The tip-off of another WNBA season is just a handful of months away, but the next big step toward 2019 began Tuesday with the opening of the free-agency season. As of January 15, teams could begin negotiating with free agents and designating “core” players. The period during which free agents can begin finalizing signings with new teams begins on February 1.
Let’s start with a review of the various degrees of free agency in the WNBA.
Unrestricted free agents: players who are free to sign with any team provided they are not designated a “Core” player.
Restricted free agents: players with 4 or 5 years experience; the players prior team has the right to keep the player by matching a contract offer the player signs with another team. If the player signs with another team, the current team has four days to match the offer.
Reserve players: 3 years experience or less; the player’s prior team has exclusive negotiating rights. If released, they are free agents.
Core player designation: The Core designation gives that team exclusive negotiating rights with a player. Players can be “cored” four times in their career.
Six teams gave players a “Core” designation Tuesday – Phoenix, DeWanna Bonner; New York, Tina Charles; Dallas, Glory Johnson; Minnesota, Maya Moore; Connecticut, Jasmine Thomas; Chicago, Courtney Vandersloot.
Thirty-one players are unrestricted free agents, opening up the possibility of a significant amount of player movement in the coming weeks.
The list of WNBA free agents can be found here: 2019 Core Players, Reserved Players, Restricted Free Agents and Unrestricted Free Agents – WNBA.com – Official Site of the WNBA
Let’s take a look at all 12 WNBA teams, their needs and their options heading into free agency:
Atlanta. The Dream, who did not core any of their players, have a minimal amount of room to sign new players and would need to make a trade to make a significant change in their roster. Damiris Dantas is a restricted free agent and is coming off an ankle injury and had surgery in the late-summer. Forward Adaora Elonu, who saw action in just one game last season, is the team’s lone unrestricted free agent.
Chicago. The Sky, under new head coach James Wade, made the decision Tuesday morning to core point guard Courtney Vandersloot, which means that last year’s “cored” player, Allie Quigley will be an unrestricted free agent. The All-Star shooting guard will be appealing to teams around the league. Whether leaving Chicago will be appealing to Quigley is another matter as Quigley and Vandersloot were recently married. Chicago has seven players who are either restricted or unrestricted free agents – including young breakout star Cheyenne Parker (RFA), which leaves the potential for a major makeover in the Windy City.
Connecticut. The Sun, who have cored guard Jasmine Thomas, aren’t expected to make big offseason changes with a young roster that still looks deep and to be peaking.
Dallas. With Skylar Diggins expected to miss the season because of her pregnancy and center Liz Cambage not committed to return to the Wings, there are potentially some big holes to fill and new head coach Brian Agler has already said that he wants to retool the Wings through free agency. Veteran forward Glory Johnson was “cored” to assure that the Wings have a talented, experienced post to play alongside up-and-coming youngster Azura Stevens. Karima Christmas-Kelly, who the Wings cored last year, is also an unrestricted free agent.
Indiana. The Fever are young and are liable to stay that way for a long time, especially with another top draft pick coming their way. Shenise Johnson, who missed last season with an injury, is an unrestricted free agent. But the Fever, did not “core” anyone, might be in the market for a little more veteran leadership along with Candice Dupree while the remodeling of the franchise continues. Natalie Achonwa is a restricted free agent and expected to return.
Las Vegas. The young Aces, who will be adding the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft in the spring, have many of their players already locked up. One of the biggest decisions would be whether to re-sign Dearica Hamby, who had some strong games off the bench, including a 24-point against Chicago early in the 2018 season.
Los Angeles. The Sparks have some big decisions to make under new head coach Derek Fisher. For the moment, Los Angeles passed on the opportunity to core either Alana Beard, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, who has also pondered retirement over the past few years, or Essence Carson, who has played an essential role off the bench during the team’s run of success. Riquna Williams is also an unrestricted free agent. Los Angeles will be looking to re-sign Chelsea Gray, who has emerged as one of the league’s best point guards, and is a restricted free agent. Backcourt mate Odyssey Sims is also a restricted free agent.
Minnesota. After a first-round playoff exit, it’s time to re-tool in Minneapolis. The first order of business was to core Maya Moore, the team’s cornerstone player. Now Cheryl Reeve will have to make some thoughtful decisions about unrestricted free agents Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson, two of the franchise’s most legendary players who are nearing the end of their careers. With the retirement of Lindsay Whalen, the Lynx will also be looking for their next point guard. They still hold the rights to Anna Cruz, the Spaniard who hasn’t played in the WNBA since 2016.
New York. The Liberty, still seeking new ownership, cored Tina Charles for the second year in a row, and now have many other decisions to make about a long list of free agents that include: Marissa Coleman, Epiphanny Prince, Kia Vaughn and Shavonte Zellous. Rebecca Allen, Brittany Boyd and Amanda Zahui B are also restricted free agents. Teams looking for veteran guards will be interested in Prince, Zellous and Boyd. The Liberty are believed to have a lot of salary cap space, which could give them an opportunity for a makeover after a disappointing 2018.
Phoenix. The Mercury cored DeWanna Bonner for the fourth and final time in her career, assuring that she will be playing alongside Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner for another season as Phoenix looks to make another title run. Phoenix needs a point guard to play alongside Taurasi and will have to make a decision about whether to re-sign Briann January, who is an unrestricted free agent. January, who is coaching at her alma mater at ASU, is a veteran with championship experience who was a steady presence in 2018. Sancho Lyttle, who missed much of last season with a knee injury, is also an unrestricted free agent, but isn’t likely to return.
Seattle. The Storm are believed to have little space to sign new players, especially with Breanna Stewart due a new contract in 2020. Last year’s “cored” player was Crystal Langhorne (who has already been cored three times in her career), but it’s unlikely that she will be cored again as Natasha Howard established herself in the Storm lineup as the team’s starting center.
Washington. Re-signing talented young restricted free agent guard Natasha Cloud will be the Mystics No. 1 priority following their first-ever run to the WNBA Finals. Guards should be the priority for Washington now that Ivory Latta and Tayler Hill are no longer on the roster. Monique Currie (who was cored in 2012-2014 for Washington), Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, LaToya Sanders and Krystal Thomas are all unrestricted free agents. Washington has the option to core one of these players. Sanders, if not cored, could be an appealing player for teams looking for a center to add depth or fill an opening.