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Tracking the WNBA’s Breanna Stewart Sweepstakes

Sports Illustrated 9/28/2022 Ben Pickman
© Provided by Sports Illustrated

And four more burning offseason questions.

The 2022 WNBA season is somehow only a week in the rearview, and six Finals participants—A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, Chelsea Gray, Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones, plus Sun coach Curt Miller—have already transitioned into USA Basketball play and the ongoing FIBA World Cup taking place in Australia. But while members of the title-winning Aces and runner-up Sun are focused on international play, it’s never too early to start to think about how the W will look next spring. So here are five burning questions poised to shape the offseason and what’s to come.

What will Breanna Stewart do in free agency?

Stewart was sensational for the Storm in 2022, putting together one of the best seasons of her career. She averaged 21.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game, all while shooting 47.2% from the field. For her efforts, she finished second, to Wilson, in MVP voting and third in Defensive Player of the Year voting. She played a central role in Seattle pushing Las Vegas in the league semifinals.

With her team’s 3–1 playoff defeat, however, she immediately became the biggest free agent of the offseason. Last winter, Stewart re-signed with the Storm on a one-year deal, setting herself up to hit the unrestricted-free-agency market as the calendar turned to 2023. Before returning to the Storm last winter, Stewart, a native of Syracuse, N.Y., visited with Liberty brass—including team owners Joe and Clara Wu Tsai—as part of her process. In Stewart’s September exit interview, she said that free agency last year reminded her of the recruiting process in college, and helped her get a sense of what’s out there around the league.

“To be honest, I just don’t know,” she said of how she plans to approach this year’s offseason. “I know that I’m going to go to Australia; I’m going to play for [Fenerbahçe in Turkey] in January. And we’ll see what happens with the prioritization, which is a whole ’nother ball game.”

With Sue Bird having now officially retired, the Storm will already look differently next season, no matter what Stewart decides. In her exit interview, Stewart acknowledged that seeing how Bird has been received by the city could play a role in her thinking.

“Obviously understanding that Seattle has done a lot for me,” she said. “Just that appreciation, you can’t help but think about the way that Sue has been here her entire career, the way that the city … always has her back, and wanting that.”

Four-time All-Star Jewell Loyd remains under contract, and Stewart’s return would keep Seattle in title contention. But losing the star forward could dramatically reshape what next year’s team looks—and plays—like. In terms of suitors, the Liberty would have to undergo some roster gymnastics to sign Stewart, but adding a player of her caliber to franchise cornerstone Sabrina Ionescu, Betnijah Laney and Natasha Howard would no doubt boost the franchise’s title odds. Perhaps other teams will also emerge in the search to sign one of the league’s biggest stars.

How will the new prioritization rules impact free agency?

The word of the offseason will be prioritization, as starting next spring the WNBA will have a policy in place that will impact the dynamics between overseas and domestic play. In its simplest terms, beginning in 2023, it will become punitive to miss the start of WNBA training camp, and players beyond their third year in the W will be fined 1% of their base salary for each day missed. A player, with some exceptions like national-team obligations or being a rookie, second-year or third-year player, who will miss the start of the regular season due to such commitments will then be suspended for the entirety of the WNBA regular season. In ’24, players, again with exceptions, will be suspended the entire season if they are late for training camp.

Stewart, among other voices, acknowledged the policy is “one of the biggest disconnects between players and the WNBA Board of Governors”; it has potential to force players into deciding whether they want to compete in the WNBA or play on an overseas team that may pay them at a higher salary and has a schedule that stretches into the late spring. At the Finals, commissioner Cathy Engelbert was asked whether there was any consideration to relaxing the rule if it meant losing star players, and said, “The owners really stepped up on the compensation side for the players in this collective bargaining cycle, and I think the kind of quid pro quo for that was prioritization, showing up on time for our season. And quite frankly after 36 years of working in my working world, there wasn’t once where I wasn’t required to show up on time.”

She added the league, through financial incentives, is trying to “chip away at giving players a reason to stay home and a reason to prioritize the WNBA” and noted that younger players will not be impacted by the change. She hopes, however, for veterans to return and “build the chemistry needed for a championship culture.”

Still, Engelbert added, “We understand the players are going to make the best decision for them and their families. We see that time and time again.” Among the prominent players it could impact most are two-time All-Star forward Emma Meesseman and 2022 All-Defensive second team forward Gabby Williams, both of whom have had international play—whether for a national team or domestic club—keep them overseas during past WNBA seasons.

How will the coaching carousel play out?

There are currently three WNBA coaching vacancies that need to be filled. The Sparks are looking to hire a coach after dismissing Derek Fisher midseason. So, too, are the Fever, who let go of Hall of Fame coach Marianne Stanley in late May and elected not to retain interim coach Carlos Knox. Last week, the Wings announced they had opted not to exercise the team option in coach Vickie Johnson’s contract and said they would begin a search for their next coach immediately.

