2022 WNBA Options and Extensions: Time to Decide
May 15 is the deadline for some decisions to be made on draftees from 2019 and 2020, so we take a look at all the possibilities
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While we're all still recovering from the roster cuts necessary before opening day and rejoicing at finally having some WNBA basketball to watch, WNBA teams are facing another impending deadline. Under the rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, May 15 is the deadline both to exercise fourth-year rookie scale option years for players just starting their third season, and to sign fourth-year players to rookie scale extensions. This year, that means teams have to decide on options for the 2020 draft class headlined by Sabrina Ionescu and Satou Sabally, while extensions could be agreed with the 2019 class where Jackie Young went No. 1 overall and Napheesa Collier and Arike Ogunbowale have already been all-stars.
The option decisions are particularly interesting this year because this is the first draft class that was selected under the current CBA, signed in 2020. That means they're the first group to fall under the slightly tweaked rules. They added one little line saying that, if exercised, those fourth years would be "fully protected for lack of skill and injury or illness". In non-lawyer language, that means the fourth-year money is now essentially guaranteed. Teams used to exercise virtually every fourth-year option because there was no risk. If the player wasn't good enough or you changed your mind, she could just be cut like any other unprotected contract. Now, if you take up the option, that money is locked on your books unless you can find a way to trade the player (although please note that these fourth-year option seasons do not count against the team limit of six protected contracts).
If teams don't exercise those fourth-year options, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of their third season (except in some very specific circumstances, detailed later). If fourth-year players don't sign extensions before May 15, they become restricted free agents at the end of the season (or reserved players if they failed to gain four Years of Service during the rookie scale contract).
So below we look at every player from those draft classes eligible to have their option taken up, and then those eligible for extensions (it's not as many as you might think). What are teams going to do - and what should they do - with these decisions?
Partly due to the pandemic and the bubble season shaking things up before they played a game, and partly due to regular WNBA attrition, there are only nine players left from the 2020 draft still on their rookie scale contracts. For simplicity, we're going to break them down into categories:
Sabrina Ionescu, New York Liberty (fourth-year option: $86,701)
Chennedy Carter, Los Angeles Sparks (fourth-year option: $86,701)
It hasn't been smooth sailing for either of these two in their first couple of years in the WNBA, but they've both shown more than enough talent for their teams to want to lock them up for an extra year. Ionescu's had injury issues and Carter spent most of last season in Atlanta suspended for disciplinary reasons, but both are seen as building blocks for their team's future. There's obviously some risk that Ionescu might get hurt again this year or Carter could flame out in LA, but they're both clearly worth the 87k regardless.
The Decisions Already Made
Satou Sabally, Dallas Wings (fourth-year option: $86,701)
Tyasha Harris, Dallas Wings (fourth-year option: $83,194)
Bella Alarie, Dallas Wings (fourth-year option: $83,194)
There's no impending deadline for these three because - for no obvious reason - Dallas exercised their options back in December. It made no real sense taking them up that early. They had overseas seasons where they could've gotten hurt and, especially in the cases of Alarie and Harris, it made potential trades more complicated because the option decision had already been made for any team that might've acquired them. Sabally, due to the talent she's shown when available, would've been on the 'no-brainer' list anyway; Harris and Alarie would've been somewhat up in the air. Harris has been at best mediocre through her first two WNBA seasons, often drifting into the background and making very little impact on the court. Dallas also just spent the No. 7 overall pick on another young point guard in Veronica Burton, suggesting they may not be convinced that Harris is their future at that spot. Alarie has struggled to stick in the rotation and while being surprisingly effective defensively has offered absolutely nothing on offense. She's also taking the 2022 WNBA season off. But regardless, Dallas decided already.
Ruthy Hebard, Chicago Sky (fourth-year option: $83,194)
Jocelyn Willoughby, New York Liberty (fourth-year option: $79,690)
Megan Walker, Atlanta Dream (fourth-year option: $79,690)
None of these players have particularly established themselves in their first two seasons in the WNBA. Hebard has struggled for playing time behind other bigs in Chicago; Willoughby had a mediocre rookie season in 2020 before missing the whole of last year with a torn Achilles; and Walker is already on her third team after New York traded her and Phoenix cut her.
