NEW YORK – The loudest cheer to reverberate through Manhattan’s Spring Studios on a glamorous Monday evening didn’t come until late in the night’s festivities.
But we’ll get there.
Home to the 2022 WNBA Draft, Spring Studios’ spacious sixth floor—adorned with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over TriBeCa—hosted 12 draftees and a bevy of the biggest names in women’s basketball.
Think I’m exaggerating for effect? At one table sat Dawn Staley, Lisa Leslie, and Nneka Ogwumike, all observing dreams come true while shooting the breeze and posing for pictures. A fly who landed on said table told me it was the greatest night of their life. Staley—fresh off winning her second NCAA National Championship at South Carolina—was the most popular person in the room, everyone wanting a word with the Philadelphia native.
Before picks started flowing, New York Liberty players Betnijah Laney, DiDi Richards, and Natasha Howard waltzed over to the pop-a-shot machine and took a spin. Richards earned extra points for balancing a wine glass on top of her phone in her left hand, while hoisting “jumpers” with her right.
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who spoke to media earlier in the evening, eventually kicked off the proceedings by announcing Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard as the top pick, courtesy of the Atlanta Dream. Next came NaLyssa Smith to Indiana, then Shakira Austin to Washington. And on it went.
The first shock of the night came at sixth overall when Indiana took Stanford’s Lexie Hull—the first player to be drafted who hadn’t received an invite. Hull was a sharpshooter all season long for the Cardinal, but struggled in Stanford’s Final Four loss to Connecticut and wasn’t projected as a first rounder. Two others who weren’t in attendance went in the first round: Mya Hollingshed (Colorado) at No. 8 to Las Vegas and Queen Egbo (Baylor) at No. 10 to Indiana.
As the draft progressed, murmurs circulated regarding who remained on the board—namely Destanni Henderson.
Henderson was the irrefutable star of this year’s NCAA Championship game, the South Carolina point guard eviscerating Connecticut en route to a national title. Her star grew each day following the Final Four, peaking on the “Orange Carpet” where Henderson’s draft-day outfit—a light blue suit with a matching Yankees fitted and striking yellow, orange, pink, and teal low-top custom kicks—only added to her skyrocketing status.
Yet as the picks began rolling in, Henderson and her family waited patiently, watching others shake hands with the commissioner, beaming smiles illuminating their faces. When NC State’s Elissa Cunane went at No. 17 to Seattle, it became clear Henderson was the last draft-eligible player in the building left to be taken.
It wasn’t until the 20th pick—held by Indiana—that Henderson’s name was finally called. Immediately the entire room erupted in applause.
Something about it all felt off. Henderson absolutely dominated against UConn on the biggest stage in the sport. She scored a game-high 26 points (no one else scored more than 14) while playing stifling defense on the Huskies fiercest offensive weapon, Paige Bueckers. It was Henderson’s poise that stood out. Where nerves were seemingly affecting others on the floor, “Henny” exuded calm confidence, as if she was already a professional. In the wake of her dazzling display, Henderson was the league’s primary source of social media engagement during draft week. Everything pointed to her going in the first round.
Perplexingly, Henderson was passed on by a host of teams, until the Fever chose her in the back half of the second round. The team that—and I can’t stress this enough—took Hull at No. 6 (!) finally allowed Henderson to have her moment and bathe in the warm applause.
What more could Henderson have proved? She definitively answered questions about her size by putting the clamps on Bueckers, shot 41 and 40 percent from three in her final two college seasons, and was a rock on both ends for the best team in the nation. Henderson will have a chance to prove herself again in Fever training camp, and her late selection shouldn’t quell the feelings of pride that come with seeing your dreams actualized. Still, it felt like a bummer, as if the woman of the hour wasn’t receiving what she deserved.
Since this has gotten dour where it should be celebratory, you might be itching for me to lighten the mood. I oblige.
I loved what Las Vegas, Dallas, Atlanta, and Connecticut did last night.
