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Previewing the Mystics as they enter the WNBA free agency period

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Here's how WNBA free agency works, and what we can expect overall. We also look at Mystics players who could find future homes this summer, and of course, players who they may want to target.

Stewart W. Small

The WNBA's free agency period officially started on Friday, January 15. Teams' front offices will be able to communicate directly with free agents but contract signings will not be announced until at least February 1.

The league has listed every cored player and category of free agent on its website which you can access here.

But for Bullets Forever purposes, we'll focus on everything from a Mystics-only lens and will only highlight free agents who the Mystics are either likely to be interested in or to highlight a point, generally to highlight an NBA-WNBA similarity.

Cored Players: The WNBA's equivalent of the NFL franchise player tag

Each WNBA team has the right to core one player who would otherwise be an unrestricted free agent. The core player rule allows a team to keep a key player on their team, similar to what the NFL does with the franchise tag in their free agency.

In exchange, a cored player will receive a maximum level salary. A player may not be considered a "core player" for more than four years in her career. Four teams have cored a player, and they are below.

Player POS 2015 Team
DeWanna Bonner SF/SG/PF Mercury
Sylvia Fowles C Lynx
Crystal Langhorne PF Storm
Candace Parker PF/C/SF Sparks

The Mystics have not cored a player for the 2016 season. The last time they did so was in 2012 with Monique Currie.

This is the one section where I will talk about each player, why she's cored and whether the Mystics would want her given their current situation if that player were an unrestricted free agent.

DeWanna Bonner

Is Bonner a superstar? No

Why is she cored? Bonner has played a vital role for the Mercury's 2014 championship team. She was also the team's leading scorer in 2015 and a number of teams would love to have a player who can be a mismatch nightmare at three different positions from the 2 through 4.

If she were a free agent, would the Mystics want Bonner? Yes. She's not as talented in the WNBA as he is in the NBA, but I see a lot of similarities between her and Kevin Durant. Both players are tall for wing players, both are quick players on the court, and both are able to score in a wide variety of ways, both inside and outside.

She's not as efficient as Durant is of course. But Bonner would be a clear upgrade at small forward over Tierra Ruffin-Pratt whose ceiling probably isn't even as high as Bonner now and in the next few years.

Sylvia Fowles

Is Fowles a superstar? Yes, because she played for two Olympic teams in 2008 and 2012. But she's not a superstar at the level of a Candace Parker or Elena Delle Donne.

Why is she cored? The Lynx traded for Fowles from the Chicago Sky and won a championship with her last season. Yes, the Lynx are aging, but Fowles still has plenty left in the tank at the age of 30.

If she were a free agent, would the Mystics want Fowles? No. They may not be superstars, but the development of All-Star posts Emma Meesseman and Stefanie Dolson is essential for their future success. Fowles would all but relegate one of them to the bench, and that's going to be counterproductive for their chemistry over the next several seasons.

Crystal Langhorne

Is Langhorne a superstar? No.

Why is she cored? The Storm doesn't have any decent post player on their roster besides second-year center Ramu Tokashiki. There will be teams that could use an additional rebounder on their team. As a two-time WNBA All-Star, Langhorne can fill that role very well for any team she plays for.

If she were a free agent, would the Mystics want Langhorne? No for the same reason as Fowles. Also, Langhorne is a former Mystics player who did play one season for GM and Head Coach Mike Thibault. She was traded away from Washington in 2014 in part so Meesseman can grow into who she is (and could be) down the road.

Candace Parker

Is Parker a superstar? Yes! I've never heard of a two-time MVP not being a superstar. Have you?

Why is she cored? She is the Sparks' franchise player. There's just no way that they're letting her test free agency until they absolutely have to.

If she were a free agent, would the Mystics want Parker? Yes. Parker still has years left in her prime, and she can play small forward given her ability to handle and pass the ball.

(* * *)

In short, these four players -- if unrestricted free agents -- would garner interest from many teams. The Mystics may not want Fowles or Langhorne, but certainly other teams will.

