When A’ja Wilson was picked first in the 2018 WNBA Draft, it was an accomplishment worthy of celebration, if an unsurprising one. The consensus NCAA Player of the Year seemed primed for a fruitful WNBA career, and so far, she’s delivered.
Wilson lived up to the hype in her rookie season, grabbing an All-Star berth and Rookie of the Year honors while setting a bevy of franchise records. But a player like her doesn’t come around every year, nor do the accolades she collected in college always translate to immediate WNBA success.
This season, as an All-Star captain, Wilson’s trajectory continues to prove historic. But with only one rookie — a replacement for the injured Wilson herself — on the 2019 All-Star roster, it just goes to show how rare a rookie like Wilson is, especially with everything she accomplished in her first season.
In the spirit of the All-Star Game, though, here are two five-player All-Rookie teams — think the Rising Stars Challenge in the NBA, except with only first-year players. With so few rookies in the WNBA, plus having to narrow down a guard-heavy class to just four backcourt players, this was difficult. Rest assured, any combination of the available rookies would make for a great game, even if only one was deemed All-Star-worthy this season.
WNBA All-Rookie Team #1: Team Collier
Captain/Frontcourt: Napheesa Collier, Minnesota Lynx
For a player coming out of one of the most storied college programs in the nation in UConn, Collier has actually exceeded expectations — enough to put her right near the top of the Rookie of the Year race. Her All-Star replacement nod bears testament to this. Collier is one of two rookies who has started every game she’s played in (Jackie Young is the other) and she is holding strong as the third-best scorer and second-best rebounder among rookies. Her 27-point effort in her first career game set the bar high, but she’s brought it in every outing since.
Frontcourt: Han Xu, New York Liberty
Despite not getting much playing time so far — she’s the only rookie on this list to not have appeared in double-digit games — Han is a lock for what she’s been able to do with the minutes she’s been given. She’s a great shooter — 48 percent — coming into her own the more court time she gets. Like in the Liberty’s preseason game against China, Han would thrive once more in an exhibition setting like this.
Frontcourt: Kalani Brown, Los Angeles Sparks
One of many players on this list who fits under the category of “quietly consistent on a team with a lot of big names,” Brown isn’t leading in any statistical areas among her fellow rookies but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t been effective. With two 12-point efforts, only one scoreless game and a season-best eight rebounds on Tuesday, Brown is there as far as WNBA readiness — maybe even a sleeper pick for All-Rookie Game MVP.
Backcourt: Asia Durr, New York Liberty
Durr was Swish Appeal’s pick for the rookie most likely to have a breakout season. Were it not for all the excellent rookie guards this season, she may have been a captain here. With eight double-digit scoring efforts and coming in the top three among rookies in minutes and points per game, Durr is another pro-ready player who hasn’t had much chance to shine on her own terms. This is partially because the Liberty have been so inconsistent, but also because Kia Nurse has been stepping into the role that many thought Durr would, as the team’s second scorer to Tina Charles. That doesn’t mean Durr hasn’t been valuable to the Liberty, though. In addition to making this honored list, she’s easily still in contention for Rookie of the Year.
Backcourt: Maite Cazorla, Atlanta Dream
It’s not just that this team needs a point guard — it’s that this team needs a point guard who has earned the spotlight that Cazorla has. She can score, assist and shoot the three, all of which seem to be rare commodities for the last-place Dream. Plus, like many of her fellow All-Rookie Team members, she’s only had one scoreless game in her short career, even with the few minutes she’s played. That’s the kind of consistency — however loosely-defined — that deserves some recognition.
WNBA All-Rookie Team #2: Team Ogunbowale
Captain/Backcourt: Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas Wings
The leading scorer among rookies, the only time Ogunbowale has ever been held scoreless — or even below six points — was the June 9 game where she left injured after just six minutes. Despite only starting 13 of the 18 games she’s appeared in, Ogunbowale still makes herself invaluable on the court, racking up the second-most minutes of all the rookies and the most field goal attempts by six per game. Once her shooting percentage matches her prolific shooting, Ogunbowale will find herself in All-Star territory.
Backcourt: Jackie Young, Las Vegas Aces
Young might not be a captain, but putting the No. 1 overall draft pick on either of these squads is still incredibly unfair to the other team. As mentioned above, she’s the only rookie besides Collier to have never come off the bench. She also leads all rookies in assists and comes in second in steals. While Young has had some unproductive games this season, that the Aces have plenty of star power to lean on to fill those voids has given her a lot of room to grow.
Frontcourt: Teaira McCowan, Indiana Fever
In a draft class full of excellent rebounders, McCowan has risen above them all. So far, she’s averaging a staggering eight rebounds per game, with a healthy balance of production on the offensive and defensive glass. And considering she’s played at least 350 more minutes than the three rookies ahead of her in field goal percentage, her 50 percent average may as well top them all. (Plus, that game-winning buzzer-beater in her first-ever game? Come on.)
Frontcourt: Kristine Anigwe, Connecticut Sun
It took Anigwe some time to start getting into games regularly, but being the last rookie from the Sun’s opening-day roster standing on a competitive team, that’s just how it is. In any case, Anigwe made a statement in Wednesday’s game with a season-high eight points in only nine minutes. The record-breaking collegiate rebounder also has had at least one board in each of her last five games. Put her up against a bunch of rookies here, and you’ll see that fire come out even more.
Frontcourt: Megan Gustafson, Dallas Wings
As the only player on this list to not make an opening-day roster, the justification for Gustafson is less, “Well, who else is there?” and more “Well, why not?” In this hypothetical All-Rookie game, why not include the player with the second-best field goal percentage among rookies (caveat: hasn’t played as much; see Teaira McCowan’s entry)? While Gustafson’s last five games have yielded just two points in 25 minutes, her first five games were, all things considered, excellent. And in an environment with all the talent of the late rounds of the NCAA Tournament, but with the laid-back nature of the All-Star Game, it would be nice to see Gustafson thrive again.
There aren’t nearly enough rookies for that! But let’s see:
Marina Mabrey and Sophie Cunningham just barely missed making the list (thanks, guard-heavy rookie class). Marine Johannès is also clearly worthy, but has only four very recent games under her belt and therefore wouldn’t have received many hypothetical votes (THANKS, GUARD-HEAVY ROOKIE CLASS). Finally, Jessica Shepard would have made the list easily were she not injured and out for the season. If you want, go ahead and think of her as having made the team and later replaced by a healthy player.
All stats from WNBA Stats.