Expect a hire by the Fever in the near future, as general manager Lin Dunn said on a podcast shared on the team’s website last week that she thinks the team is “in a perfect position now to get someone on board by early October.” Dunn said that having a candidate with “significant” experience coaching WNBA players is one of the things she is targeting. She is also eyeing someone with high energy, because, she said, “We’re working from the bottom and we have to come straight up that long climb there.” Dallas’s next coach, meanwhile, will be tasked with figuring out how to draw the most out of a roster with plenty of talent—and that has made the postseason in consecutive seasons—but that hasn’t yet jelled perfectly together.

The Sparks’ future is the most uncertain of the group, with franchise stalwarts Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike set to become unrestricted free agents, and other key contributors like guards Brittney Sykes and Jordin Canada also free to sign elsewhere. The club is also searching for a general manager, considering Fisher held that position, too, only raising further questions about what’s next.

How will veteran teams like Chicago and Connecticut retool?

As the 2022 WNBA Finals was coming to its conclusion, Sun coach and general manager Curt Miller acknowledged the Sun of ’23 would look differently than the group he was currently coaching. “We know that each and every year your team rarely looks exactly the same,” Miller said in the middle of the series. “Our team is different than last year, was different from the year before and we know it will be different again.”

Part of that difference could come in its frontcourt, with All-Star center Brionna Jones set to become an unrestricted free agent. After the loss, Jones told Sports Illustrated she hadn’t thought about what the offseason could bring. “Because,” Jones said, “I have so many other things to do and think about before that point.” (Among them was flying to Australia to join Team USA in the World Cup.) Her ascension into one of the world’s best bigs came while having a fluctuating role on a Connecticut team with other star frontcourt players. But entering the offseason as one of the market’s biggest names, she has the potential to become a true future franchise centerpiece—perhaps in Minnesota as a replacement for Sylvia Fowles? Guards Courtney Williams and Natisha Hiedeman are also unrestricted free agents for the Sun. With a veteran roster that includes Jonquel Jones, Alyssa Thomas, Jasmine Thomas and DeWanna Bonner, Miller will have to show cap dexterity if he wants to keep the rotation that led him to the Finals.

The Sky also could look differently entering next season. Courtney Vandersloot is an unrestricted free agent, and, while she has spent her entire career up to this point with Chicago, she took meetings last offseason with the Storm and Lynx. Her route seems likely to impact the decision her wife, Sky guard Allie Quigley, who has not shied away from retirement talk—she turns 37 in June—but is also an unrestricted free agent. Star forward Candace Parker, who turns 37 in April, has also been open about this past season possibly having been her last, and she, too, could sign elsewhere. Add in Meesseman and Azurá Stevens also hitting the open market, and the Sky team that finished this past season tied with Las Vegas for the league’s best record could change dramatically next spring.

What’s the latest with Brittney Griner?

More so than basketball, as WNBA players embark in overseas leagues, the situation involving the Mercury center remains at the forefront of players’ minds. “Just constantly thinking about her. Not a day goes by when I’m not thinking about BG,” A’ja Wilson said at the Finals. “There’s always different ways that I think about BG. It’ll be random thoughts because that’s how lively she is.”

Added Cheryl Reeve, the Lynx’ coach and general manager, who is currently helming Team USA in the World Cup: “She really has [been a stalwart of USA Basketball], and that’s something our players have dealt with the entirety of the season. She’s on our minds daily, and we'll honor her. No one will wear 15. So just finding ways to continue to make sure she knows that she’s being thought of and our players are thinking of her daily.”

On Sept. 16, President Joe Biden met with Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, at the Oval Office in an effort to reassure her that he is working to gain the WNBA star’s release. He did so on the same day he met Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who is also currently detained in Russia.

Biden “appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Brittney and Paul from those who love them most, and acknowledged that every minute they are being held is a minute too long,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement. The meetings, Jean-Pierre continued, came “after earlier meetings and conversations that the President, his national security team, and the State Department have held with the Whelan and Griner families to keep them updated on efforts to secure the release of their loved ones as quickly as possible.”

Cherelle, in a statement, thanked Biden for taking time to meet with him and discuss her wife and for the administration’s “efforts to secure [Brittney’s] release. I’ve felt every minute of the grueling seven months without her,” Cherelle wrote. “I look forward to the day my wife is back home.”

In early August, Griner was found guilty of drug-smuggling charges and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony by a Russian court. The judge also issued a fine of 1 million rubles, which is roughly $16,300. On Aug. 15, her attorneys appealed her conviction, but as of mid-September, they said they were still awaiting a date for when the hearings would start.

Griner has been detained since Feb. 17 after being arrested at an airport outside of Moscow, having been accused of carrying vape cartridges with hashish oil in her luggage. It is expected that her eventual return will come via a prisoner swap with Viktor Bout, an incarcerated Russian arms dealer.

Alexander Darchiev, the director of the North American department at the Russian Foreign Ministry, confirmed in August to Russia’s TASS state news agency, it is seeking Bout’s release.

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