If they were to sign elsewhere, their old teams would either have lost their franchise star or not have other suitable options at their position.

Unrestricted free agents: Kara Lawson is free to sign elsewhere if she wants.

Like their NBA counterparts, WNBA unrestricted free agents are free to signs anywhere they want. Let's focus first on the Mystics' unrestricted free agents and then go to players on other teams.

Two players -- Kara Lawson and Armintie Herrington -- are free to go wherever they want. But since Herrington has already announced her retirement, Lawson is the only player who may actually sign elsewhere.

Lawson averaged 9.6 points in 22 games for Washington last season. Her hypothetical departure will put more pressure on Tayler Hill and Bria Hartley to pick up the slack.

If Lawson is willing to be a veteran bench player, I would love to see a player like her back. However, if Lawson wants to win another WNBA title sooner rather than later, she should sign elsewhere and take a smaller role like what David West did when he signed with the Spurs last summer.

Some unrestricted free agents the Mystics could look at

The unrestricted free agent market is generally a place for teams to acquire veteran depth in the rotation, or maybe a fourth or fifth option on the starting lineup. Because of the aforementioned core player rule, you just don't see superstars in their prime on the open market like you do in the NBA.

With that in mind, here are some players who could be a nice veteran addition for the Mystics, NOT whether it's realistic for that player to sign with Washington.

Sue Bird, G, Storm - Bird is the most accomplished player on the list, so it's worth mentioning her because of that alone.

Over the last 14 years, Bird has been part of three Olympic and four FIBA World Championship teams. She also won two WNBA titles with the Storm in 2004 and 2010. If the 35-year-old Bird were three or four years younger, she'd easily be the Kevin Durant of free agency.

She still has a year or two left in the tank and could be a Paul Pierce-like player for any team in the league. The Mystics can certainly use a "Paul Pierce" for sure. If Bird were really thinking about leaving Seattle and has the mindset that Pierce did in the summer of 2014, the Mystics do become an attractive team for her.

But Storm GM Alisha Valavanis has done an outstanding job anticipating what role Bird would play toward the end of her career. Over the past year, Valavanis has put in a young core in Seattle around her, with players who include 2015 #1 overall draft pick, Jewell Loyd; #3 overall pick Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis; and the aforementioned Ramu Tokashiki. Since the Storm has the #1 pick in the 2016 Draft, she'll get to mentor Breanna Stewart too.

TL;dr: Sue Bird is the Storm's "Paul Pierce." Therefore, let's not be silly. It's just not realistic to see her leave Seattle given what they're building in the Emerald City.

Maybe, just maybe, I'll hear Bird yell "That's I stayed here!" instead of "That's why I came here!" when Seattle wins a big game because of a clutch shot she makes this summer and/or next.

Essence Carson, G/F, Liberty - Carson is a former WNBA All-Star who could add some more depth to the Mystics' wing rotation. She scored 6.1 ppg in 33 games (12 starts) in 2015, and could be open to a change of scenery after playing her entire career with New York.

Swin Cash, F, Liberty - Cash is a four-time WNBA All-Star, three-time league champion, and two-time Olympian. She's 36 and close to the end of her career, but she can still play well in limited minutes and provide mentorship to the Mystics' young core.

Asjha Jones, F, Lynx - Jones is a multi-time All-Star power forward and can provide an additional boost off the bench. Jones was a member of the 2012 Team USA Olympic team that won the Gold Medal. Jones also played for the Mystics in 2002 and 2003 before playing for Thibault and the Connecticut Sun from 2004-2012.

Now that she has a WNBA championship after playing with the Lynx, I think Jones could be someone the Mystics can go after -- and she may think about it. In addition, the Lynx will look to get younger and the 35-year-old Jones doesn't help them in that respect.

Restricted free agents: Signing a player (and hoping her old team didn't see that you did)

Like the NBA, WNBA restricted free agents are able to sign an offer sheet with any team they want. However, the team who holds their rights can match it.

First round draft picks with four years of playing experience will enter restricted free agency. That group includes most of the first round picks from the 2012 WNBA Draft. The Mystics' only restricted free agent is LaToya Sanders.

