For the first time since 2009, the Atlanta Dream will the top pick in the WNBA Draft. The Dream have been on the clock since trading with Washington last week, and though most expect Atlanta to select Rhyne Howard from Kentucky, there remains a possibility that the Dream could surprise by taking NaLyssa Smith out of Baylor or even someone else.
Howard, Smith, and Shakira Austin have dominated the top of the draft boards for months. And players like Destanni Henderson and Emily Engstler rocketed into first-round consideration with strong showings in the NCAA Tournament, both of them earning an invite to New York to be in the green room for the draft proceedings. Who else will surprise with their placement in Monday’s draft?
Now that draft day has finally arrived, it’s time to grade every pick in the first round. We’ll be updating this post throughout the night.
1. Atlanta Dream: Rhyne Howard, G, Kentucky
Is there anything Rhyne Howard can’t do? She has a pro-ready offensive game with her ability to run pick-and-rolls to score and facilitate. She was the lone NCAA D-1 player in 2022 with at least 600 points, 200 rebounds, 100 assists, 70 steals, and 35 blocks, demonstrating her versatility on the court. Her defensive potential is also equally exciting since she has the size and speed to guard 1 to 4 and also act as a menacing help defender. Atlanta is building from the ground up with a new head coach and new front office, and Howard is a transformational player to start the new era for the Dream.
2. Indiana Fever: NaLyssa Smith, C, Baylor
Indiana was in prime position to get an impact player at the top of this draft with two consensus candidates for the no. 1 pick. After Howard went to Atlanta, there was no question that the Fever would take Smith, who may have the highest motor of any player in this year’s draft. Indiana got rid of their most talented young center (Teaira McCowan) in a trade earlier this offseason, so Smith is now their frontcourt prospect of the future. The Fever get a double-double machine who has expanded her game to the perimeter under former Dream head coach Nikki Collen. Smith’s rebounding and boxing out is off the charts, and she just keeps getting better. Indiana may have screwed up first-round picks in years past (sorry, Kysre Gondrezick) — this is a win.
3. Washington Mystics: Shakira Austin, C, Ole Miss
The Mystics traded down from the top pick because they thought there wasn’t a big difference between Howard, Smith, and Austin, and now the Ole Miss center has to prove Washington right. Austin is an incredible defender who can be a foundational piece for the Mystics on that end with her verticality and lateral quickness. In a predraft call, ESPN’s LaChina Robinson said she was impressed with Austin “a competitor, good size at 6’5, good mobility, balance, athleticism, all those things that are just important as you’re making that jump to the next level.”
Austin also brought some relevance to Ole Miss after transferring from Maryland. She proved she could carry a team on her back, something Washington will need in a post-Elena Delle Donne future.
4. Indiana Fever: Emily Engstler, F, Louisville
Engstler wasn’t getting much first-round consideration before the NCAA Tournament, and now she’s Indiana’s second lottery pick of the night. Perhaps all Engstler needed was a national audience to show off how she could be the most disruptive defender in college basketball, but it’s always a little worrisome to draft someone based off a two-week hot streak.
Nevertheless, Engstler can make a real impact on the defensive end. She helped force the final South Carolina deficit of March Madness in the second quarter of the Final Four game with her ability to wreck through passing lanes and get out in transition. She’s also an excellent rebounder and passer, though her scoring could use some work. Her free-throw shooting was under 65 percent in college and she barely hit any jumpers during the tournament. If her offensive game continues to develop, though — and Engstler’s had a meteoric rise so far — this is a steal for Indiana.
5. New York Liberty: Nyara Sabally, C, Oregon
Sabally has one of the highest ceilings in this year’s draft, and her sister Satou was already an All-Star in year two with Dallas. But the younger Sabally had two ACL tears in her collegiate career, and there’s always a lingering health risk with a player who has that type of injury history.
It’s also strange that the Liberty would invest in a big when they have Natasha Howard and signed Stefanie Dolson this offseason. New York seemingly values bigs with range, and for all of Sabally’s offensive gifts — she is a talented scorer and pick-and-roll big — she does not space the floor the way for a five-out offense. Sabally is also not a defensive stalwart, and that’s where this team needs help. The talent is undeniable, but the fit with New York is a little strange.
6. Indiana Fever: Lexie Hull, G, Stanford
New general manager Lin Dunn said predraft that she didn’t want to have to teach defense with the Fever this year, she wanted to draft it. That’s the best way to understand the pick of Lexie Hull, who wasn’t mocked anywhere near the first round by most outlets. Hull was a good help defender at Stanford and stuffed the box score with 2.2 steals per game. The Cardinal were also second in the country in defensive rating.
