2021 Free Agency Rankings, Part One

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Winsidr has decided to rank the 2021 free agent class. Today, we present free agents 11 through 20. Next week, we’ll present the top ten. For more around-the-clock coverage of the WNBA, please consider joining our illustrious group of Patreon subscribers!

Last offseason, a flurry of player movement had fans awaiting the 2020 WNBA campaign with bated breath. Trades abounded, free agents inked new deals, and the overall sentiment was a jolly one. 

Anticipation surrounding trades and signings – that fervent impulse to keep refreshing Twitter in the dregs of February, hoping yet another star has been pried from their current situation, this time landing in the lap of your favorite team – begets league wide success. Player movement is a boon for the W. Buzz, namely around-the-calendar buzz, spurs growth. 

It’s unlikely this offseason will feature the considerable number of big-name trades that occurred in 2020. All 12 teams have feasible playoff hopes. There isn’t an obvious, “Skylar Diggins-Smith for a bevy of assets” swap on the proverbial table. 

Fear not, because the 2021 free agent class is loaded with talent. What do the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year, the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, and the 2020 Defensive Player of the Playoffs have in common? They await fresh WNBA contracts. 

Perhaps the majority of free agents will stay put, signing extensions with their current clubs. Perhaps overall malaise will generate chaos, stars fleeing to greener pastures and once again shaking up the makeup of the league. 

Either way, few offseason exercises are as fun as ranking the free agents. Fans get to lace up their general manager boots and tinker with rosters, fantasizing about which of the available players would elevate their ballclub to the next level. Or maybe you just like arguing. I’m fairly proficient in that area, myself. 

We’re all about fun here at Winsidr, so it’s time to unveil our way-too-early 2021 Free Agency Rankings. The official, league-issued list of available free agents won’t drop until the ghastly year known as 2020 is in the rearview. Luckily, the fine folks at Her Hoop Stats compiled a working list of 2021 free agents, which we will use here for reference. Restricted free agents have not been included in our list and will be discussed at a later date. 

I didn’t create too many parameters for myself before generating these rankings. In many ways, this is simply an excuse to consider and celebrate the abundance of great basketball players this league has to offer. The goal isn’t to predict where each free agent will land, but instead to highlight what each free agent brings to the table. Reader, I’ll leave the prognostication in your capable hands. 

Future value is all that matters here, so age is a factor. Players hitting the market entering their prime are more attractive to potential suitors than players in their thirties. That said, WNBA contracts aren’t known for their length. If a player in their mid-thirties is still performing at peak levels without any imminent signs of a drop-off, that matters, too. Positional scarcity was also taken into consideration. A two-way stretch big or a capable point guard will be prioritized over player prototypes in lesser demand. 

Lastly, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi have been excluded from this list. They are free agents in technicality only. Bird is staying with the Storm. Taurasi is staying with the Mercury. Those two likely receive more media coverage than the rest of the free agents combined. I’ve seen enough “GOATchat” to last ten Bill Laimbeer haircut cycles. This is my list. Deal with it.  

Before we begin, a shout out to those who just missed the cut:

Seimone Augustus, Jessica Breland, Essence Carson, Karima Christmas-Kelly, Sydney Colson, Bria Holmes, Glory Johnson, Shenise Johnson, Alexis Jones, Jantel Lavender, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Danielle Robinson, Kia Vaughn

Without further ado, the list!

  1. Candice Dupree

Dupree has played 15 WNBA seasons and averaged over 10 points per game 15 times. She is to the mid-range as Santa Claus is to the North Pole. Barring injury, Dupree will pass Cappie Pondexter for 4th on the all-time scoring list in 2021. 

Can we stop and appreciate Dupree’s 2010 campaign for a hot second? 15.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 66.4 field goal percentage(!), 93.6 percent from the free throw line, and nearly a steal and a block per game. A decade later, Dupree continues to collect buckets like ScHoolboy Q at a hat convention. Plenty of teams would love to have her coming off their bench. 

