg players captured in that photo, some of the most recognizable faces in the sport and Griner's teammates and friends. Where are they headed, how has the salary structure changed and what challenges loom for WNBA players looking to spend their offseasons competing and earning salaries overseas?
Where will they compete this offseason?
The players uniformly said they had positive experiences playing in Russia. Vandersloot, a 12-year WNBA veteran who helped lead the Chicago Sky to their first title last year, had aimed to finish her overseas career with Ekaterinburg before the war started. And the Connecticut Sun's Jones, the reigning WNBA MVP, had re-signed with the club earlier this year.
But the United States' travel advisory continues to designate Russia a Level 4 "do not travel." And the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), the sport's governing body, also sanctioned Russian teams from participating in international events.
Stewart, Jones and Meesseman have signed with Turkish clubs for this coming offseason -- Stewart and Meesseman with Fenerbahce, Jones with Mersin -- while Vandersloot will play for Hungary's Sopron. All three clubs are part of FIBA's EuroLeague, from which Russian teams like Ekaterinburg are currently banned.
"To be honest, my time in Russia has been wonderful, but especially with BG still being wrongfully detained there, nobody's going to Russia until she's home," the Seattle Storm's Stewart told ESPN in Chicago. "And then I don't know what's happening with basketball."
Added Chicago's Meesseman, a native of Belgium: "I don't see a lot of people going to Russia while the war is still going on."
How much will they make?
With the French, Spanish and Turkish leagues thriving, Russian teams outside of Ekaterinburg haven't dominated the international basketball landscape in recent years, at least in terms of quality of play. But there's no question the salaries Stewart, Jones, Meesseman and Vandersloot will make in Turkey and Hungary will be significantly less than what they made with Ekat, which like many Russian teams is backed by large corporations controlled by oligarchs.
Jones -- who previously said that she'd make her entire WNBA salary, $205,000 in 2022, in one month playing in Russia -- said she took a "huge" pay cut when she signed with Mersin but is still making "really good money."
Salaries in Turkey for top-tier WNBA players are in the $300,000-$400,000 range -- in what's largely considered a down market at the moment -- while other countries typically pay less. The market has further been impacted by a dearth in competition, because Russian teams are able to compete only domestically, and China, according to multiple longtime WNBA agents, still isn't accepting international women's players amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"There's other opportunities for other clubs to kind of step up and make that leap [financially] to be on that level that Ekat was," Stewart said.
"I just look at it as, I'm lucky I got four years to play for really big money and it helped me financially. It set us up really well for the future," said Vandersloot, who is married to Quigley, who also plays for Chicago. "But also it's just an opportunity to play. ... I like to play year-round."
Why Turkey and Hungary?
A former EuroLeague regular-season and Final Four MVP, Stewart said signing with "powerhouse" Fenerbahce made sense for her family, as it isn't too far from Spain, where wife Marta Xargay Casademont has family.
Sopron was a logical choice for Vandersloot, who obtained Hungarian citizenship in 2016. Quigley will not play, but she and their dog will accompany Vandersloot to Hungary.
"I can only hope that in the future Russia is going to be accepted again," said Meesseman, the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP during the Washington Mystics' title run. "Because basketball there really is separate from politics, and I think all those players deserve to showcase their talent because they have some great players."
With Ekat off the table, WNBA stars still wanted to find clubs where they'd have the opportunity to play with and against high-level competition, ones that would still treat their players right.
"I just wanted to go to a place where they genuinely cared about me," said Jones, who consulted with Sun teammate DeWanna Bonner before committing to Mersin. Jones will play alongside Bonner and fellow WNBA star Tiffany Hayes this upcoming season.
"Sopron is one of those clubs that it's a good place to be," Vandersloot added of the Hungarian squad, which -- powered by a handful of WNBA stars, like Gabby Williams, Stefanie Dolson and Briann January -- defeated Fenerbahce last April to win the 2022 EuroLeague title. "They take care of you, they do it the right way. You can't say that about every club."
Would they play in Russia again if it's an option?
The former Ekaterinburg players are unsure whether they've seen their last basketball in Russia.
"I can't say never, but I would be lying if I was saying it's something that I would be interested in," Vandersloot said. "It's just hard to say. The whole situation with BG makes it really, really hard to think that it's safe for anybody to go back there right now."
When asked if she'd ever consider playing in Russia again upon Griner's release, Stewart said she'll be taking things "one season at a time."
Jones, though, revealed she would consider going back to Russia should the geopolitical situation improve.
"In my professional career, playing for Ekat was the best I was treated professionally," she said. "I would definitely be open to going back there, with the people there, because it was such a genuine experience for me."
How will prioritization impact future overseas commitments?
WNBA prioritization is another wrinkle in players' decision-making over their overseas commitments. EuroLeague tips off Oct. 12, with the Final Four scheduled for mid-April, but domestic leagues can last into April -- typically when WNBA training camp opens -- or even May -- when the season tips off.
Starting in 2023, players will face penalties if they arrive late to WNBA training camp, starting with fines and eventually ramping up to season-long suspensions. Stewart said prioritization was largely why she signed just a one-year deal with the Storm this past offseason.
But with big money still to be made overseas -- regardless of what happens with Ekat -- and no massive bump in WNBA salaries on the horizon in the near future, the appeal of playing in Turkey or Hungary might still be strong for top WNBA talent.
"Prioritization is, like, the biggest topic of conversation in the WNBA for me, especially in the next couple of years," Stewart said in February. "With the prioritization, you're cutting off one of my sources of income."
ESPN's Mechelle Voepel contributed to this report.