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2022 WNBA Draft: Rhyne Howard, 11 others react to dream come true

Rhyne Howard was “still kind of shaking” at the post-draft press conference, even though she pretty much knew beforehand that she would go No. 1. Plus, hear from Nalyssa Smith, Shakira Austin and more!

WNBA Draftees at Empire State Building
Rhyne Howard at the Empire State Building.
Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

During Monday night’s WNBA Draft, media members were able to talk to 12 of the draftees and get their reactions to discovering their new destinations. Here’s the story of the 2022 WNBA Draft:

No. 1 pick Rhyne Howard (Atlanta Dream)

SB Nation mock draft: No. 1

Considered the best player in the country entering the 2020-21 NCAAW season before we saw a second of playing time from Paige Bueckers, Howard was the projected No. 1 pick for a long time and was expected to be a stronger No. 1 than 2021’s Charli Collier (Texas). Then came the 2021-22 NCAAW season and NaLyssa Smith of Baylor cut the attention Howard was receiving in half as she made her own case for the top selection. It wasn’t until the Atlanta Dream traded for the No. 1 pick that it became clear that Howard would be taken No. 1.

“To go first, I don’t even have words for it right now,” she said. “I’m still kind of shaking. But it is super exciting, and I’m proud of what I’ve done, proud of myself, and thankful for everyone that’s been on this journey with me and that’s helped me to get here.”

No. 2 pick NaLyssa Smith (Indiana Fever)

SB Nation mock draft: No. 2

Smith is a two-time Big 12 player of the year who lacks Howard’s ability to really run an offense and isolate at the top of the key for a final shot. She’s not the all-around offensive player that Howard is. Howard more closely fits what your typical WNBA superstar plays like. But Smith could become a superstar in her own way with her explosiveness at the power forward position. She’s going to work on her 3-point shot to become more of a threat from out there and has a lot of great intangibles.

When asked what former Atlanta Dream and current Baylor coach Nicki Collen told her she needed to do to prepare for the WNBA, Smith said:

“Mainly just improving on shooting the three, outside game, because that’s going to help me a lot more, being great in many aspects except one.”

The Fever picked up four players in the first round, as well as Destanni Henderson, who was a steal at No. 20. But of those five, Smith carries the most responsibility when it comes to turning the franchise around.

“It’s a great feeling,” she said of going to Indiana. “We have four top picks, so it’s a chance and an opportunity for this team to grow tremendously.”

No. 3 pick Shakira Austin (Washington Mystics)

SB Nation mock draft: No. 3

When Austin entered college at Maryland, Terrapin head coach Brenda Frese thought that if she didn’t turn Austin in to a Top 5 WNBA pick, she’d know she’d done something wrong. Austin played two years with the Terps before really seeing her game improve over two the course of two years with the Ole Miss Rebels. Given the upside of her offensive game, her ceiling seems just as high as Howard’s and Smith’s, which is probably why the Mystics felt comfortable giving up the No. 1 pick.

Going to the Mystics is a homecoming for Austin, who is from Fredericksburg, Va.

“It means a lot,” she said. “My dad, my family, I have my mom, who wanted me to go to Atlanta, my dad pushing for D.C., so I think my dad’s prayer worked a little bit more. But we’re just excited, like I said, just for this opportunity to be able to learn and to really grow and to be able to help a community that I’ve been playing in, that I’m familiar with, the DMV. That’s my home. To be able to bring a championship there is now my next goal.”

No. 4 pick Emily Engstler (Indiana Fever)

SB Nation mock draft: No. 5

Engstler is from New York City, so hearing her name called at Spring Studios was especially meaningful.

“I got a little emotional up there for a second because I think it all hit me at once,” she said. “This has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I’m super grateful, and I feel very blessed.”

Engstler was a really good player at Syracuse, but her rising all the way to No. 4 took a year at Louisville that saw her become a household name at the Final Four.

“I’ll be honest with you, (transferring) probably (did raise) my draft stock to No. 4,” she said. “It was a very smart decision. I made it because I thought it was the best decision at the time in my life, and I’m very blessed. Going there has taught me so much on and off the court, and I’m going to bring that with me into the league.”

No. 5 pick Nyara Sabally (New York Liberty)

SB Nation mock draft: No. 6

The younger sister of Dallas Wings All-Star Satou Sabally is headed to the W.

“It’s a surreal moment,” N. Sabally said. “It’s just something you look forward to your whole life and something I’ve been looking forward to all day. I’ve been nervous about it, but I’m just so glad that I could be here. It’s amazing to get drafted by New York. This city is amazing, the organization is amazing. It’s just very surreal, and I’m super excited.”

Nyara, like Satou, went to the University of Oregon and will now be playing with another Duck in Sabrina Ionescu.

“Obviously Sab is such an amazing point guard, such an amazing person,” N. Sabally said. “I saw her in practice every day, I saw her working every day on the court. So, I’m just very excited to finally share the court with her and not just in practice.”

No. 7 pick Veronica Burton (Dallas Wings)

SB Nation mock draft: No. 10

The Backcourt Burglar lived in the shadows of Northwestern teammate Lindsey Pulliam’s offensive greatness during the Wildcats’ great 2019-20 season that saw them earn a No. 3 seed in Swish Appeal’s hypothetical bracket. She then surprisingly overtook Pulliam as the team’s leading scorer the next year and has been an attractive prospect ever since.

