WNBA free agency primer: Breanna Stewart and the veterans who could shake up the landscape

Players are snacking on popcorn in what has already been a “juicy” WNBA offseason. Although the free-agency period hasn’t officially opened yet, the runners-up Connecticut Sun have made landscape-shifting trades to retool their roster.

The Sun are reportedly going to lock down one of the league’s top free agents in center Brionna Jones. The other name that might prompt the largest cannonball is Breanna Stewart, who is a free agent again after signing a one-year deal. They’re joined by a slew of other WNBA champions who could be on the move.

Here is everything to know about when free agency begins, what moves were made last week, who could make additional moves and which teams have the most to do.

When does free agency begin?

Teams can begin contract negotiations with free agents on Saturday. Contracts can be signed beginning Feb. 1.

Teams sent out qualifying offers and core player designations to players between Jan. 11 and Jan. 20. Qualifying offers are issued by a player’s previous team, and players can choose to sign them or leave them.

Core designations, often compared to the NFL’s franchise tag, are used by a current team to a restricted or unrestricted free agent to keep a player on a one-year contract equal to the supermax salary. Longer deals can be made between the sides. Those designations are due Friday. Teams can have only one player cored and can deal them in rare sign-and-trades.

WNBA free agency: Follow Yahoo Sports' live updates of signings, contract extensions, trades and more.

How does prioritization come into play?

Prioritization is a clause in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement that begins this season. It requires players with three or more years of WNBA experience to report to training camp on time (currently scheduled for April 30) or be fined 1% of their base salary for every day missed. Players will be suspended without pay for the entire season if they do not report by the start of the regular season, slated for May 19.

Previously, players showed up late to camp and even missed considerable regular season time while with their overseas clubs for playoffs. The clause stipulates not that players cannot compete overseas in the league's offseason but that they must return on time. That means some players might opt not to compete in the WNBA.

What’s the supermax, salary cap?

The salary cap for 2023 is $1,420,500, according to Her Hoop Stats. It’s a raise of approximately 3% from last season. Teams are required to hold 11 players minimum on the roster, which many do. The maximum is 12.

The player supermax is $234,936, per Her Hoop Stats. It’s for players signing a rookie extension or who have at least five years of service and sign with their current team. The player maximum is $202,154. The minimum for players with zero to two years of service is $62,285, and for three or more years, it's $74,305.

How do the Sun’s trades impact the free-agent market?

The Sun and first-year head coach Stephanie White appear to be ripping apart their core and freeing up salary-cap room after losing in the Finals. They are the winningest franchise since 2017, but they did not take home a title in that time.

The franchise traded 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones to the New York Liberty in a three-team deal. Connecticut acquired Tyasha Harris, Rebecca Allen and the No. 6 pick in the draft. The Sun then dealt point guard Jasmine Thomas, who sustained an ACL tear in May, to the Los Angeles Sparks and former head coach Curt Miller in exchange for Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Jasmine Walker and reserve rights to Kianna Smith.

The Sun are reportedly going to core Brionna Jones, a two-time All-Star and 2022 Sixth Player of the Year (13.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 25.1 mpg). It was an embarrassment of riches that Miller could pull a player such as Jones off the bench, and the 6-foot-3 post was set to be one of the most highly sought free agents. The Sparks, who have plenty of cap room, were a rumored landing spot for Jones, 27, and she could still do a sign-and-trade.

The moves most impact the Liberty, as Stewart met with front-office personnel as a free agent last season. Stewart and Jonquel Jones, 29, played together at UMMC Ekaterinburg in 2020-21. The Liberty improved their cap space in the trades, making it easier to sign the superstar to a deal.

Seattle Storm superstar Breanna Stewart is the biggest name on the free-agent market this offseason. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Seattle Storm superstar Breanna Stewart is the biggest name on the free-agent market this offseason. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Who is the big name in free agency?

Breanna Stewart, a two-time WNBA champion with the Seattle Storm, is the biggest name on the free-agent market again this offseason after re-signing with the Storm on a one-year deal last winter. The 6-foot-4 forward finished second in MVP voting, averaging 21.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game. They were consistent with her six-season career averages that include two Finals MVPs and the 2018 league MVP.

Stewart, 28, said she signed the one-year contract because of the prioritization clause and spoke out about the impact of it. She is currently playing with Fenerbahce in Turkey. It also gave her more options after spending a final season with Sue Bird, with whom she won both titles.

The two likeliest landing spots are Seattle, the franchise that took her No. 1 overall in 2016, or the Liberty. Stewart grew up in Syracuse, about a five-hour drive from Barclays in Brooklyn, and her wife’s family is in Spain. With the Liberty, she would join an established winning coach in Sandy Brondello and a roster led by Sabrina Ionescu that’s a few pieces from being a championship contender. Having already added Jonquel Jones, with Stewart the Liberty would become a super-team and immediate favorites.