But that defensive success largely stemmed from Cameron Brink and an overall strong team ecosystem, not Hull by herself. And it’s not like the Fever are getting a stout individual defender; even though Hull has good size, she doesn’t have the athleticism to contain strong perimeter players. And it’s not like the Stanford guard is going to be an offensive dynamo — she’s a great 3-point specialist on catch-and-shoots, especially if her release quickens, but she doesn’t have the handle to create for herself or others.
Hull could be a solid role player going forward. She’s been an integral part of an incredibly successful Stanford team for four years. But she would have been available much later for Indiana.
7. Dallas Wings: Veronica Burton, G, Northwestern
The Wings have loads of capable ball handlers but needed to improve their defense after ranking in the bottom half of the league (eighth) in 2021. Finding a defensive-minded player who can also fill in at point guard, arguably the weakest position in Dallas’ roster, is an excellent use of a first-round pick. Burton is a great playmaker who can create her own shot and get to the line, where she shot above 80 percent for her college career. There should be a strong jump-shooter in there, even if Burton was an average 3-point shooter at Northwestern.
But Burton was special defensively, a multi-time DPOY in the Big Ten whose steal rates suggest she can do much of the same in the pros. She can play next to any of the current Wings guards right now.
For what it's worth, I had Veronica Burton rated as the best draft-eligible player in college basketball last season. The steal rate is a huge part of that but Burton also had few if any weaknesses at Northwestern.— Kevin Pelton (@kpeltonWBB) April 11, 2022
8. Las Vegas Aces: Mya Hollingshed, F, Colorado
With Becky Hammon taking over for Bill Laimbeer, the obvious assumption is that the Aces will be spacing the floor more, and what better way to do that than with a forward who shot 39.6 percent on threes last year? Hollingshed screams 3-and-D, even if her offensive skillset is a little limited beyond shooting. The Aces might have been able to get her later in the draft — she wasn’t even invited Kierstan Bell is still on the board! — but her fit in las Vegas makes a ton of sense.
9. Los Angeles Sparks: Rae Burrell, G, Tennessee
Rae Burrell had perhaps the worst senior season of any player in this draft, but the Sparks don’t need someone to contribute this year. They can afford to slow-play Burrell, who had a leg injury in the season opener this year, and didn’t look like her junior year self in 2021-22. That junior season was impressive, as Burrell shot 40.2 percent on threes and helped Tennessee to a top-20 defensive rating.
That archetype of player — a shooter who can switch — is absolutely within Derek Fisher’s wheelhouse. L.A. is banking that Burrell gets back to that form at some point because there were more accomplished players on the board.
10. Indiana Fever: Queen Egbo, C, Baylor
Leave it to the Fever to take not one, but two, players who weren’t invited to the green room in the first round of the draft. Egbo and NaLyssa Smith were a dynamic duo in the Baylor, but this isn’t the Big 12 anymore. Indiana doesn’t need a plodding center who will struggle to adjust to the speed of the WNBA game — the Fever needed literally anything else. If they wanted a big, Naz Hillmon, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Elissa Cunane, or even Sika Kone were available. So much for Indiana doing what made sense at the start of this draft.
11. Las Vegas Aces: Kierstan Bell, G/F, FGCU
Another excellent fit for the Aces. Bell can play at both wing spots, finally giving Las Vegas a backup who has size for Jackie Young. Bell played in perhaps the most modern offense in all of college basketball at Florida Gulf Coast, so she should be able to step in and make the right reads immediately under Hammon. She can get her own shot and make plays for teammates on drive and kicks. Bell is also an excellent perimeter defender, another quality that will help her fit right in with the Aces.
Bell could have gone as high as no. 4 in this draft, so this was an easy pick for Las Vegas to make.
12. Connecticut Sun: Nia Clouden, G, Michigan St.
Strange to see the Sun go for an offense-first player, but perhaps Connecticut realized the team could use a little more juice in the halfcourt after the way Chicago strangled the Sun’s offense in the 2021 playoffs. Clouden is an excellent shooter both on spot-ups and off the dribbles. That could be redundant next to Courtney Williams, but too much shooting is never a bad thing. It’s hard to see Clouden getting on the court for Connecticut unless her defense picks up — at least she has one pro-level skill already.