Why is a future Hall-of-Famer stuck at the bottom of this list? Firstly, the list is stacked, as will soon become apparent. Secondly, Dupree is 36. Defensively she’s lost a step. Save for a one-year aberration in 2009, attempts to stretch Dupree’s range beyond the three-point line have failed. 

A bench scorer who owns the mid-range and remains sturdy in big moments provides plenty of value. Could Dupree start on a playoff team in 2021, though? Unlikely. Both Dupree and Augustus still have gas left in the tank, and will be useful pieces in the coming season. But no longer are they capable of swinging the title pendulum by their lonesome. 

 

  1. Tianna Hawkins

How do we judge the Wubble season in the grand context of one’s entire career? Should Hawkins be penalized for a drop-off in efficiency when a) she took on four extra minutes per game, b) she logged her 17 game sample in the middle of a global pandemic, and c) she battled nagging injuries throughout the season? I say no. 

Hawkins forms a natural fit on a number of rosters. She shot over 35 percent from deep on decent volume in 2018 and 2019. Stretch 4s and 5s are always in demand. Frontcourt depth is paramount come playoff time. Hawkins doesn’t project as a starter, but backup forwards who can shoot and have big-game experience are difference makers. Hawkins fits the mold. 

Potential suitors should be focusing on Hawkins’ 2019 as an outline for what she could provide in 2021. In just over 15 minutes per game for the historically efficient Washington Mystics, Hawkins averaged nearly 10 points on sterling 51/36/92 shooting splits. All this while shouldering the highest usage percentage of her career by a considerable margin! If the Las Vegas Aces had Hawkins in place of Carolyn Swords this past season, would their fate have been different? 

 

  1. Natalie Achonwa

I’ll start where everyone starts when discussing Natalie Achonwa: this is the type of person you want in your locker room. Soon to turn 28, Achonwa is already viewed as one of the best leaders in the WNBA. Throughout the 2020 season, Indiana Fever head coach Marianne Stanley continually sung the praises of Achonwa, highlighting both her leadership on the court and her vocality off it. Young players can soak up a ton from Achonwa even if she’s only a few years their senior. 

As for her ability to hoop, Achonwa is as reliable as they come. You know what you’re getting. Solid screen setting doesn’t show up in the boxscore (nice cliché, man). Strong post defense that doesn’t produce a block often goes unmentioned. Achonwa provides that “in-between the margins” type of value that is hard to quantify. 

 

Watch how sharply Achonwa slips this screen, completely fooling Breanna Stewart and creating enough separation for a straightforward layup. That requires feel and a precise sense of timing. 

Every team would be lucky to have Achonwa, and GMs won’t have to break the bank to sign her. Has six years as a member of the Fever organization built up enough goodwill for an extension? Time will tell. 

 

  1. Tina Charles

Charles was the hardest member of the top 20 to rank. She’ll be 32 the next time she participates in a WNBA game. She received a medical exemption for 2020 and logged the worst season of her career in 2019 on a hapless New York Liberty squad. Her efficiency fell off a cliff, plummeting below 40 percent from the field for the first time in her career. 

My worry lays less with Charles’ offensive game and more on the other end. Voted First Team All-Defense in 2017, Charles lost a step (or two) the following season. She slipped from a net-positive on defense to a net-negative almost instantly. In 2019, she was even worse. The WNBA has become rife with quick, skilled bigs capable of operating on the perimeter. Playing Charles in some matchups is self-destruction. 

If Charles can’t return to her pre-2019 offensive levels of production, teams would be better suited targeting cheaper frontcourt options. Charles is a big name. She retained decent trade value following her arduous 2019 season as Washington acquired her in February for an accompaniment of picks. (Sidenote: FEBRUARY?? THAT HAPPENED THIS FEBRUARY??? Sigh.) Someone will pay her. 

Will we ever get the Charles – Mike Thibault reunion, or will the Mystics cut their losses and move on before Charles has a chance to suit up for the team? To me, the emergence of Myisha Hines-Allen renders Charles expendable. The shrewd move here is to allocate the $175,000 Charles commanded in 2020 on shooting and defense. There is no need to tinker with a frontcourt featuring Elena Delle Donne, Hines-Allen, and Emma Meesseman (another 2021 free agent). 