The Aces would’ve unequivocally “won the draft” had they selected Henderson with the first pick of the second round instead of Khayla Pointer—niece of team president, Nikki Fargas. Pointer is no slouch (far from it!) and absolutely deserves her draft slot. I simply would’ve preferred Henderson there. Regardless, Las Vegas hit back-to-back home runs at No. 8 and No. 11 overall, selecting Hollingshed and Kierstan Bell, respectively. Hollingshed is the ideal stretch big, able to defend multiple positions with verve, gobble rebounds, and hoist from three (40 percent on over four attempts this season). Bell is a dynamic and efficient scorer out of Florida Gulf Coast who will thrive alongside A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray, and Kelsey Plum.
Dallas was the talk of the last few drafts due to its absurd volume of picks. This year, the Wings had just one selection in the first two rounds, and they absolutely nailed it, taking Northwestern’s Veronica Burton seventh overall. The Massachuessetts native is one of the best players in her class. Per Her Hoop Stats, Burton ranked eighth in the nation in Win Shares this season, despite playing fewer games than the majority of her competition. Burton finished sixth in the nation in assists, while averaging nearly 18 points per game and playing tenacious defense. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Ty Harris, who the Wings drafted in the exact same slot back in 2020. Harris hasn’t received a fair shake at the point guard position, and the organization has stunted her development. Let’s hope the same fate isn’t bestowed upon the exceptional Burton, and that Harris is traded to somewhere she is valued.
All these words and hardly anything about the top pick? Regardless of how you feel about Atlanta’s pre-draft trade with Washington, the Dream receive sterling marks for their performance last night. Howard was the obvious choice at No. 1, a generational talent and wonderful teammate. Atlanta desperately needs scoring, and no one in this class is more capable of getting a bucket than Howard. Never one to force action, Howard lets the game come to her and assesses from there. She is the future of the Atlanta Dream. Where the organization really iced its cake came at No. 15, selecting Michigan’s Naz Hillmon. Hillmon is an efficient post scorer with great touch around the rim, and though questions remain about her size at the professional level, this was exceptional value returned on a second round pick.
Sun gonna Sun, am I right? Yet again, Connecticut general manager Curt Miller made a nice, under-the-radar pick, taking Michigan State’s Nia Clouden with the final selection of the first round. The Sun’s primary need is shot creation and scoring from their backcourt, and Clouden is the player for the job.
In one of the coolest and most deserving stories of the night, Jackson State’s Ameshya Williams-Holliday became the first player in 20 years drafted into the WNBA from an HBCU. Andscape’s Mia Berry wrote an exceptional feature on Williams-Holliday prior to the draft, and Williams-Holliday’s dreams turned to reality when Indiana selected her with the first pick of the third round. Williams-Holliday rated exceptionally well on just about every advanced metric hoops has to offer, and was one of the best prospects in the entire draft despite receiving little coverage. Her defense is elite. Her offensive arsenal in the post is money. The Fever’s early selections deserve scrutiny (save for Smith, who is a future star), but they shifted the narrative with two excellent picks late. If Henderson and Williams-Holliday don’t make the final roster, it would be a massive error.
Sadly—unless you were paying close attention—you likely missed Williams-Holliday’s big moment. The league chose to announce only the names of those in attendance or those who went in the first round Monday evening. Even in the room where it all went down, there was no acknowledgement of picks such as Williams-Holliday, save for their names being silently added to an electronic board above the podium.
How hard is it to announce all 36 names? To give folks a moment they’ll never forget, and one they’ve worked countless hours, days, months, and years to achieve? It’s also malpractice on behalf of ESPN, choosing to gloss over historic happenings in favor of frivolity from the crew.
This decision is fitting in a depressing sense, as second and third round picks face a massive uphill battle making opening day rosters. With so few roster spots to go around, many of the players taken in the later portions of the draft find themselves on the outside looking in. But that doesn’t excuse the denial to highlight their triumph. This is bare minimum stuff that the league is actively fumbling.
It was a sobering reminder that even on such a euphoric evening in which the WNBA held its first in-person draft since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the league still has a long way to go in doing right by its players.