6-foot-6 Braxton could draw big offers as restricted free agent

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The Shock have five players who have played in a WNBA All-Star game; four of them - Cheryl Ford, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith - are under contract for 2009. It’s one of the biggest reasons the Shock are optimistic about their chances of a successful title defense.

The fifth, Kara Braxton, is a restricted free agent, which makes her future in Detroit a bit cloudier. Uncertainty is nothing new for Braxton, who has been an enigmatic producer ever since Shock coach and general manager Bill Laimbeer drafted her seventh overall in 2005.

Though Braxton started for the Eastern Conference in the 2007 All-Star game, she wasn’t even starting for Detroit at the time. Still, when Laimbeer formed a list of players protected from the expansion draft after the season, he protected Braxton. Atlanta selected Katie Feenstra, who had replaced Braxton in the lineup.

Braxton moved out of the starting lineup again early in the 2008 season - and then played the best basketball of her pro career as a reserve. She started again down the stretch, culminating in her best playoff series ever in the WNBA Finals, averaging 10.6 points on 51.7 percent shooting (15-of-29) over three games. When 2008 was all said and done, Braxton had had her most productive season, posting career highs in total points, rebounds, assists and blocks. An even more encouraging sign was that Braxton cut down on both fouls and turnovers despite playing about the same number of minutes per game (17.9 mpg).

Braxton’s promising campaign should elicit lucrative contract offers from teams that have the money to spend. Restricted free agency works just as it does in the NBA. Teams can make offers to a restricted free agent, but the player’s current team has the right of first refusal. The Shock can agree to match any offer made by another team and retain Braxton at that price.

What that price will be is foremost on the minds of the Shock front office, said Cheryl Reeve, assistant coach and director of player personnel. “She’s a 6-foot-6 center that should garner a fair amount of attention, it’s just a matter of what salary level,” she said. “If she brought a max offer it would cause us to consider pretty heavily if that would make sense for us in the long run.”

Braxton, who will be 26 when next season opens, is entering the prime of her career. And centers with Braxton’s size and skill set do not come along every season, which is why Laimbeer was reluctant to risk losing her in 2007. There’s no reason to think he won’t face the same dilemma he did last year, or make the same decision to keep her. The difference now is that other teams will be setting the price, and the Shock - who have a considerable amount of their salary cap space locked into the aforementioned veteran All-Stars - don’t want to commit the remainder to a single player.

“We view Kara as a nice piece to our championship runs since she’s been with us, but certainly we pay a lot of players max salary, so that would certainly impact our ability to retain her,” Reeve said. While cap space is tight, Reeve said the team has more flexibility than it did before the 2007 season, when the Shock traded starting center Ruth Riley and her max salary for Feenstra, who had four fewer years experience (thus a smaller cap figure).

The Shock are also monitoring interest in another one of their centers, unrestricted free agent Kelly Schumacher. An eight-year vet who joined the team after Ford’s season-ending knee injury in late July, Schumacher initially appeared to be an odd fit, if only because she played against the Shock in the 2007 finals for Phoenix. Schumacher adapted well to her new role and Laimbeer praised her game smarts and professionalism. The 6-foot-5 center had an impressive defensive performance in the finals, which should help her free-agent stock. But if she's in no hurry to leave, Schumacher likely would be welcomed back at the right price. “I think Kelly really found a great comfort zone [in Detroit] that if you asked her even she’d be surprised at,” Reeve said.

The Shock also are trying to be proactive, scouring the free-agent pool for an impact player. “We would only be interested in the high-profile free agents that would be available,” Reeve said. “It’s not necessarily in regard to position.” Like Detroit’s other recent championship teams, the Shock might be able to get an elite player at a discount. It’s just a matter of whether she would sacrifice maximum market value for a shot at what money can’t buy.

“Most of the free agents who are out there would love to play in Detroit,” Reeve said. “I think that’s a nice situation for us. These players want to come to Detroit, and who doesn’t want to come win a championship?”