There was visible excitement in the room when Washington Mystics coach and general manager Mike Thibault won the first overall pick in the 2022 WNBA draft and for good reason. The 2022 draft is much stronger at the top than last year as Rhyne Howard and NaLyssa Smith are showing GMs that they are ready to make an impact right away.
That’s more than what could be said for last year when much of the rookie class struggled to make an impact, with the exception of forward Michaela Onyenwere who was instrumental in getting the New York Liberty to their first playoffs since 2017.
Washington overcame unfavorable lottery odds with a 17.8 percent chance at the top pick, while the heavily-favored Indiana Fever, despite 44.2 percent odds, received the second pick. Given the veteran core of the Mystics’ roster, it’s likely that the top overall pick won’t be asked to make a significant contribution immediately and will be brought along slowly. Washington undoubtedly hopes that a healthy Elena Delle Donne will be available to complement Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins. If they can successfully re-sign Tina Charles and Myisha Hines-Allen, the Mystics will be in a good position to make the playoffs, and the top pick should help secure their chances at making a postseason run.
This year’s draft should be senior-heavy due to the NCAA granting players an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic and name, image and likeness regulations giving athletes the ability to make money off their brand. One name who certainly won’t be in the 2022 draft is Player of the Year candidate Aliyah Boston, who would’ve been the top pick both this year and last if the WNBA allowed underclassmen to enter early. However, the draft should still yield a number of players talented enough to stick on league rosters.
Here’s an early look at how the first round of the WNBA draft might shape up.
1. Washington Mystics: Rhyne Howard, G, Kentucky
Thibault says he wants the best player available. While there is plenty of debate to be had over whether the best player is Smith or Howard, the Kentucky guard’s tools are too rare for the Mystics to pass up.
Howard would provide Washington with a look they currently don’t have—a tall, perimeter-oriented guard that can play multiple positions and make plays. Whether she’s 6’2” or 6’3”, the bottom line is that, unlike most guards entering the league, she will have the size to get her own shot off without much of an adjustment period.
2. Indiana Fever: NaLyssa Smith, F, Baylor
If Washington takes Smith, expect Howard to go here instead. But Smith is no consolation prize. Without DiJonai Carrington and DiDi Richards, she has carried the scoring load and then some for Baylor this season, averaging 20.4 ppg and 12.6 rpg. She is also dominating on the defensive end with 1.2 bpg and has the size to make an immediate impact for the Fever.
The Fever would benefit from more size, especially given that they waived 2020 draft pick Lauren Cox last season, and having another big to play alongside Teaira McCowan. If Indiana makes this pick, don’t be surprised if Smith winds up winning rookie of the year. The Fever desperately need more help, and the Baylor forward is more than talented enough to start on this roster.
3. Atlanta Dream: Naz Hillmon, F, Michigan
It’s tough to figure out where the Dream need the most help since they will likely turn over their entire roster. However, assuming that Chennedy Carter returns, it’s safe to say that Atlanta will likely look for either a forward or a post at the third pick.
Hillmon would provide the Dream with a traditional post player that can score and rebound with ease. As of this article going live, she’s averaging 20.0 ppg and 8.8 rpg and has led Michigan to a 13-2 record, including a thrilling overtime upset win over Baylor. While there are multiple available players capable of providing the Dream with value, Hillmon is a natural fit to play with Carter and Aari McDonald.
4. Dallas Wings: Ashley Joens, G/F, Iowa State
The Wings have two picks in the first round of the draft, but frankly, they don’t have room for a draft pick. Don’t be surprised if this pick ends up being traded. If they keep this pick, a player like Joens could be a perfect fit. She’s a bit of a tweener position-wise, but she can score at ease against any defense and guard multiple positions. Joens is a high-motor player that could benefit the Wings with her versatility.
5. New York Liberty: Shakira Austin, C, Ole Miss
The Liberty desperately need size, and Austin fills that need better than anyone else in the draft. She has intimidating size at 6’5” with a long wingspan and plays stifling defense, averaging 1.9 blocks and steals per game. Austin isn’t going to rack up a lot of points in the WNBA, but given the number of weapons the Liberty currently have, she would get to focus on providing rim protection behind Natasha Howard.
6. Dallas Wings: Rae Burrell, G/F, Tennessee
Again, it’s hard to see Dallas keeping this pick, but if they do, Burrell makes the most sense. This pick is a bit of a crapshoot since she has only played two games this season due to a knee injury. However, with her playmaking and scoring ability, she has the tools to succeed at the WNBA level, so teams will likely overlook her injuries this season.
7. Chicago Sky: Elissa Cunane, C, North Carolina State
If Cunane falls this far, it would be a case of the rich getting richer. While James Wade and company could try again for someone to back up Courtney Vandersloot, Dana Evans made a strong case for that role in the playoffs last season. Given that Stefanie Dolson is a free agent, Chicago would be well-suited to find a player who has great size and can run the floor, and Cunane fits that bill.
8. Minnesota Lynx: Lorela Cubaj, F, Georgia Tech
Cubaj got herself on WNBA draft boards after her impressive performance against UConn in their matchup on Dec. 9. Her gritty, hard-nosed style of play has catapulted Georgia Tech into the Top 25. With Napheesa Collier expected to sit out for at least a portion of the 2022 season, Cubaj would provide some additional depth at the forward position.
9. Seattle Storm: Destanni Henderson, G, South Carolina
Even though it appears that Sue Bird plans to return to the team next year, the Storm would be wise to start looking for a new floor general. As of now, Henderson is playing like the top point guard in this year’s draft and would give the Storm someone who can bridge the team toward the future.
10. Indiana Fever: Evina Westbrook, G, UConn
With Paige Bueckers out of the lineup, it’s been Westbrook’s time to shine. She has been inconsistent this season and may fall to the second round as a result, but her body of work throughout her career suggests she has the maturity and leadership skills to help the Fever as a reliable ball-handler.
11. Las Vegas Aces: Veronica Burton, G, Northwestern
Burton is an underrated perimeter defender who would add toughness to Vegas’ style of play. The Aces already have a loaded roster and aren’t likely to keep whoever they select here. However, the Northwestern product is arguably the top defensive guard in the draft, disrupting opposing offenses with her extremely active hands and usually getting rewarded for it. She’s currently averaging 4.1 spg, putting up impressive defensive performances against the likes of DePaul and Texas A&M.
12. Connecticut Sun: Khayla Pointer, G, LSU
The Connecticut Sun may go for two straight years of Kim Mulkey’s prodigies. This year, the Sun could draft LSU’s top scorer who gained a fifth year of eligibility and plays Mulkey’s style of basketball. Despite being undersized at 5’7”, she averages 6.8 rpg and puts up double-doubles with frequency. For a team as complete as the Sun, Pointer would serve as a guard who could fill a niche role off the bench.