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Inside the W with Michelle Smith: WNBA Draft Review

A winning combination of talent and youthful exuberance came to the WNBA on Monday night in the league’s 26th Draft in New York City, the league’s first in-person draft event in three years.

The players that have been scouted for a year found their places in the league, at least for the moment, and will quickly pivot to preparing for their first training camps as professional basketball players.

A draft that was considered one of the deepest and most talent-rich in the past five years is now done, and what’s next is the assessment phase, followed by the evaluation phase once camp starts, followed by the reality phase when the regular season kicks off on May 6.

There is some measure of reality already in this process. With 144 spots in a 12-team league – and quite a few teams only carrying 11 players because of the salary cap this season – landing on a WNBA roster is as difficult as it’s ever been. But hope and “upside” spring eternal.

Let’s rank the WNBA teams and how they addressed their needs with the 2022 Draft.

  1. Washington.: The Mystics traded away the No. 1 pick and got the player they wanted anyway at No. 3 with 6-foot-5 Shakira Austin out of Mississippi, who will be surrounded by veteran talent, who will show her the ways of the WNBA as Mike Thibault prepares to get the most out of a long, versatile young post who will be a strong defensive presence inside. At No. 14, the Mystics grabbed Connecticut standout guard Christyn Williams, who could turn into a really nice pro guard off the bench, as most Huskies turn out to be more pro-ready than the average college player.

 

  1. Atlanta: The team with the No. 1 pick got the player they wanted in Rhyne Howard, who they hope will have the same kind of defining, lasting impact on the franchise that Angel McCoughtry did back in 2009. The Kentucky star, the second-leading scorer in Kentucky basketball history (men or women) is viewed nearly unanimously as a pro-ready wing with the ability to shoot the 3, facilitate for her teammates, handle the ball and be a consistent offensive option. Having her play alongside last year’s No. 3 pick in Aari McDonald will be intriguing. With its only other pick in this draft, the Dream selected Michigan’s Naz Hillmon, an undersized post whose competitiveness and work ethic make her a risk worth taking in terms of her ability to find her spot in the WNBA.

 

  1. New York: If Nyara Sabally can stay healthy and develop into the kind of pro that people envision she can be, the Liberty will have pulled off something game-changing with their No. 5 pick in this draft. New York has Natasha Howard and Stefanie Dolson, but needs post depth, experience with the pick-and-roll and Sabally brings a lot of proverbial upside. She will need to improve defensively, but she has size you can’t teach, is a strong finisher and is still viewed as something of a diamond in the rough. The opportunity to pick up Sika Kone, the 19-year-old from Mali, who has good international experience and could blossom into a special player, was too good to pass up as the fifth pick in the third round when she hadn’t moved off the board yet.

 

  1. Indiana: With so many picks in the first round – more than any team in WNBA history – the Indiana Fever took their shot at a makeover with their first two picks. At No. 2 NaLyssa Smith out of Baylor is a no-brainer as the best player available and she will quickly upgrade the Fever on both ends of the floor inside the paint. With the No. 4 pick, Indiana gets another potential star in Louisville’s Emily Engstler, who had been called “the most disruptive defensive player” in college basketball this season and those words are music to Lin Dunn’s ears. Indiana pulled off the Draft’s first big surprise by taking Stanford’s Lexie Hull at No. 6. Hull, who averaged 18 points a game in the NCAA Tournament for the Cardinal, is a hustle-and-heart player that can shoot the 3, defend and will be a culture-builder. The Fever’s final first-round pick went to their third post of the night with Baylor’s Queen Egbo, Smith’s frontcourt mate in Waco. The most noteworthy name for the Fever outside of the first round is South Carolina’s Destanni Henderson, who will play the kind of tenacious defense that is the Indiana calling card and should be able to contribute off the bench.

 

  1. Los Angeles: The opportunity to take a young wing like Tennessee’s Rae Burrell was too good to pass up for the Sparks, who said they had her “circled” the entire season. Burrell’s knee injury slowed her this season, but she can shoot the 3 well, brings length on the defensive end and has a great chance to grow. Additionally, the Sparks took Louisville guard Kianna Smith and Connecticut post Olivia Nelson-Ododa, along with Hawaii guard Amy Atwell, an Australian who was the Big West Player of the Year.

 

  1. Las Vegas: Picking up two more draft picks from Minnesota gave the new team at Aces’ headquarters – team president Nikki Fargas, head coach Becky Hammon and general manager Natalie Williams lots of choices heading into their first training camp. Vegas pulled off the second big surprise of the first round by taking Colorado’s Mya Hollingshed, a long, athletic post who will be able to learn much from A’ja Wilson and Dearica Hamby. And then Vegas took Kierstan Bell at No. 11, who may be one of the steals of the draft because she should be able to play at both the 3 and the 4 and provide Las Vegas some depth and scoring at the wing as well as some strong perimeter defensive help. The Aces took a pair of LSU players, with Khayla Pointer at No. 13 and Faustine Aifuma at No. 23 and Virginia Tech’s Aisha Sheppard at No. 23.

 

  1. Seattle: The Storm pick up a pair of players in the second-round who were on some draft boards as first-round picks, including North Carolina State All-American Elissa Cunane and Georgia Tech’s Lorela Cubaj. Getting Evina Westbrook from Connecticut with No. 21 also feels like a bonus, considering the track record of success of UConn players on the Storm roster.

 

  1.  Connecticut: Taking Michigan State’s Nia Clouden with the final pick in the first round, the Sky were looking for some more scoring out of the backcourt and some backup for Courtney Williams. In fact, backcourt depth seemed the way to go with Baylor’s Jordan Lewis as the No. 24 pick and Florida’s Kiara Smith at No. 35.

 

  1. Dallas: On a team already built with young stars, the Wings took Northwestern guard Veronica Burton at No. 7 in the hopes that she can improve their defensive prospects. Burton was the three-time Big Ten defensive player of the year. She also brings point guard experience, which the Wings could use.

 

  1. Minnesota:  The Lynx traded two of their picks in this Draft to Las Vegas over the weekend, knowing they didn’t have the cap space to overcommit to young players. They chose Kayla Jones from North Carolina State with the No. 22 pick and South Dakota’s Hannah Sjerven with the No. 28 pick after an impressive NCAA Tournament run that raised her visibility. Both look to make the most of their training camp invites.

 

  1. Phoenix: With Notre Dame’s Maya Dodson (a grad transfer from Stanford, hence the Vanessa Nygaard connection) and Macee Williams from IUPUI at No. 32, the Mercury are filling out a training camp roster, but it is not likely to see either player land a roster spot.

 

  1. Chicago: The Sky took care of business during free agency and had no picks in this draft. They come in at No. 12 by default.

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