Living the Dream
On Monday night in the Big Apple, the WNBA welcomed its newest stars into the league. Teams were looking to revolutionize their franchise, especially the Indiana Fever who had an interesting night, selecting four players in the top-10.
After a trade a few days prior to the draft, the Atlanta Dream had the honor of selecting Kentucky's own, Rhyne Howard with the number one overall selection. A player of the caliber of Howard will elevate the guard position to a whole new level in Atlanta as its leading scorer last season Courtney Williams departed to the Sun at the beginning of February as well as the front office decided to part ways with Chennedy Carter. The Tennessee native is an instant impact player who is a bonafide three-level scorer with size and strength that will benefit her as she heads to the next level.
Arguably the most pro-ready player in this years' draft, Rhyne Howard spoke after getting picked, stating, "I think that’s what really helped me to become successful, and I just really want to have an impact on the team...continue to make everyone better...I’m very versatile, so whatever position I’m playing, I like to match for those positions."
Beyond Howard, this draft was anything but top-heavy. This years' selections should have long careers ahead of them in the WNBA as many of them are as pro-ready as ever. It was a big day for the Indiana Fever who moved on from franchise legend Tamika Catchings as their general manager in the offseason. With four top-ten picks, Indiana added much-needed size, shooting, and especially defense to begin to create a culture led by Marianne Stanley.
With the number two pick in the draft, the Indiana Fever used their first of seven picks to select Baylor forward NaLyssa Smith. Smith averaged 22.1 points and 11.5 rebounds per game to go along with 25 double-doubles, which was third in the country behind only South Carolina's Aliyah Boston, and DePaul star freshman Aneesah Morrow. Her shooting abilities allow her to score in a variety of ways. Rebounding the basketball is something that she takes pride in as she loves to start transition offense where she is just a nightmare to handle. She was a consensus All-American selection in each of the last two seasons and should be the face of the rebuild of this Fever franchise used this draft to start a new chapter filled with optimism and hope.
There were a few first-round surprises, but the one that grabbed a lot of attention was Indiana's third pick in the top ten. New general manager Lin Dunn shocked the world after two relatively simple selections by picking Stanford guard Lexie Hull. She was one of the leaders on the Cardinal team that won the National Championship in 2021 and went back to the Final Four in her senior year. In most mock drafts, she was a projected second-round pick, and there was no doubt that the Fever could have waited and picked her with the 20th overall selection. She has a high motor and takes pride in her defense each night out. Hull is an elite three-point shooter, but questions emerge as she is not very athletic, and in some people's eyes, lacks the "pro-ready size" that some of the higher picks possess.
For their last pick in the top ten, Indiana chose Smith's Baylor teammate, Queen Egbo. Egbo is another tough player in the front-court for the Fever, but there are a lot of concerns about her offensive game. She only averaged 9.5 points per game at Baylor for her career and has trouble not fouling as she averaged about three fouls per game in 2021-2022. In addition, Egbo had four or more fouls in 13 of the 36 games that Baylor played last season. She has a short temper, and sometimes it can get the best of her on the court. Her size at 6'2", and attributes on the defensive end were what most likely led to Dunn going with Egbo so early in the draft.
Despite the questions of the selections at number six and ten, the Fever had an unforgettable, franchise-changing day. Adding players like Smith, and a versatile two-way forward in Emily Engstler along with South Carolina star point guard Destanni Henderson creates a bright future for this franchise. Henderson has many pro-ready qualities that if she can make the roster, she could make an immediate impact on both ends of the floor with her toughness and leadership.
Other teams that had big days at the draft were the New York Liberty, and the Washington Mystics. The Liberty desperately needed size on the inside, and with the fifth overall pick, the franchise addressed it by selecting Nyara Sabally out of Oregon. The team added Stefanie Dolson from Washington for an inside presence, but Sabally adds even more size at 6'5", and possesses unmatched strength and power that she used to dominate the Pac-12 in the post. She tore her ACL twice in back-to-back seasons in 2018 and 2019, but that did not stop her from pursuing her dream of becoming a pro. Sabally's upside is exactly what the Liberty is looking for as she can handle the basketball, and use her big frame to pound the ball inside.
The Washington Mystics had two picks in this years' draft and chose to go with Ole Miss stud Shakira Austin at number three after trading back from the top spot, and UConn workhorse Christyn Williams with the 14th overall pick. Washington was another team that needed size after the departure of Emma Messessman to the Sky, and Austin at 6'5" is the perfect fit. She is strong and versatile in the open floor and has the potential to score the basketball with some of the best players in the league. Her perimeter game keeps evolving each season, and with her size, and shot-making ability the only way for Austin to go is up.
Williams is an intense defender who may be inconsistent at times on the offensive end, she always brings 100% every time she is out on the floor. Another UConn product, and a versatile big that has All-Star potential signals that the Mystics are moving in the right direction. With this draft, it is clear that Washington head coach and general manager Mike Thibault is trying to duplicate their 2019 WNBA Championship season as quickly as this season.
Plenty of other teams around the league had quality draft days like the Connecticut Sun who added Nia Clouden and Jordan Lewis. Both of those players supply Curt Miller with some depth to the bench with star guards already on the roster in DeWanna Bonner, and new acquisition Courtney Williams. With 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones on board for another two seasons and the improvement at the guard position, this team could finish with the league's best record for the second straight season.
36 young women now have the opportunity to make a difference on a professional franchise. While some players selected may not make the roster, this is a day they will forever remember. The WNBA season tips off in less than a month on May 6 when the new look Fever starts their new chapter against the Washington Mystics. A historic WNBA season is on the horizon with new rules and plenty of unique storylines, but the ultimate goal is to make women's basketball more mainstream than ever before.