The 2012 WNBA Draft: A weak class that brings out many bad memories for Mystics fans

The 2012 WNBA Draft class has been generally regarded as weak. In fact, many first-round picks from that year aren't in the league anymore.

Unfortunately, two of those picks were made by the Mystics in the pre-Thibault Era. In fact, this article from WNBA.com haunts me to this day. Here was the positive analysis of the two first round picks -- Natalie Novosel (eighth) and LaSondra Barrett (10th) -- they had on Draft Day:

The Mystics wanted a wing that could shoot from the outside and a big that could stretch the floor. That is exactly what they got in the first round. First they selected sharpshooter Natalie Novosel who shot 41 percent from 3-point range as a senior. She is an efficient scorer that will extend defenses to give Crystal Langhorne more room in the post.

The addition of LaSondra Barrett gives the Mystics a versatile big that can stretch the floor and play multiple positions. The 6-foot-2 forward played all five positions her senior year and hit 39 percent of her 3-point attempts, but also pulled down 7.1 rebounds per game. Translation: [then GM and Head Coach] Trudi Lacey’s offense just got a lot more dynamic.

From reading that assessment, you'd be thinking that the Mystics would be a pace-and-space team like the 2015-16 Wizards are, or are at least trying to be. But you're wrong.

The Mystics were the third slowest paced team that year, had the league's worst offensive rating and were pathetic from three-point range as well. Also, both of their 2012 draft picks quickly became a distant memory.

Here's what ended up happening with them in a 5-29 season.

Novosel played sparingly (though she was a decent shooter) despite the fact that the Mystics sucked that season. Even if she wasn't a WNBA-caliber player, Novosel should have been given a chance to play more meaningful minutes in a season when almost everyone knew that it would be doomed from the start. Novosel was waived before 2013 when Thibault began his first season.

Barrett, on the other hand, didn't make it past training camp. David Siegel of HoopFeed.com tweeted this out when the Mystics announced that she was cut:

I don't know if Siegel wrote this in a sarcastic way or if he meant to say that life's tough for WNBA draft picks. But my reaction, either way, is the same.

Welp.

The Mystics weren't the only team that drafted first-rounders who had some bizarre "riches to rags" scenarios. Samantha Prahalis is the poster child of that.

Prahalis, a point guard out of Ohio State, was drafted sixth overall by the Phoenix Mercury and made the All-Rookie team. I was impressed with Prahalis when she single-handedly beat the Mystics -- AGAIN IN PRE-THIBAULT ERA SO I'M NOT BASHING THE MYSTICS OF TODAY -- on June 20, 2012, with some crazy highlight moves:

(via Sandra Sánchez's YouTube channel)

But Prahalis fell out of favor with Phoenix the following season and was cut quickly. Bright Side of the Sun's Kris Habbas has a good take on how bizarre it was.

Since then, Prahalis had a couple of stints or training camp shots with other WNBA teams later in 2013 and 2014, but she wasn't invited to any team's training camp in 2015. Unfortunately for her, it looks like she's probably not getting a training camp shot anytime soon since four teams, including Phoenix, gave her a shot, and she didn't stick.

Well, let's get to the players who do have four years of playing experience.

Most of the best players in the 2012 draft class are still restricted free agents

It's not fair to say that the whole 2012 WNBA Draft class was weak. It has still yielded two All-Stars.

Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, the first pick in the 2012 WNBA Draft, a multi-time WNBA All-Star, and a member of the 2014 FIBA World Championship team is a restricted free agent. She's happy with the Sparks, yet she still has no second deal. The same goes for Dallas Wings forward Glory Johnson, the fourth pick in that Draft. She quickly emerged into a multi-time All-Star in 2013 and 2014 when her team was the Tulsa Shock.

If this were the NBA; people would be wondering if she's about to demand a trade. Really, it would be true. After all, John Wall signed his sophomore extension before his fourth season began. Bradley Beal doesn't have a sophomore extension yet, but that's because of the possibility of signing other NBA free agents. It's not because "they don't want him."

