Select Team

Inside the W with Michelle Smith: Early 2022 Draft Prospects

The next WNBA Draft class is in the middle of a truly fascinating early college basketball season already full of showdowns and upsets, and what could be a better training ground for their next big step into professional basketball.

 

Let’s check in on the seasons of 12 of the players regarded as top draft prospects in 2022:

Rhyne Howard, Kentucky – The Wildcats 6-foot-2 guard likely could have been the No 1 pick in 2021 but wasn’t eligible due to the WNBA’s age-limit rule. Howard returned to Kentucky using this year to get her game ready for prime time. She is most of the way there. Howard is a three-level scorer, a player with a high basketball IQ and in addition to her ability to be a go-to offensive talent, she is playing well defensively. Howard is averaging 18.3 points a game – with five games in nine over the 20-point mark – for a Kentucky team that has started the season 6-3.

NaLyssa Smith, Baylor – The 6-foot-4 senior forward from Texas is making a case that she could be the No. 1 pick come April with a blistering start to her final season in Waco. Playing under new head coach Nikki Collen, Smith is thriving, averaging 20.4 points a game and leading the nation in rebounding at 13.2 per game. Smith has collected nine double-doubles in the Bears’ first ten games. In the game against Missouri, Smith finished with 25 points and 17 rebounds. She is experienced, motivated, and physically dominant. All are valued in the WNBA.

Ashley Joens, Iowa State. Joens, the 6-foot-1 senior guard, is playing like a top prospect in the early part of her final season, averaging 20.0 points and 9.5 rebounds a game. Joens is one of just seven players in the nation averaging at least 20 points and nine rebounds a game and has collected five double-doubles thus far with 36 total in her career. Joens, who averaged 24.2 points a game as a junior was named the Cheryl Miller Award Recipient as the nation’s best small forward. She has played 101 games in her collegiate career, a testament to her consistency, toughness and versatility.

Naz Hillmon, Michigan. The 6-2 senior forward from Cleveland, who was the first player in program history to earn All-American recognition, opened the season with a 30-point, 15-rebound game, setting the tone for the rest of the season. Hillmon averaged 23.9 points a game as a junior. Hillmon, the 2021 Big Ten Player of the Year, holds the record for most single-game points scored in a Michigan uniform (men or women) with 50 points against Ohio State. She is averaging 20.7 points a game with four double-doubles and has led the Wolverines to a 9-1 record.

Elissa Cunane, NC State. One of the nation’s best post players through her entire collegiate career, the 6-foot-5 North Carolina native was a first-team All-American as a junior and is currently propelling her team to the No. 2 ranking in the nation with an 8-1 start. Cunane, who is a strong free-throw shooter and can hit from beyond the arc, is averaging 12.5 points and 8.1 rebounds a game.

Shakira Austin, Ole Miss Another 6-foot-5 center, Austin has already collected four double-doubles this season and is pulling down 9.1 rebounds a game to go with 13.6 points for Ole Miss with five double-doubles. Austin, who transferred from Maryland before the 2020-21 season, was the first All-SEC player for Ole Miss since 2014 and has already collected 23 blocked shots this season.

Nyara Sabally, Oregon. The younger sister of Dallas Wings’ young star Satou Sabally, Nyara has struggled with injuries throughout her college career but has also demonstrated great potential. Sabally is currently out of the Ducks’ lineup with a knee injury, but a 30-point, 11-rebound game against Oklahoma shows that when healthy, Sabally can be a dominant, versatile post and the kind of player a WNBA team might want to take a chance on knowing the payoff could be big.

Christyn Williams, UConn. Williams, the senior guard from Arkansas, is looking to use her senior season with the Huskies to become a more well-rounded offensive player, particularly from beyond the 3-point arc. She ranks second on the team in scoring at 14.3 points per game and put up 31 points against Minnesota, proving that she can be a game-changer.

Evina Westbrook, UConn. The Huskies’ fifth-year senior guard from Oregon, who also passed on an opportunity to be drafted in 2021 and instead returned to Storrs, is averaging 10.6 points a game in a balanced Connecticut offense. Westbrook has also proved to be a strong defender. The 6-0 guard is back to make a run at a national title, but also to build her game at both ends of the floor.

Rae Burrell, Tennessee. Burrell is out indefinitely because of a knee injury she suffered in the Lady Vols’ season opener, though it’s not an ACL, leaving the door open for a return this season and in time for the WNBA Draft. Burrell is the Lady Vols’ leading returning scorer, averaging 16.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game and when she gets back on the floor her ball-handling and her ability to get to the rim will be appealing to WNBA scouts.

Destanni Henderson, South Carolina. The Gamecocks’ guard from Florida is a scorer, distributor, and an energy source for Dawn Staley’s top-ranked team, posting career bests in scoring (12.3 PPG), field-goal percentage (48.6%), and 3-point percentage (50%) so far this season. Additionally, she has scored in double figures in six of eight games, showing a level of consistency that will impress. Henderson led the team in steals, assists and minutes played last season as a junior.

Cate Reese, Arizona. After helping to lead the Wildcats to their first-ever national championship game a year ago, but playing in the shadow of Aari McDonald, Reese is making the most of her opportunity to be her team’s go-to player in 2021-22. The 6-2 forward from Cypress, Texas, is averaging 13.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a game for the unbeaten Wildcats, including a combined 27 points and 18 rebounds in the past two games.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.