“Honestly that wasn’t something that I really thought about too much,” Burton said when asked when she realized she could go in the first round. “Coming into this, I had very minimal expectations. I don’t really like to get my hopes up too much. But obviously I had heard about it. You see the mock drafts and everything like that, and you hear the conversations. And so talking to some of the coaches, I think that’s when it kind of became more and more on my mind. Over the course of the season, I knew things were going pretty well.

“But what round I went in and what pick I was wasn’t really at the top of my mind and not something I thought about too much. I’m just blessed and happy to be here.”

Burton’s dad, Steve Burton (@STEVEBURTONWBZ), is a sports journalist who covers the New England Patriots, so the Pats gave Veronica a shoutout:

No. 9 pick Rae Burrell (Los Angeles Sparks)

SB Nation mock draft: No. 11

Fourteen years ago, another Tennessee Lady Volunteer was drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks and we all know how that worked out.

“Candace, she came in and had an immediate impact and changed the game for them,” Burrell said. “I hope to do the same thing, just come in and come with that same grit and grind that she did, and to be half the player that she is.”

Burrell dealt with injuries this past season, but is a great scorer who averaged a career-best 16.8 points per game as a junior. LA hopes that both she and last year’s No. 7 pick Jasmine Walker can make a difference on a team that has high expectations.

“I’m looking forward to adding some versatility to the roster,” Burrell said. “I’m a big guard. I’m lengthy. I like to play defense and I also like to play offense, so hopefully I can help on both sides of the court. Just with the help of the vets and learning and absorbing all the information that I get, I think I can really help this team.”

No. 11 pick Kierstan Bell (Las Vegas Aces)

SB Nation mock draft: No. 4

Our Sabreena Merchant gave this pick an A and for good reason. The Aces are no longer the frontrunners because of Liz Cambage’s departure and everything that Phoenix has added. But if Bell plays up to the highest point of her potential she will help keep them in the contender mix in the years to come. That may be a lot to say the day after the draft, but she is has superstar offensive player written all over her. We’ll see if it can translate from college to the pros.

“I’m versatile, so I’m not going to play in one position,” Bell said. “(Becky Hammon) can move me around and play me in different positions, and just being open-minded, like I said before. It’s going to be difficult at first, of course, because you’re going to go into the next level, but when you have great players on the team that you can learn from, that’s just an opportunity to grow.”

No. 12 pick Nia Clouden (Connecticut Sun)

SB Nation mock draft: No. 14

Clouden, from Maryland, is coming back to the East Coast after a great career at Michigan State. She scored 50 points in a game this season and is just an all-around great point guard. It was surprising to see her go as far ahead of Destanni Henderson as she did, but she is still a great pickup for the Sun.

“To be drafted is definitely a dream come true,” Clouden said. “It’s something I’ve wanted to achieve since I was a kid playing basketball, and then to go somewhere like Connecticut with a great team and great players, I couldn’t ask for anything better to be able to come in there and learn from them.

“I just plan to work hard, be vocal, and just learn.”

No. 15 pick Naz Hillmon (Atlanta Dream)

SB Nation mock draft: No. 15

Hillmon fell from a projected No. 4 pick by some to No. 15 in Eric Nemchock’s final SB Nation mock draft. So this wasn’t surprise, but it’s still newsworthy for such a big-name college player to miss out on the first round. One thing we know about Hillmon is that she is going to work incredibly hard to make it at the next level.

“I’m just excited to be here. I think that being disappointed in this moment is neglectful to the people who weren’t picked up at all. This has been a dream of mine for a very long time. So just being picked up by a team, for somebody to believe in me, first round, third round, I’m excited to be where I’m at.

“But everything is motivation. I could have been picked No. 1 and I still would have been motivated to get better, to perfect my craft. I wouldn’t say disappointed, but always ready to work.”

No. 17 pick Elissa Cunane (Seattle Storm)

SB Nation mock draft: No. 8

Like Howard, Smith and Hillmon, Cunane has been a household name to college basketball fans in recent years and played for a highly successful program in NC State. She was known as one of the best centers in the country, but lost the battle for ACC Player of the Year to another center, Elizabeth Kitley, as a senior. She was projected to go so high (No. 6 by ESPN) because of her ability to stretch the floor. But she can’t do much on the perimeter besides take an open shot. She doesn’t have the guard-like skills of an Elena Delle Donne. She still has the potential to be a solid WNBA player though.

“I didn’t really have any expectations for tonight. I know the WNBA is a very tough league to get into with the roster spots, so I was just looking forward to hearing my name called, which I did, and I’m excited to go to Seattle.”

No. 20 pick Destanni Henderson (Indiana Fever)

SB Nation mock draft: No. 7

Henderson was overlooked in this draft. I would understand her going this low after her junior season, but her senior year was something special. She can do everything you could ever need a point guard to do: sprint up the court with elite speed in transition, defend, drive, finish, distribute and shoot the three. She’s coming off a 26-point performance in a national championship game win and her talents were on full display during the entire NCAA Tournament.

“I wasn’t really expecting anything,” Henderson said. “I was just staying positive about the outcome and whichever order that it went, it really didn’t matter. I’m just very blessed and honored to be here and to be in New York and living the dream, living the moment that I’ve always dreamed of. Just hearing my name was my outcome, and I got that tonight.”