11 Jan

Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, Elena Delle Donne among best players available

The long WNBA offseason is about to heat up, with free agency set to begin later this month. Teams will be allowed to start speaking with players on Jan. 21, though no deals can officially be signed until Feb. 1. Between now and then, there figures to be plenty of interesting speculation.

For much of the league’s history, free agency didn’t matter all that much. Key players rarely became free agents due to the length of contracts and the number of times a franchise could use the core designation. That all changed with the new collective bargaining agreement in 2020. Now, free agency is a key aspect of the calendar, just like any other league.

That’s no different this year, with a number of superstars set to hit the market, including five former MVPs: Breanna Stewart (2018, 2023), Jonquel Jones (2021), Elena Delle Donne (2015, 2019), Nneka Ogwumike (2016) and Candace Parker (2008, 2013). And that doesn’t include the likes of Skylar Diggins-Smith, Brittney Griner and Satou Sabally.

One way or another, the league is going to shift this winter. Ahead of all the action and intrigue, here’s everything you need to know:

When does free agency start?
Teams can start talking to free agents on Jan. 21, but nothing can officially be signed until Feb. 1. Those rules will always be skirted to some extent, but teams caught breaking them will be punished under the league’s tampering rules. The Seattle Storm were fined in 2022 for jumping the gun on Sue Bird’s re-signing.

How does WNBA free agency work?
WNBA free agency largely operates just like the NBA. There is a moratorium period where teams can speak to players but not offically sign anything, and free agents are grouped into different classifications that dictate how both they and teams can operate. The two main groups are unrestricted free agents, who can speak to and sign with any team they want, and restricted free agents, who can speak to and sign with any team they want, but can have that offer matched by their prior team.

The WNBA also has a reserved category, which is for players who hit free agency with fewer than three years of service. Often, these are veterans who entered the league later in their career, but they can also be younger players who, for whatever reason, were not on a typical rookie-scale contract. The prior team has exclusive negotiating rights with said players.

Furthermore, in rare instances players’ contracts can expire while they are suspended. When this happens, players are technically found to be “withholding service,” according to the CBA, and are listed as “suspended — contract expired.” In practice, these players are treated much like reserved players, though the prior team does not have to extend a qualifying offer.

Finally, there is the core designation, which is most analogous to the NFL’s franchise tag. If a team uses the core designation on a player, they gain exclusive negotiating rights with them, even if that player was set to be an unrestricted free agent. Teams must use this machination wisely, however, as each player is only allowed to be “cored” two times in their career as of 2024.

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