Prepare for a wild ride: WNBA free agency is here.
As of Friday, Jan. 15, players who are eligible — and there are many — can negotiate with any team, while signings can begin, officially, on Feb. 1. We’ve only begun to get answers on who is going where, with teams making their qualifying offers last week to the players they want to keep and only a handful of players who aren’t yet free agents signing contracts so far.
A trio of players — Liz Cambage of the Las Vegas Aces, Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks and Natasha Howard of the Seattle Storm — received a core designation. That means they can negotiate only with their current teams, though all three are free to reject the offer as well, which can lead to a trade. (This happened last year with Skylar Diggins-Smith and Tina Charles, so it isn’t far-fetched.)
If last year’s free agency period seemed more exciting than it had in years past, it’s because the new collective bargaining agreement, signed in January 2020, allowed for freer player movement, along with higher max salaries that left room for teams to make a more financially lucrative offer to lure one player or another.
Expect more of the same in 2021. Here are the biggest free agency questions in need of answers as the calendar speeds toward February.
Will cored players return?
The three cored players share commonalities — Cambage, Ogwumike and Howard are versatile bigs, the kind modern WNBA offenses need. Whether Cambage, who missed 2020, is a good fit next to reigning MVP A’ja Wilson in Las Vegas is an open question. Ogwumike is a proven winner with elite shooting efficiency who several WNBA talent evaluators told me last year was the single most important component of Los Angeles’ defense, while Howard won 2019 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year. If any of the three decide to move on, much of the free agency field could be frozen, particularly bigs, as teams try to trade for them.
Who will entice the core’s unprotected teammates?
Those designations meant that other in-demand players on those teams are unprotected, since each team can claim only one free agent as core — a Sophie’s Choice of WNBA team building. That left Kayla McBride in Las Vegas, Chelsea Gray in Los Angeles and Alysha Clark in Seattle as entirely unrestricted free agents. All three do very different things, but all will be highly sought after in this market.
McBride is the prototype 2-3 in this league, shooting threes at a career 36.7 percent clip; using her length and strength to get to the rim, where she finishes or gets fouled, and nailing her free throws at an 89.5 percent career mark. Gray is a destructive bowling ball of a point guard in penetration, whose rainbow arc of a three-ball has gone in 38.5 percent of the time over her career. Both are 28, so long-term deals could keep them for what is likely their prime seasons ahead.
If teams want someone a little bit older, they can go with Clark, a defensive stopper. The 33-year-old has turned herself into one of the league’s best offensive players as well, finishing fourth in the WNBA in offensive win shares in 2020. She led the league in 3-point percentage the past two seasons, and her 52.2 percent mark last year earned her the No. 3 spot on the list of best seasons ever from three.
Which teams will vie for restricted free agents?
Nine players are restricted free agents, meaning they can negotiate with any team, but their prior team has the right to match that offer sheet. There’s value to be had from this group, from toughness and versatility in Erica McCall to elite shooting in Sami Whitcomb and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, but the most highly sought-after restricted free agent is likely to be Brittney Sykes of the Los Angeles Sparks. Teams may get mischievous with L.A., since the Sparks have to find cap room for keeping Candace Parker (who recently bought a home in Los Angeles, leading to speculation that she’s staying put), Gray and Ogwumike, all max-level players, not to mention other unrestricted free agents who contributed last year like the ageless Seimone Augustus, Riquna Williams and Reshanda Gray.
Expect the price tag on Sykes to impact a similar player who broke out in 2020, Atlanta’s Betnijah Laney. Both are long guard/wing combos capable of helping their teams at both ends. Don’t be surprised to see Indiana go after them both.
Where will the floor generals land?
The Connecticut Sun face some very difficult questions. Alyssa Thomas is an unrestricted free agent (though she may be seriously injured), and Jonquel Jones is a year away from potential free agency. But just as important to Connecticut’s run of success, with four straight playoff appearances, has been the two-way contribution of Jasmine Thomas, who can score when asked, always defends and has been a crucial voice in Curt Miller’s locker room. She’s a free agent, as is 2019 WNBA All-Star Game MVP Erica Wheeler, another potential starting point guard. There’s also Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, though few around the league think either one is going anywhere. And Danielle Robinson is a vital part of every team she plays for.
Will size be rewarded?
Amanda Zahui B. is a former second overall pick who can stretch the floor, rebound and block shots. If the Liberty land another big as a primary target, it is possible Zahui could find work elsewhere, and she remains a potential All-Star in the right environment. Theresa Plaisance is the ultimate team player and can also stretch the floor and rebound. Those who want their fours flavored with more defensive intensity will call Jessica Breland, and those who need more offense at the position will reach out to Cheyenne Parker, who hit 46.2 percent of her threes while once again finishing in the top 10 in offensive rebounding percentage.
If that sounds like a lot of talent set to move around, well, there’s a reason 12 teams are on the phone nonstop as you’re reading this. Buckle up!