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Checking in on the 2021 WNBA Draft class

The 2021 WNBA Draft was regarded as one of the weakest in recent memory. Has anything changed for the now-sophomores?

Atlanta Dream v Washington Mystics Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2021 WNBA Draft class got off to a historically poor start. In their rookie years, not a single player averaged even nine points a game, becoming only the second draft class not to have a double-digit scorer. Only four rookies who played in at least 10 games had a positive plus-minus, and the rookie of the year, Michaela Onyenwere, had a net rating of minus-5.9 points per 100 possessions.

But rookies aren’t expected to dominate immediately — a slow start doesn’t necessarily rule out a long and successful pro career. One of the theories posited for why the 2021 rookies hadn’t made a positive impact was that they hadn’t been given enough court time yet, something that theoretically should have been resolved in year two.

What the 2022 season has shown, though, is that the WNBA waits for no one. As we check in on the 2021 draft class, the players who struggled early haven’t yet had substantial improvements as sophomores, for the most part, and many of them aren’t even around anymore to get that opportunity. Those who carved out rotation roles as rookies have seen some gains, but the overall picture of second-year players isn’t terribly rosy.

Roster turnover continues to prune the sophomore class

There were 22 rookies who took the court in 2021, 19 of them coming from that year’s draft class (the exceptions were Bernadett Határ, Stephanie Jones, and Haley Gorecki). Rennia Davis was on the Minnesota roster all year, but injured, and Iliana Rupert was a deliberate draft and stash, so the 2021 class debuted with 21 players.

Connecticut Sun v Dallas Wings
A rare photo of two 2021 rookies, DiJonai Carrington and Chelsea Dungee, facing each other.
Photo by Cooper Neill/NBAE via Getty Images

Of those 21, only nine remain, including Kiana Williams, who is only hanging on due to a hardship contract. Arella Guirantes, Kysre Gondrezick, Destiny Slocum, Aaliyah Wilson, Stephanie Watts, Chelsey Perry, Chelsea Dungee, Shyla Heal, Natasha Mack, and Aleah Goodman (listed in order of total points in 2021) were waived either during last season or this offseason — five of them first-round picks. A sixth first-rounder, Davis, was cut by the Minnesota Lynx before playing a minute, though she did come back briefly on a hardship deal.

There have technically been 15 sophomores to see game action this year, but three of them were exclusively hardship signings (Stephanie Jones, Jennie Simms, and Kamiah Smalls), and the New York Liberty trio of Han Xu, Jocelyn Willoughby, and AD all had gap years.

Most sophomores have had tough starts to 2022

Let’s start with the top two picks in last year’s draft, the Wings frontcourt duo of Charli Collier and Awak Kuier. Collier has only played 27 minutes over nine games, a healthy scratch in three contests as coach Vickie Johnson consistently fiddles with her rotation. Dallas has been outscored by 24 points in those 27 minutes, a poor total for a Wings team that has been essentially neutral this season.

Kuier, on the other hand, has seen minutes in every contest, but with disastrous results as well. Her lack of physicality gets exploited by opposing bigs — notably Bri Jones in Dallas’ home-and-home against the Connecticut Sun last week — though her 1:1 block to foul ratio suggests that there is hope to harness her length into adequate defense.

Chicago Sky v Dallas Wings
Last year’s top two picks, Charli Collier (right) and Awak Kuier (middle) are still on the bench for Dallas more often than not.
Photo by Cooper Neill/NBAE via Getty Images

Moving down the draft board, Michaela Onyenwere and Jasmine Walker are two wings who simply can’t find their shot. Onyenwere is shooting under 40 percent on twos and and less than 27 percent on threes, but is at least getting to the foul line 9.0 times per 100 possessions, using that aggression to paper over some efficiency issues. Walker, meanwhile, has been exclusively a 3-point specialist, taking 17 of her 23 total shots from long range; unfortunately, she’s only made three. The Sparks forward should perhaps get a little more leeway since she only played 20 minutes last season, but she’ll have to improve her accuracy to be a more regular part of Derek Fisher’s rotation.

Two 2021 second-round picks, DiDi Richards and Kiana Williams, have combined for 22 minutes total. Hopefully, Richards is able to return soon for her hamstring injury.

There’s still hope!

Among the morass, three sophomores have stood out in 2022, starting with the lone remaining lottery pick, Aari McDonald. The Atlanta Dream have been a pleasant surprise in more ways than one, but the second unit has really delivered. The Dream have outscored opponents by 9.7 points per 100 possessions with McDonald on the court, and surprisingly, most of that margin has come offensively.

The second-year Arizona guard has revamped her shot and become an efficient scorer. At 5’6, scoring in the paint is never going to be easy for McDonald, but she’s become craftier with her finishing around the basket in 2022, converting on 60 percent of her two-pointers. The form on her jumper also makes McDonald instantly ready for threes off of catch and shoots and dribble handoffs. She can additionally create space for herself behind the arc with her stepback — the Atlanta guard won’t be drawing comparisons to Kelsey Plum just yet, but it’s a marked improvement from her rookie season.

As her offense as taken a leap, McDonald has remained as sneaky as ever on defense, collecting 3.4 steals per 100 possessions. That places her eighth in the league among players who have suited up for at least 100 minutes.

Another small guard who has impressed in her second season is Dana Evans. The Chicago Sky are entrusting her with more responsibility, playing her 19.0 minutes per game compared to 9.6 a year ago. That allows Evans to function as the point when Courtney Vandersloot sits, but also work off the ball, and her 42.3 percent mark from distance makes that a successful set-up for the Sky. There’s no reason to believe her shooting can’t hold considering her strong percentages at Louisville (37.7 percent from three from her career), and it appears that the increased time on the court is making Evans more comfortable.

Rounding out the trio of second-year guards making meaningful contributions is DiJonai Carrington. The Sun didn’t need much from Carrington last year with a healthy Jasmine Thomas, Briann January, and Natisha Hiedeman. Now that Thomas is out, however, and with the less defensively-minded Courtney Williams in place of January, Carrington has a bigger role to play.

She can defend bigger guards and some wings at 6’0, and she has been magnificent at turning defense into offense, running out in transition as a play finisher and creator. Like many other Sun players, Carrington fervently crashes the offensive glass — she has the highest offensive rebounding percentage (7.6) of any active guard in the WNBA — and takes advantage of opportunities against defenses that aren’t set.

Even with the exploits of McDonald, Evans, and Carrington, the 2021 draft class hasn’t done much to redeem itself in year two. Perhaps some players who were cut in the 2022 offseason will resurface in later WNBA seasons — Guirantes and Slocum, among others, seem likely to at least return to WNBA training camps. But for now, it might be worth focusing on the performances of the 2022 rookies and the promise of the 2023 draft.