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WNBA Draft preview: Washington Mystics aim for immediate return to contention

The Mystics are primed for their eighth playoff berth in 10 seasons.

Minnesota Lynx v Washington Mystics Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

The Washington Mystics won the 2022 WNBA Draft lottery to earn the No. 1 pick for the second time in franchise history and the first time since 1999, when the team selected Chamique Holdsclaw. Despite the raucous success of Holdsclaw — and most top overall picks — the Mystics opted out of the first selection in this year’s draft, making a trade with the Atlanta Dream instead.

Washington sent the 2022 No. 1 pick to Atlanta in exchange for No. 3, No. 14, and the right to swap firsts next year with the Los Angeles’ Sparks 2023 first-rounder, which the Dream own due to the Chennedy Carter/Erica Wheeler trade. That means Washington likely isn’t interested in Rhyne Howard or NaLyssa Smith, the consensus top two picks in every mock draft. So what will the Mystics do?

Picks: 3, 14

Washington was completely absent from the 2021 draft due to the Tina Charles trade and didn’t have any picks after the first in the 2022 draft after acquiring Sydney Wiese (who has since been waived) and Erica McCall last year. After also parting ways with their 2019 and 2020 draft selections, the Mystics are a little low on young, cost-controlled talent, perhaps explaining the desire to turn one pick into two with this trade.

The second round doesn’t always produce long-lasting contributors, Mike Thibault seems to have more faith than most in his ability to find talent later in the draft; both Natasha Cloud and Myisha Hines-Allen were second-round picks in 2015 and 2018, respectively. Washington only has seven players signed to non-training camp contracts, so the Mystics could realistically roster both their draft picks this year, and the lower salary of second-rounders will be helpful to a team facing a cap crunch.

Washington has Ariel Atkins, Alysha Clark, Natasha Cloud, Elena Della Donne, Myisha Hines-Allen, and Elizabeth Williams signed to protected contracts for 2022. That’s a full starting lineup, assuming EDD is healthy, plus a wing reserve in Hines-Allen or Clark. The team has a few bigs signed to unprotected and training camp deals, including McCall, Tianna Hawkins, and Megan Gustafson, along with fan favorite Shatori Walker-Kimbrough in the backcourt.

The future of this team is Atkins, Cloud, EDD, and Hines-Allen, so the Mystics can really draft for any need, though a wing or a big would make the most sense. As it happens, the top prospect on the board behind Howard and Smith is Shakira Austin, a center out of Ole Miss. Austin has been dominant for the Rebels with monstrous rebounding and block rates combined with the ability to get a high volume of shots up despite being the main focus of opposing defenses. Our Eric Nemchok expounded on Austin’s handles as well, a nice plus for a player of her size.

If Washington elects not to prioritize a center — and given the team’s proclivity for jump-shooters and a five-out offense, that’s a realistic path — Emily Engstler and Kierstan Bell would be potential options as big wings. Both players can function with or without the ball in their hands and provide defensive versatility. Engstler proved she could space the floor, though on low volume from three, while Bell was eager to get shots up in Florida Gulf Coast’s threes and layups offense, but still needs to work on her accuracy. It’s easy to see either Engstler or Bell fitting into a more up-tempo offense emphasizing ball movement and spacing if that’s what the Mystics choose to do.

With the 14th pick, Washington should have several perimeter options to select a guard who can learn from Cloud and Atkins. Nia Clouden, Destanni Henderson, and Aisha Sheppard were all good collegiate shooters, Henderson maybe the weakest of the bunch but also the most stout defensively. If the Mystics don’t take Austin or a big with their first pick, they could find a center at No. 14, like Naz Hillmon, Mya Hollingshead, Olivia Nelson-Ododa. The idea of Hillmon playing in Washington’s system with her significant lack of range is humorous, but if anyone can get her to shoot, it has to be Thibault.

The Mystics have high-level top-end talent, even with the departure of Charles. The problem the last two seasons has been their lack of depth once injuries hit. This draft is an opportunity to shore up two of those back-end rotation slots if the team chooses wisely. Unfortunately, Washington hasn’t hit in the draft since 2018. Now would be a great time to reverse that trend.