There’s an argument to be made that this ranking is too high. But Charles is a former star and deserves the benefit of the doubt. 

 

  1. Riquna Williams

The Microwave. An apt nickname for a player who heats up in a jiffy. Winsidr’s exceptional Sparks reporter, John W. Davis provided all the relevant Riquna Williams anecdotes in his Oral History of “The Microwave” earlier this year. Suffice it to say, bench scoring never goes out of style. 

Williams picked a mighty fine time to enjoy the most efficient season of her career, exceeding 42 percent from deep in the Wubble on nearly five attempts per game. History tells us she’ll likely regress to league average levels going forward, only adding to the intrigue surrounding her next contract. Will teams have to overpay to acquire her? Is that worth it? 

The Sparks won’t be able to retain everyone from 2020. Williams feels like a natural fit to depart. That said, I know nothing, Jon Snow. 

 

  1. Erica Wheeler

Those previously unfamiliar with the undrafted point guard out of Rutgers were treated to a heartwarming spectacle when Wheeler took home All-Star Game MVP honors in 2019. She didn’t make it to the Wubble, but her value has never been higher. 

Though a tad too turnover prone, Wheeler was incredibly productive with the ball in her hands a season ago. She notched over 5 assists per game and came within sniffing distance of 40 percent from downtown on considerable volume. She’s one of the speediest players in the league and forms an electric backcourt duo with Kelsey Mitchell. Defensively, she plays so hard as to partially mitigate the negative effects of her diminutive frame. She’ll poach the ball from lazy dribblers and dash the other way for easy layups in the blink of an eye. 

 

Indiana needs to get way more creative in semi-transition. This doesn’t look like much, but former Fever head coach Pokey Chatman deserves credit for incorporating looks like these. Wheeler lulls defender Tamera Young into a familiar pattern: righty ball handler going right. Once Young has committed to that side, Wheeler crosses over to her left, using the screen set by Teaira McCowan to launch a wide-open above-the-break triple. Cash. 

Wheeler’s combination of speed, ball handling, vision, and shooting makes her a dynamic full-court offensive player. New head coach Marianne Stanley hoped to increase her team’s pace of play in 2020, taking advantage of Mitchell and Wheeler. But Wheeler didn’t enter the Wubble and the Fever remained in the league’s bottom half in PACE. Re-signing Wheeler would indicate that Indiana is dedicated to playing faster. 

The Fever find themselves in an interesting spot. Mitchell and Julie Allemand are entering the final year of their respective rookie deals and will be up for extensions at the end of the 2021 season. Has Allemand become the priority following her impressive rookie campaign? Tiffany Mitchell is Indiana’s only cap hold exceeding $100,000. The Fever will be able to retain their recent draftees. Who do they see as expendable and who are they enthusiastic about? 

I see Wheeler returning. Focus on ending the longest active playoff drought and worry about the rest later. Wheeler, Allemand, Kelsey Mitchell, Victoria Vivians, and Kathleen Doyle form an invigorating backcourt, even with the lingering sting of selecting Doyle over Crystal Dangerfield. 

 

  1. Amanda Zahui B. 

Are you perplexed at Zahui B. placing three spots ahead of Charles? Angry? Supportive? 

Another one of my personal favorites, Zahui B. seemed to enjoy playing in Walt Hopkins’ avant-garde offensive system in 2020. She shot 34 percent from three on nearly five attempts per game. As. A. Center. Oh, how our beloved sport has changed. 

But Zahui B. earned this ranking with her defense. She dominates the boards, is a smart shot-blocker who won’t sacrifice good positioning by recklessly chasing a swat, and is a better outlet passer than she receives credit for. 

Zahui B. must find a way to be more productive offensively in non catch-and-shoot situations. Last year was a wash, New York stumbling through 22 games by chucking enough bricks to build a warehouse. Sabrina Ionescu, Asia Durr, and whoever New York selects in the draft should open things up considerably for the Liberty bigs. 

