WNBA free agency 2024 predictions and biggest storylines

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Superteams dominated last year's WNBA free agency period and then became the buzzword for the entire 2023 season. With stars like Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot going to the New York Liberty and Candace Parker to the Las Vegas Aces, those squads were in the spotlight right until the last day of the season, when the Aces beat the Liberty for the WNBA championship.

This year's free agency presents some other intrigue. Free agents such as Stewart and Jonquel Jones (both with the Liberty) and Brittney Griner (Phoenix Mercury) are expected to stay put. But what about Skylar Diggins-Smith, whose tenure with the Mercury went sour last year?

Will former MVPs Parker and Elena Delle Donne (Washington Mystics) stay put, find new homes or possibly not play?

Could we see players who've been "fixtures" for their franchises -- such as the Los Angeles Sparks' Nneka Ogwumike and Mystics' Natasha Cloud -- leave the only WNBA teams for which they have played? And could there be a free agent "gem" out there who might not get a lot of attention but could be a key missing player for the team who signs her?

Sunday marked the first day players and teams could begin negotiating, and contract offers can be made official starting Feb. 1. ESPN's Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and Michael Voepel take a look at the free agent landscape and the buzz around potential big moves.

Let's start with Diggins-Smith: Where are we likely to see her this season?

Voepel: Diggins-Smith turns 34 in August and this will be her 10th WNBA season. She didn't play in 2023 while on maternity leave, but she is known as an intensely hard worker in terms of getting in great playing shape. The older you are, the more questions come about maintaining your effectiveness. Diggins-Smith gets the benefit of the doubt here from me. The issue is fit, both for her and the team that signs her.

We don't need to relitigate the issues between her and former Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard; ultimately Nygaard's hiring didn't work. Diggins-Smith needs a coach she respects and a situation where she believes she is valued. To that end, perhaps the Chicago Sky (with Teresa Weatherspoon as new coach) or Atlanta Dream (with Tanisha Wright) would work.

Pelton: I think the Sky make the most sense for Diggins-Smith, who starred not far from Chicago at Notre Dame. With Courtney Williams an unrestricted free agent, point guard is a need for the Sky, who will be motivated to win now because the Dallas Wings can swap picks with them in the 2025 draft. Despite the presence of Kahleah Copper, Chicago is also still down on star wattage after losing Candace Parker and franchise stalwarts Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot last offseason.

Philippou: If not those two destinations, perhaps Diggins-Smith ends up with the Seattle Storm. They could use a point guard and it would mark a reunion with former Notre Dame teammate Jewell Loyd. And Noelle Quinn is a former player who might be able to gain Diggins-Smith's trust. That said, the Storm could opt to try for a reunion with Jordin Canada, whom ESPN's Andraya Carter reported is likely on the move from Los Angeles.

Will Delle Donne be in a new uniform in 2024?

Pelton: At the risk of going Magic 8 Ball, all signs point to yes. Much like the Sparks with Canada, it appears the Mystics making Delle Donne their core player was more about assuring they get something in return rather than keeping her in the DMV. Khristina Williams reported this week that the Mercury have shown interest and Washington is seeking draft picks in return for the star who led the Mystics to their only title in 2019.

Voepel: Rumblings of Delle Donne's discontent with some Mystics decisions and the franchise's direction have existed for a while. Considering she is 34 and has dealt with the impact of illness and injuries her whole career, there is always some concern of, "Will she keep playing?" Delle Donne is a two-time MVP, has a league championship and an Olympic gold medal. At this point, her Hall of Fame credentials are already in place. Is her biggest priority trying to win another title? If so, then I think she has more in the tank.

Which other players are you most closely watching?

Philippou: Tuesday's news that Jonquel Jones is expected to return to New York was one of the biggest things I was watching. It looks like Brionna Jones is likely to return to the Connecticut Sun after being cored, and it would be tough to imagine DeWanna Bonner not playing with the Sun, either.

Could Nneka Ogwumike take the plunge and play somewhere besides L.A. for the first time in her pro career? And there's still a big question mark surrounding Candace Parker's health and whether we've seen the last of her on the court. Satou Sabally is one of the most talented players not under contract, but as a restricted free agent for Dallas, I'd expect them to do whatever possible to ensure she returns for them.

Voepel: Last season was important for two of the Sky's free agents. Courtney Williams showed she could be an elite playmaker in the point guard role, and forward Alanna Smith showed she had the talent and drive to be an effective starter. They might not be the "headliners" among the free agents, but both could make an impact in Chicago or somewhere else this season.

Pelton: I'm fascinated to see where Canada lands if there is a sign-and-trade deal for her as a core player. A year ago, she re-signed for the veteran minimum of $74,305. Now, her runner-up finish for Most Improved Player and the number of teams in need of point guards has her in line to potentially make the supermax of $241,984. After Diggins-Smith, Canada might be the second choice for those teams because she's in her prime at age 28.

Which teams have the most work to do in free agency?

Voepel: The Sparks, who according to Her Hoops Stats have $759,799 available in cap room, have a lot to figure out. They cored Canada, but as reported by Carter, Canada is seeking a sign-and-trade. Los Angeles, which has missed the playoffs three seasons in a row, is in the midst of a franchise "refresh." That includes Curt Miller taking over as coach last season and Raegan Pebley recently assuming the GM role. Ogwumike has been the franchise's pillar since 2012, and has shown remarkable loyalty to the Sparks. But is there a chance she might be ready for a change?

Pelton: The Mercury. We're two years removed from Phoenix building a superteam by adding Tina Charles to the core that reached the 2021 Finals, but Brittney Griner's wrongful detention scuttled those plans. Since then, it's been nothing but drama for the Mercury between Charles' midseason departure and Diggins-Smith's messy split with the organization. Now Phoenix has new management and remains a draw for stars like Delle Donne, presenting another opportunity to build a contending roster before Diana Taurasi heads off into retirement.

Philippou: I'm fascinated to see what comes of the Mystics. Delle Donne was noncommittal about staying in D.C. at the end of the 2023 season. With point guard Natasha Cloud also a free agent, is it possible the franchise enters an entirely new era, parting ways with two key players of the core who helped them win a championship in 2019? If so, how the Mystics set themselves for the future, whether through free agency or future drafts, will be interesting to watch.

What's your bold prediction for free agency?

Pelton: Ogwumike leaves the Sparks after 12 seasons in L.A.

Philippou: Ariel Atkins will be the sole remaining core piece in D.C. from the Mystics' 2019 championship squad.

Voepel: Somehow ... the Aces find a way to add Delle Donne in the quest for a three-peat.

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