Breanna Stewart’s free agency will shake up the WNBA … and maybe international scouting

Several WNBA franchises have reached a crossroads this offseason, facing decisions with far-reaching consequences. When the New York Liberty, Seattle Storm, Washington Mystics and Minnesota Lynx try to enter the Stevie Sweepstakes, they travel to the city of Istanbul at the crossroads of the world.

This January, in a small gym with four giant flags hanging from one side of the building’s rafters — two with the Fenerbahçe logo, one for modern-day Turkey and one for Turkey’s first president of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk — 2018 WNBA MVP Brenna Stewart took the floor. As she suits up for Turkey’s top team, Stewart, an unrestricted free agent in the WNBA, is predicting what path she’ll chart once she’s back stateside. Her decision is set to change the landscape of the league.

In recent years, members of WNBA coaching staffs and front offices overseas have become rarer and rarer, according to multiple overseas coaches and executives. But this December and January, more than half of the WNBA’s teams took overseas trips. Some, like the four aforementioned franchises, reportedly did so to see Stewart. For example, on January 25, Liberty coach Sandy Brondello, general manager Jonathan Kolb, assistant general manager Ohema Nyanin and owner Clara Wu Tsai sat courtside when Fenerbahçe faced Virtus Segafredo Bologna in a EuroLeague match.

Still in her prime, the two-time WNBA champion was the most influential unrestricted free-agent in league history. However, recent All-Stars such as Briona Jones and Erica Wheeler, who play in Prague, Czech Republic, and Polkovice, Poland, respectively, have also had WNBA visitors. At least one group also traveled to Israel, Athletic learned

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According to one WNBA general manager, “We are seeing a drastic change in the way our league views free agency.”

“Going to see the players is very common,” the GM added.

Part of the intended trend can be traced to a recent change in the collective bargaining agreement, which allows players to hit unrestricted free agency before they previously had prior arrangements. Front offices also seem to realize the benefits of recruiting efforts that extend beyond just phone or video calls.

Even some of the league’s top players seem to recognize the autonomy they have and understand there’s no reason for WNBA free agency to lag behind NBA or college recruiting efforts. Las Vegas Aces guard Chelsea Gray is a restricted free agent in the 2020 offseason, and her decision represents an early step in this evolution. The Aces did not sign Gray to a contract that year, but instead set the stage for her unrestricted free agency the following season by courting her on the market. She said during the Uninterrupted mini-documentary about her 2020 process: “You hear it’s on the men’s side. Why didn’t it happen on the women’s side? Why shouldn’t people be like ‘kick her out’?

Brian Agler, a former head coach or general manager with the Lynx, Storm, Los Angeles Sparks and Dallas Wings, traveled overseas regularly during his two-decade career in the WNBA. He said he started doing that to recruit free agents, watch players who are about to become free agents and support those who will be on his roster. Agler, who now serves as director of athletics at Wittenberg University, also noticed an increase in overseas travel this winter.

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“I think it’s different now because of the quality of players who are unrestricted free agents and they’re out there playing,” he said. “People have to make their pitches. So the only way you can do that is to go there and see them live.

Perhaps the number of teams traveling abroad is a reflection of the star power currently available overseas, and pilgrimages to Istanbul will not be uncommon in future offseasons. Video conferencing technology makes it possible to hold meetings virtually. Still, getting on a plane halfway around the world is an easy way to show interest in players. This could be an early sign of the seriousness of wanting to sign them, re-sign them, or have a positive working relationship with them.

Building relationships was central to a recent visit by first-year Suns general manager Darius Taylor and coach Stephanie White. Although the franchise sought out Jones before leaving on their travels, they still visited her in Prague.

“We still want to see her because we have new leadership,” Taylor said. “It gave her a chance to get to know us better, and it was the right thing to do.”

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They also benefit from a rare overseas roster coincidence as Sun star forward Alyssa Thomas has played with Jones overseas for the past four seasons, and they can spend time with their two franchise centerpieces.

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The proximity of multiple players may determine where certain front offices choose to visit. (This is also crucial for identifying which foreign cities Athletic chose not to report.) In the past two weeks, when the Lynx reportedly visited Stewart in Istanbul, they also watched free-agent center Azura Stevens play for her foreign club Galatasaray in another part of the city.

Stewart’s decision looms large and creates a flurry of transactions across the league. It’s possible, though, that this offseason will be remembered for more than where she ends up. January may now be the time for teams to rack up airline miles.

“I think in-person meetings will be more common,” says the anonymous general manager. Because of the timing of free agency, “I think we’ll take a fair amount of trips there over the next decade.”

(Photo by Brenna Stewart: courtesy of


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