Unless there’s a star out there – one of the remaining 13 players on this list – who wants to sign with the Liberty and be a part of Brooklyn’s WNBA takeover, I can’t see New York finding a better fit at center. That said, many saw the team’s decision to extend Kiah Stokes through the 2021 season as an indicator that Zahui B. is on her way out. 

If that’s the case, suitors will be lining Atlantic Avenue just to book a meeting with the delightful Swedish center. Zahui B. is a perfect “plug-and-go” piece for a team with championship aspirations. Her defense plays in all 12 WNBA cities. Her shooting allows her to mesh with a variety of different lineup types. If a team strikes out on, say, Cheyenne Parker, signing Zahui B. would be a tremendous consolation prize. 

Lastly, Zahui B. recently announced that she tested positive for COVID-19. Here’s to a speedy and full recovery, Amanda! 

 

  1. Betnijah Laney

How could you root against Betnijah Laney? Ebenezer Scrooge damn near cracked a grin watching Laney seize her opportunity with the Dream in 2020. 

Laney may be the most fascinating free agent on the market. There’s a lot of variance at play here. Do the remaining 11 teams see her breakout with Atlanta as legitimate, sustainable? Will recency bias lead to an overpay? 

Advanced stats aren’t as kind to Laney’s defensive value as the eye test is. The truth likely lays somewhere in between. Offensively however, she’s become a powerhouse, capable of reaching any spot on the floor and creating scoring opportunities. Her shooting splits (48/41/83) were money in the Wubble. 

Two-way wings are always in high demand. Laney is the type of player that those “one piece away” teams traditionally covet. Minnesota has the cap space to make a splash. How does a starting five featuring Crystal Dangerfield, Odyssey Sims, Laney, Napheesa Collier, and Sylvia Fowles sound? With Damiris Dantas (instant 6th Player of the Year candidate in this hypothetical scenario), Lexie Brown, Bridget Carleton, and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan coming off the bench. That’s a title team. 

Also, Laney just turned 27. Her upcoming contract likely will span her most productive seasons. In guarding against a reactionary ranking, I may have overcompensated and slid Laney too far down this list. My gut told me to go higher. My gut tells me Laney will be serving a crucial role on a playoff team in the near future. Fingers crossed. 

 

  1. Kayla McBride

It’s super easy to get caught up in the idea of basketball as pure entertainment, escapism completely devoid of real life. I do it. We all do it. 

Fans tend to view this escapism through a one-way lens, and that’s where things become dangerous. For us, sports are a way to disassociate from real life, the thinking goes. For the athletes though, well, they’re professionals! They always find a way to produce. 

It’s never a bad time to remind ourselves that professional athletes deal with the same stressors, the same crippling anxieties that countless others on this planet deal with. Basketball is escapism for players, too, and sometimes even that can be a source of anxiety itself. 

In September, Kayla McBride penned a vulnerable, essential piece for The Players’ Tribune. Go read it if you haven’t already. 

By the numbers, McBride had a down year on the court in 2020. Who cares? This year has been brutal on everyone. She’s a tremendous basketball player. She will command tons of interest from a host of ball clubs. 

Finding the energy to do anything when your anxiety comes knocking is damn near impossible. McBride’s piece is a great reminder to celebrate players even when they aren’t performing to their fullest athletic potential. It’s a reminder to check in on folks and ask them how they’re holding up. To listen. To treat basketball players as people and not cogs for our own entertainment. 

Major props to Kayla McBride. 

 

  1. Jasmine Thomas 

I’ll wrap up with an exercise in brevity (chuckle). Thomas has been with the Sun since 2015 and I don’t see that changing. Though already in her thirties, Thomas remains one of the best defenders at the guard position in the WNBA. Her defense alongside Briann January in the Wubble playoffs helped Connecticut advance farther than it had any business advancing. Her scoring comes and goes, but you can always count on Thomas to make the right read. When she gets hot, watch out. 

The Sun are yet another team with a host of intriguing decisions to be made this offseason. They are my current 2021 title favorites. Re-sign both Jasmine Thomas and Alyssa Thomas and I guarantee the rest will work itself out.

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