So what's up with the Sparks and Ogwumike or the Wings and Johnson?

Answer: There's no rush.

With contracts being very low-priced in the WNBA, teams with superstars like Ogwumike will do whatever it takes to keep them when it's possible. Let's just say that Ogwumike does sign an offer sheet with the Mystics, do you think the Sparks are going to let her walk for nothing? Hell no! They're matching it.

In short, when you're a WNBA star player who's about to hit restricted free agency, you know that it's going to be very, very hard to go anywhere else: harder than the NBA for sure. Therefore, the players who have the most options to leave are your average-level players. It's not that different from the NBA of course, but when you're a star in the WNBA, it's just that much harder to leave your current team.

Let's now go through some restricted free agents who the Mystics may have a shot at signing AND keeping:

LaToya Sanders, F, Mystics - Let's start with the Mystics' lone restricted free agent.

Sanders was a midseason addition in 2015 though Washington held her rights since 2012 in a trade with the Los Angeles Sparks. She averaged 2.1 blocks per game and was a fierce rebounding presence for them (11.4 rebounds per 36 minutes).

Sanders, who holds Turkish citizenship and plays for their national team, is also the leading scorer for her international team, Abdullah Gul University Kayseri of the KBSL and the FIBA EuroLeague.

I'm thinking that Sanders will want a starting role if she plays in the WNBA next summer. It just isn't happening in Washington as long as Meesseman and Dolson are there. I think there's a good chance she will sign an offer sheet with another WNBA team.

Should the Mystics match an offer sheet for her? Absolutely. This isn't so they can hold her captive in Washington. Rather, it's so they could sign and trade her if she is set on playing for another team.

Shekinna Stricklen, F/G, Sun - Stricklen was the second pick in the 2012 Draft, where she played for the Seattle Storm for two seasons and later on for Connecticut. Stricklen averaged nearly 8 points a game in 2015.

In Washington, Stricklen would have an excellent chance to be a starter and play alongside another young team. In Connecticut, it will be harder for her to have that role when Alyssa Thomas is also there. I could realistically see Stricklen leave Connecticut this Summer, but it may also have to be through a sign-and-trade type situation.

Devereaux Peters, F, Lynx - Peters was the third pick in the 2012 Draft and would have played for the Mystics if they didn't trade for now-former WNBA player Nicky Anosike the previous year. In four years, she has been a bench player for Minnesota.

I think that the Lynx will match an offer sheet because of their need to go younger. But the Lynx are also trying to win as many championships as they can before their current older veteran core of Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, and Sylvia Fowles just can't dominate like they used to. They may very well let her sign somewhere else to sign another veteran for that "one last shot" at the title or at least do a sign-and-trade.

Reserved players: What are they?

You may see a term in the free agent list that is unfamiliar to NBA fans. It's called "reserved players." These players signed with a WNBA team as rookies but have three or fewer years of service. If her team from the previous year offers a qualifying offer to her between January 1 and January 14, she can no longer negotiate with any team except her previous one. Teams can withdraw them by February 15.

Veteran free agents with three or fewer years of experience and don't have a qualifying offer become unrestricted free agents on February 1.

The Mystics have no reserved players for 2016. But last season, Ruffin-Pratt was a reserved player because she first signed with the Mystics as an undrafted free agent after her first contract expired.

Of the reserved players on the list, the most notable players include Sparks forward Farhiya Abdi, Lynx guard Anna Cruz, Sparks guard Ana Dabovic, and Storm center Ramu Tokashiki. I don't think their old teams will rescind any of their qualifying offers, so they'll stay where they were.

Final Takeaways and what to expect in WNBA Free Agency

For most teams, don't expect much change at the top. I don't expect the Mystics to change much either. The Mystics have built heavily through the draft over the last several seasons and should continue to do so.

However, free agency is a way to bring in a new voice into the locker room as well. My personal hope is that Thibault can find a veteran -- YES, I SAID VETERAN -- who can mentor their young core since they are now becoming seasoned veterans themselves.