2022: Year of the Rookie

The 2022 WNBA season is now a third of the way through the schedule… absolutely bonkers to contemplate! Teams are still finding their identities, players are still finding their rhythm, and the tiers of competition still feel quite moldable.

One of the most intriguing parts of the season has been the play of the youth wave in the W. Second-year players have shown out and taken sizable steps, with Dana Evans and DiJonai Carrington playing significant roles on contending teams. Aari McDonald has perhaps impressed most for the Atlanta Dream and had arguably the best game of her young career in her sixth career start. The connection McDonald is starting to form with the top overall pick in the 2022 draft should have Atlanta fans…dreaming of the immediate future.

McDonald’s ability to probe the paint, generate paint touches and make timely and on-point kickouts is a match made in a basketball laboratory for Rhyne Howard’s skillset.

That moves us to Howard and the top three selections in the 2022 Draft Class. While many have impressed both with immediate impact and flashes of the future, this draft was considered a three-player draft by many headed into draft night. Howard continues to show why she was deserving of the top pick.

Shot-making sets Howard apart. To put into perspective just how good of a shooting season she’s having, only four players in league history have had this level of season from deep. Howard is taking seven attempts from the deep per game and connecting on 39.8% of them, a mark that only Katie Smith, Diana Taurasi (3 times), and Kelsey Plum this season have replicated with respect to volume and accuracy. That’s fantastic company.

Her off-ball movement, awareness, and ability to get her shot off in various ways make her a difficult cover for defenses. She’s adept coming off of screens, which is essentially how she’s been utilized in Atlanta’s offense, coming off a smattering of picks to get to more ideal looks. She’s shooting 39% on pull-up threes per Instat scouting, dipping into her bag with self-created looks.

Howard’s shot creation and pull-up game inside the arc are equally as prolific. She’s good with tempo and using her handle and quick attacks to get defenders back-peddling or off-balance before rising up over them for a smooth release, creating an easy shot out of a difficult circumstance.

Her pull-up shooting is what primarily opens the door for her playmaking. She continues to dazzle with some live-dribble passes off of drives and out-of-ball screens. Howard has found her way deeper into the paint as the year has gone on, but finding more ways to generate paint touches and easier looks on the inside will be an area of growth to monitor.

She’s shooting 37% at the rim right now, according to InStat scouting, and while the numbers look a little worse due to the contact she generates in the paint, working on counters will be essential.

The Washington Mystics were the first team to shut off the water for her entirely, throwing haymaker blitzes and traps during their second season meeting.

As a basketball admirer, one of the coolest parts of the season has been watching how defenses game plan for Howard each night and how she’s started to adapt. What makes Howard such a special player and prospect is her ability to thrive in various roles, however. If Erica Wheeler or Aari McDonald are cooking, Howard can flow off of the ball. If she’s struggling to separate from a heady wing defender off the ball, her gravity can still do wonders for the offense as a cutter and ball mover. Howard could make All-Defense this season, and I wouldn’t blink; she’s been that solid and a significant part of the league’s best defense. Her rotations to cover ground and remove open space, filling driving lanes, and seeking out charges is where she thrives. 

Shot-making wings with size and all-around skill like this don’t come around often, and Howard has the makings of a star, potentially making the All-Star game this season already. She has an exceptional career ahead of her, be sure to appreciate and enjoy her growth.

While the first overall pick is building her interior game, the second overall pick, NaLyssa Smith, has started to build up her outside game. Entering the season, NaLyssa Smith had taken 65 threes across her four-year career at Baylor (132 games). In her rookie season, Smith has already taken 35 threes in 13 games, hitting a roughly league average of 34.3%, a massive jump from where she was headed into the W.

Part of the Indiana Fever superclass, Smith, has the makings and foundation of one of the best scorers in the game. Her face-up game was probably my favorite skill set in the ‘22 class: the coordination, handle, and ability to seek out contact and finish through or around it is amongst the best.

Stretching her game out as a legitimate three-point threat opens up the opportunities to put defenders in a blender and give defensive coordinators headaches.

While the consistency and aggression as a shooter are still coming along, she’s ahead of schedule as a shooter as far as I’m concerned. I expected her to work on it to open up her game, but the strides she’s made in just three months since the NCAA Tournament can’t be stressed enough.