I would expect Chicago to exercise Hebard's option, in part because Candace Parker, Emma Meesseman and Azurá Stevens are all out of contract at the end of the year. The roster may have to be heavily retooled and having Hebard there on a relatively cheap contract should be viewed as a positive. She's looked pretty solid when she's seen the court in Chicago; it just hasn't happened that often. Even if they decide they don't want her, she might well be tradeable anyway. The other two are more of a mystery. Reports on Willoughby out of training camp in New York have been positive. She seems to have recovered well from the injury and may well be part of their rotation to start the year. But New York may not want to add guaranteed money to their balance sheet for next year. There's been plenty of smoke around the possibility of signing Breanna Stewart as a free agent after they met with her this offseason, and they'd also potentially be looking to re-sign Sami Whitcomb. I would lean towards them exercising the option, but declining it and hoping to re-sign Willoughby anyway if this season goes well is definitely a potential alternative.
With Walker, on the other hand, I would lean towards Atlanta declining her option. She's struggled in both New York and Phoenix even when opportunities opened up for her, and hasn’t done much overseas either. Atlanta have set themselves up so that nearly all their deals expire at the end of this season, opening up a world of possibilities in 2023 free agency. Unless Walker has been exceptional in training camp, I doubt they'll want her 80k cutting into their spending money.
The Special Cases
Kylee Shook, New York Liberty (fourth-year option: $76,183)
Julie Allemand, Chicago Sky (fourth-year option: $69,770)
Shook's case is different because she was suspended for the 2022 season due to personal reasons. Because that technically means she 'withheld services' this year, New York can decline her option and she still won't become a free agent. Instead, she'll be designated 'suspended-contract expired' and New York can hold her exclusive negotiating rights (assuming they still want them). They'll also then be under no obligation to offer her more than the 2023 minimum of $62,285, and even that won't be guaranteed.
Allemand is only different because she wasn't drafted in 2020 like the rest of this group. She was selected in the third round in 2016 but didn't sign until 2020, when she played her first WNBA season. That means her option decision comes up now in the same way as a 2020 draftee. Despite the fact that she won't be showing up until after the decision has to be made due to overseas commitments, Chicago will likely exercise her option. She's shown plenty of talent in her season with Indiana and performances overseas, and with Courtney Vandersloot only on a one-year deal, Allemand could be Chicago's starter by next year.
The Done Deals
Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas Wings
Napheesa Collier, Minnesota Lynx
Two of the 2019 class have already agreed and signed extensions, and appropriately enough it's the two who've already been to an all-star game. Dallas gave Arike Ogunbowale every single cent possible (the 'full boat', if you will) with a three-year extension, fully protected, at $234,936/$241,984/$249,032. On a basic level, this is good for Dallas. You always want your stars locked up for as long as possible, and you want them happy. Guaranteeing them as much money as you can, as early as possible, is a good way to achieve that. The counter-argument is that Dallas didn't get anything back from Arike for guaranteeing her all this so early. From the player's side, the reason to sign a rookie scale extension is that it can go up to the supermax, whereas if you wait and become a restricted free agent you can only sign a deal starting at the regular max (the difference is over $30,000 per year). The Wings gave up the full supermax without getting any concession from Ogunbowale at all. When all their other young players start coming off their rookie scale deals, a little extra cap space might look decidedly useful.
Collier, on the other hand, gave up plenty. She extended for three years as well, but because Minnesota are already at the maximum of six protected veteran contracts, her extension is entirely unprotected. She also signed for the regular max figures of $202,154/$208,219/$214,284 rather than the supermax numbers Ogunbowale received. While players often like to lock in money early rather than wait on a potentially bigger pay-day down the line, this doesn't make a huge amount of sense for Collier. Those are the exact same numbers she could've gotten in the 2023 offseason as a restricted free agent, either from the Lynx or another team as an offer sheet (which Minnesota would then have matched anyway). If she waited, the Lynx would've been able to guarantee the money, because the protected contracts of Fowles, McCoughtry and Dantas would've expired. Yes, she's missing much of the 2022 season due to pregnancy, but even if she missed the whole thing - or even came back for a few games and looked dreadful - that money was surely still going to be there. It was an odd choice from the player's perspective, but it works out nicely for Minnesota. Their star is locked up for three more years, at below what she might’ve cost, and they can even get out of it if something thoroughly unexpected happens.
You're Good, But How Good?
