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Tayler Hill, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, and Leilani Mitchell enter WNBA free agency

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WNBA free agency officially started earlier this week, though signings and trades will come next month. We give a quick overview here.

hill vs lynx Stewart W. Small

Editor’s Note on January 26, 2017 - The Atlanta Dream and Connecticut Sun announced a trade today, so deals can happen now.

The WNBA’s free agency period officially started last Sunday. Teams are now allowed to negotiate with other teams, but deals generally don’t become official until around February.

Which Mystics players are in free agency?

Tayler Hill and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt are restricted free agents after completing their rookie contracts over the last four years (2013-2016). They can negotiate an offer sheet with players, but the Mystics have the right to match.

Emma Meesseman was also a rookie in 2013, but she signed a maximum level contract extension last year before she could hit restricted free agency. Contract extensions like Meesseman’s are rare because Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne, the top two picks of the 2013 Draft, are restricted free agents.

Leilani Mitchell, who was a post-Olympic break addition in 2016, is an unrestricted free agent and can sign for any team she wants.

What are the main differences between WNBA Free Agency from NBA Free Agency?

There are three main differences between the WNBA and NBA in regard to free agency.

The WNBA has a core player designation

WNBA teams can “core” a player who would otherwise be an unrestricted free agent. That prevents the player from negotiating with any other team except the team that cored her. In return, the core player is guaranteed a maximum level salary for at least one year.

According to Women’s Basketball 24/7, these players are cored for 2017:

  • DeWanna Bonner (Phoenix Mercury)
  • Crystal Langhorne (Seattle Storm)
  • Camille Little (Connecticut Sun)
  • Angel McCoughtry (Atlanta Dream)
  • Tanisha Wright (New York Liberty)

The Mystics have not cored anyone since Monique Currie in the 2011-12 offseason.

The most coveted unrestricted free agents are typically complementary pieces on a championship team

The purpose of the core player designation is to keep superstars playing for the same franchise. That rule has worked since most WNBA superstars have played for just one franchise in the past, like Candace Parker for the Sparks and Tamika Catchings for the Fever. Therefore, superstars generally have to stay with one team until the end of their primes.

The unrestricted free agent market therefore ends up being the best players who weren’t cored. And they may include superstar players who are past their prime and cannot be cored anymore. This year’s top unrestricted free agents include Kristi Toliver who played for the Sparks last season, and Mitchell. The better frontcourt players include Erlana Larkins who played for the Fever and Plenette Pierson who played for the Wings.

Big market size isn’t necessarily an attraction

The Los Angeles Sparks won the 2016 WNBA Finals and are in the second largest market in the WNBA. But this league doesn’t have the mega money deals the NBA and the other Big Four sports leagues have.

In the WNBA, the destination teams have a combination of superstar talent, committed ownership, and a passionate fanbase. It’s not an accident that the Minnesota Lynx, Phoenix Mercury, and Seattle Storm have been popular with free agents despite being in markets smaller than New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington over the past several years.

What are the big storylines in WNBA free agency this year?

This offseason, the normal rules surrounding player movement may not apply. That’s good news for fans because there wasn’t enough to begin with.

We covered one of the storylines which is Mystics related. Elena Delle Donne wants to play for another team, and one closer to her home in Delaware. The Mystics are the closest team to Delaware and have a young core who can grow with her. But the New York Liberty isn’t far either, and they have more talent to offer the Sky than the Mystics in a potential trade. Delle Donne is a restricted free agent so the Sky has the right to match any offer sheet, but Delle Donne apparently will sit out the season to get what she wants.

The other storyline surrounds Angel McCoughtry. The Dream cored her, but that decision may not be so Atlanta can “hold her hostage.” According to Swish Appeal, the Dream is trying to come up with a trade with the Dallas Wings that would also involve Odyssey Sims and their third overall draft pick. In addition, McCoughtry will sit out at least part of the 2017 season. Though rest from year round play is partly why, it could also be a negotiating tactic if she does want out of Atlanta.

Besides the Delle Donne news, what are the Mystics’ questions heading into free agency and trade season?

Here are the two main things to keep an eye on:

  1. How many of the Mystics’ guards and wings will they keep? The Mystics have drafted a significant number of guards during the Mike Thibault Era. Tayler Hill (who’s a restricted free agent), Bria Hartley, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Natasha Cloud, and Kahleah Copper are draft picks. Finally, veteran sharpshooter Ivory Latta is still on the books for 2017. With the exception of Hill, no young guard has stood out significantly from the pack. I don’t see Washington keeping ALL of these players long term.
  2. Can Washington convince a quality seasoned veteran free agent to sign with them? Last season, the Mystics made no trades. They also didn’t (or couldn’t) sign any unrestricted free agents until Mitchell during the Olympic Break. The Mystics still have a young core, but they haven’t experienced significant WNBA Playoff success. In fact, no one on the roster has. The Wizards were able to get Paul Pierce for one year in 2014-15 where he made a positive impact. The unrestricted free agent list doesn’t have a “Piercesque” player, but if they can get someone like Plenette Pierson, she could be a good addition.