What other big names are free agents?

The unrestricted free-agent list includes championship veterans in Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner (Phoenix); Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Emma Meesseman (Chicago); Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver (Los Angeles).

Taurasi, 41, said in November that she intends to return for a 19th WNBA season. She spent all of those years with the Mercury and won three championships. It seems unlikely that the franchise wouldn’t re-sign her, though she has missed games in recent seasons due to injuries and plays at the supermax.

Griner, 32, also intends to play for the Mercury, she said in her first statement after being released from a Russian prison in a prisoner swap. The Mercury have decisions to make beyond signing their two core stars given that Skylar Diggins-Smith is pregnant, there have been personality conflicts, and Phoenix would be in a similar salary crunch to recent seasons if both Griner and Taurasi are signed at supermaxes.

The Sky core draws more questions. Parker, 36, said in November that she plans to come back and play, but she did not stipulate with the Sky. She could still be considering retirement and could also be considering a return to Los Angeles after they parted ways with Derek Fisher midseason.

The franchise hired Curt Miller, filled its general manager position and largely seems to be righting its ways after a dysfunctional few years.

Candace Parker has indicated that she intends to play the 2023 WNBA, but whether that is with the Chicago Sky remains to be seen. (Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Candace Parker has indicated that she intends to play the 2023 WNBA, but whether that is with the Chicago Sky remains to be seen. (Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Vandersloot, 33, reportedly took meetings with the Sky, Storm and Lynx as a free agent last year. She is a native of Washington and played at Gonzaga. Her decision might be largely impacted by what the Sky’s other free agents decide. Quigley, 36, is mulling retirement and opted out of playing overseas this year for the first time since 2008.

Meesseman, 29, is one of the best and most efficient centers in the league, shooting a fourth-best 57.1% last season. But the Belgian native told reporters she might opt to leave the WNBA due to the prioritization clause.

Ogwumike, 32, is no longer able to be cored but has indicated she wants to return to the Sparks. Los Angeles drafted her No. 1 overall in 2012, and she won the 2016 title there. Her sister, Chiney Ogwumike, is also a free agent. In 2019, Chiney forced a trade to Los Angeles, where she also works as an analyst for ESPN.

Toliver, 35, has dealt with injuries and commitments to the Dallas Mavericks, with whom she’s an assistant coach. In her three years back in L.A., she has played 30 games. The two-time champion point guard said in August that she will play this season and hopes it’s with the Sparks.

Who else could make noise?

Tina Charles, 34, is a free agent again and still seeking that elusive championship ring. Liz Cambage, 31, announced that she was stepping away from the WNBA “for the time being” after the messy contract divorce with the Sparks. There’s always the chance that she attempts to return to the league, though it would be difficult, given the bridges she has burned.

Which teams have the most to do?

The Storm and the Sparks have the most wiggle room and the biggest holes to fill.

The Storm ($1,025,564 cap space) are already in rebuild mode after Sue Bird, who played nearly every season in franchise history, retired. They have only Jewell Loyd under contract and could be without Stewart. Gabby Williams, who is restricted, has also said she might leave the WNBA to continue playing overseas.

The Sparks do not have a starter remaining on their roster and will look to build around Ogwumike, should she choose to return. Brittney Sykes, a Defensive Player of the Year contender, is also an unrestricted free agent.

The Sky and head coach/general manager James Wade will again be busy this offseason. Their only returning starter is Kahleah Copper, who signed a core designation last offseason. The core of Parker, Vandersloot and Quigley signed last year in an attempt to run it back to another title, yet having everyone do so again seems improbable.

Excuse me, I read this entire article, and not once have the Aces been mentioned

That’s because the reigning champions are A-OK, super-duper dandy and fine. They’re better than fine; they’re carefree.

All five starters are under contract since the franchise has re-signed them throughout the seasons ahead of free agency. The Las Vegas franchise under Mark Davis is an example of providing players with a top-tier experience that makes them want to stay, even if they could make a little more elsewhere. It also helps that they’re title favorites.

The one concern would be if forward Dearica Hamby misses considerable time due to pregnancy. The Aces' bench was not a strong suit but head coach Becky Hammon can address that now with $128,804 in cap room that could be used on two contracts for players with 0-2 years. Three younger players and veteran Riquna Williams are also on unprotected contracts. The Aces have the very last pick in the three-round WNBA Draft in April. It is their only pick.

Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson hoists the 2022 WNBA championship trophy surrounded by her teammates. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson hoists the 2022 WNBA championship trophy surrounded by her teammates. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)