Jackie Young, Las Vegas Aces
Teaira McCowan, Dallas Wings
Brianna Turner, Phoenix Mercury
Marina Mabrey, Dallas Wings
All of this group have had their moments in their first three years in the WNBA. Young's a good defensive wing and has become a productive offensive player from mid-range and in since the Aces stopped asking her to play point guard. McCowan's size and strength can make her look unstoppable when she's rolling and is a dominant rebounder. Turner has excelled defensively and become a smarter cutter, helping her contribute on offense. Mabrey can be an electric scorer and has that little hint of nasty that every team needs sometimes. The problem is that they all have flaws as well.
Young's production has dropped off in the playoffs every year, when her shaky perimeter shooting increasingly becomes an issue. McCowan could never seem to stay on the floor in Indiana, either due to foul trouble or simply being benched, which led to her being traded to Dallas. Turner's offense is still limited, and it tends to be those counting stats that get players paid. Mabrey can shoot you out of games almost as often as she shoots you into them, and Dallas may worry about her long-term fit next to Ogunbowale. All would have suitors if allowed to become restricted free agents, but anything in the realm of max money would be scary for their current teams, given they haven't proven to be genuine independent stars just yet.
If any of these players wanted to lock in years around the $150,000-170,000 range, the teams might be willing to go there (especially at the lower end of that bracket). Any more than that and I might be willing to just wait if I'm the team. Maybe you're then forced into either overpaying or letting them walk for nothing as restricted free agents, but sometimes that's the risk you have to take.
More Questions Than Answers
Asia Durr (AD), New York Liberty
Katie Lou Samuelson, Los Angeles Sparks
Ezi Magbegor, Seattle Storm
Han Xu, New York Liberty
Three of these players are slightly special cases. AD, Magbegor and Han have all missed at least one season during their rookie scale contracts, so won't become restricted free agents at the end of the year even if they don't sign extensions. They would become reserved instead, which means their current teams retain exclusive negotiating rights (and don't necessarily have to offer them any more than their applicable minimum - although the player obviously has the right to then say "I'm not showing up for that"). That makes them less likely to be signed to extensions because the teams are going to have more control over them at the end of the season anyway, without needing to lock in extra years.
The respective teams probably want more information anyway, before signing any of this group to a new deal. AD missed two seasons due to long-Covid, so this year will be a chance to see what they can do and if their body stands up to the rigors of a WNBA schedule. Samuelson has been a success in Europe, where tweener forwards often flourish, but is on her fourth WNBA team in four seasons and is yet to be more than a fairly average bit-part on any of them. Magbegor has shown lots of promise with her athleticism and length, but is still more potential than finished product. Han hasn't been seen in the US since 2019 when she was a desperately raw 19 year-old. Her rare size and offensive touch still make her intriguing, but thoroughly unproven at this level.
It would be a surprise if any of this group agreed to extensions before May 15, because they still need to prove what they deserve. If it wasn't for her pending reserved status, Magbegor might be in line for a mid-level deal in the $140,000 range. However, Seattle will probably use that to justify not agreeing a new deal, and Magbegor could be better off proving herself for another year or two in order to demand more.
Jessica Shepard, Minnesota Lynx
Kennedy Burke, Washington Mystics
Maite Cazorla, Atlanta Dream
Technically, all three of these players are on expiring rookie scale contracts and eligible for extensions as well, so I include them for the sake of completeness. Shepard's shown some promise and nice passing skills when she's been able to stay on the court, but repeated injury issues have hampered her production. After missing all of the 2020 season she'll also be reserved rather than an RFA, so the Lynx have little incentive to extend her.
Burke has been traded once and waived twice over the course of her rookie scale deal but was claimed both times she was waived, so the contract is still alive and remains extension-eligible. Another of those tweener forwards, Burke has flashed some talent on occasion but struggled to cement a rotation spot at WNBA level. Having only claimed her last week and still waiting on her to arrive from overseas, it seems very unlikely that the Mystics would discuss an extension.
Spanish guard Cazorla played for the Dream in 2019 and hasn't been seen in the US since. Her production and development in Europe hasn’t been too bad, but you don't extend a player that you haven't seen in three years.
So there's certainly a chance that we don't see any more extensions before May 15, and that Ogunbowale and Collier are the end of the list. But one or two may get done, because players often prefer some certainty even if they might be better off waiting. We'll know the answers by this time next week.