However, I’m curious to see how she can continue to tweak her shot. Smith has added a considerable leg sway that isn’t present in her shot inside the arc. It’s going in and is replicable, which matters the most: especially with shooting, you want the shot always to look the same. It’s so based on repetition. Having a leg sway can make it challenging to add versatility in a shot in the form of shots off of movement or screens. Again, already huge strides, but considering how lethal she is as a scorer and scoring being her most important skill, getting the most out of her ability to contort defenses will be important moving forward.

Like Howard, in principle, Smith’s ability to bend a defense on and off the ball is remarkable. She has the potential to be one of the most dynamic scorers in the league due to her ability to hurt a defense without having the ball for much of a play. Smith has been used a great deal as a screener, both rolling and popping in Indiana’s quick-hitting offense.

Smith has excellent fluidity out of screens and uses angles well to open herself and the ball-handler up. She creates advantages out of her roll gravity, given her downhill speed and efficacy as a finisher. Stopping Smith off the catch with a head of steam towards the rim is easier said than done!

I’m most intrigued to see how Smith can improve as a passer. She makes solid reads and puts good touch on the ball when making connective and swing passes within the offense and sets. When she’s playing in isolation or on broken plays, though, I think there’s room for some playmaking improvement that could come with more reps, particularly as a short roll passer (making passes after receiving the ball on the roll in pick and roll).

As much as I feel I know and understand the games of Howard and Smith and feel comfortable projecting where they’re headed, I have no idea what to think of the third overall pick, Shakira Austin.

That’s quite the opposite of a bad thing!

Let’s consider it like this: Austin is starting for a contending team while mainly operating as an offensive cog with only the 8th highest usage on the team. She scored 16 points in Washington’s latest game against the Mercury, and another teammate created every bucket. She’s already cementing herself as one of the elite play finishers in the league.

Yet, she’s also shown intriguing flashes as a face-up player, particularly attacking off the catch. 

While she hasn’t necessarily gotten the free rein to operate offensively that she would on a younger team with different expectations, the segmented role has allowed her to showcase much of what makes her such a unique prospect. Her quickness as a decision-maker and aggression in attacking at her size (6’5) with coordination and craft is so enticing. 

Shakira is shooting 43% on jumpers inside the arc and 48.3% on long twos (29 total per InStat). The touch is buttery at times around the rim with an array of scoop finishes and off-hand layups after long-stride drives that make you audibly react with a gasp.

To turn back and catch a slightly off pass behind her, spinning into forward momentum, and hit the off-hand layup falling away while Kayla Thornton contests; that is ridiculous, and she’s had a myriad of finishes like that.

She makes solid passes, especially for her position, moving the ball quickly, routinely finding teammates with an overhead kick when doubled in the mid-post to hit backdoor cutters.

She times up well as soon as the help commits and has a good sense for spacing, both her own and her teammates’ on the court.

The offense has the bones of a special offensive player at the 5 with glimpses of guard skills and high feel play.

Shakira’s defense off rip as a rookie is what, in my mind, makes her much closer to Rhyne Howard as Rookie of the Year runner-up than consensus seems to be at. Austin has a legitimate case as the most impactful defender on the Mystics, which feels like a wild statement to make, but it tracks in watching and running the numbers.

The Mystics allow 12.45 points per 100 possessions less with Austin on the court than when she’s off (90.85 to 103.3) per PBP Stats. They also score 16.7 points per 100 possessions more with Austin on the court than when she’s off (111 to 94.3).

On-off splits are finicky and don’t tell the whole story, as part of this is painted by Austin playing with one of the best starting units in basketball. Yet, it also stands out that Austin’s backup is a former First Team All-Defense member in Elizabeth Williams, who has had an outstanding season, yet Shakira has played even better defense.

Her aggression is one of her best skills and something I think could be honed in a little more. She has real coverage versatility, is capable of playing in a drop, is comfortably playing at or near the level of the screen, and also attacks on blitzes and hedges. She’s shown switchability on smaller players in a pinch, riding out drives to the rim or paint using her lateral quickness and length. However, many of her fouls come on these recovery plays when she bites too early on a pump or attacks without using verticality. Those things will surely come with time, but her pick-and-roll defense already at this stage is mesmerizing.

Few players possess the athleticism, length, timing, and aptitude to routinely play two-on-one plays and provide guards time to reconnect after being screened out, but Austin brings that.

To solidify herself as a backbone of one of the best defensive teams in the W as a year-one player is impressive stuff that can’t be overlooked.

The top three in this draft class have the potential to be one of the best in recent memory as they continue to make strides as players. As they make impacts in immediate ways for three teams in different organizational states, their growth and development will be extremely exciting to follow as their careers unfurl.

Newly hired WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.