Just a week after women’s college basketball crowned South Carolina its champion, the WNBA draft is here. You can watch tonight at 7 p.m. Eastern on ESPN, and it’s nothing less than magical: Every few minutes, a young woman who has been working at her craft for many years will see her professional dreams come true.
But for WNBA teams, particularly those selecting in the first round, there’s a more business-like reason to anticipate this day: It is the final chance to add talent just a few weeks ahead of the league’s opening day on May 6.
For some teams, the stakes are lower. These are the teams drafting in Rounds 2 and 3, where most who are drafted do not make the opening night roster. Simply put, there’s much more talent than there are roster spots. The Minnesota Lynx are an example of this phenomenon, as we saw on Sunday, when general manager Cheryl Reeve traded her two top picks — eighth and 13th overall — to Las Vegas for the Aces’ first- and second-round picks in 2023.
“We believe this year’s draft is a good draft; however, with the players that we currently have under contract and the limited roster space remaining, we made the decision to turn our attention to future opportunities,” Reeve said after the trade was completed. A roster crunch for a win-now team — Sylvia Fowles, after all, is playing her final season — helped seal the deal.
Other teams have treated the 2022 draft similarly. Seattle doesn’t pick until 17th, with a roster built to maximize what is likely Sue Bird’s final year and Breanna Stewart’s commitment to the Storm, which runs through only 2022. Phoenix — with Diana Taurasi, Sylar Diggins-Smith, Tina Charles and, we all hope, Brittney Griner — won’t pick until 26th.
And the Chicago Sky? They won’t pick at all, the luxury for general manager James Wade when he kept his defending champions largely intact and then added former Finals MVP Emma Meesseman in free agency.
Wade vowed to me that he’ll be popping popcorn while he watches this evening. Hopefully he puts out the video and turns himself into a meme.
So who does have work to do tonight? Let’s break it down.
Start with the top pick, which goes to the Atlanta Dream — Atlanta acquired it in a deal with Washington and the Mystics sent back pick Nos. 3 and 14 in 2022. D.C. also received the right to swap picks with the Los Angeles Sparks’ first-round pick that Atlanta now holds, essentially Washington GM Mike Thibault subtweeting L.A. GM Derek Fisher’s offseason.
So what does Atlanta need? A lot. The Dream finished 8-24 last season, and new general manager Dan Padover is taking the long view, beginning with the addition of an elite talent. Barring some shock, it will be Rhyne Howard, the best overall player in the 2022 draft.
“Obviously, a good-sized wing player who can score in multiple ways and also has the ability to defend when she wants to,” Padover said on a conference call with reporters last week. “Led a program with not a ton of help around her for a lot of those four years and had a lot of responsibility on her back on the offensive end. So it’ll be interesting to see what she’s like around the pro level with teammates that have pro skills. But I think the ceiling for her is very high, and I think a lot of people would agree with that.”
Howard is a two-way wing from Kentucky, an elite finisher at the rim and 3-point shooter who is also north of 3 percent in both block and steal rates. She has largely suffered from the public conversation that always follows consensus top picks, namely that when one player is atop the rankings for too long, folks look for reasons not to pick her, rather than focusing on what got her to the top. But she’s going to be the first pick, she should be, and the Dream have their wing of the future as they chase the top pick in 2023 so they can pair her with Aliyah Boston of South Carolina. (Don’t even try to tell me it should be somebody else.) Padover, like I said, is taking the long view.
You know who else is taking the long view? Lin Dunn, new general manager of the Indiana Fever. She now controls Picks 2, 4, 6 and 10, and her Fever went 6-26 last season, while Indiana has just two guaranteed contracts for next season. If you wanted to construct the ideal scenario for a GM to rebuild, it is hard to imagine a better one.
“First and foremost in the first round, we’re looking at the best player available,” Dunn told reporters last week. “We’ve got a list. We’ve got a board charting those top 10 players by best available, and then we’ve also got a chart over here beside us charting what we need. In our particular situation, we need a lot. We need help inside. We need help outside. It’s a little bit easier for us to pinpoint our needs because they’re glaring. But we are essentially in that first round with 2, 4, 6 and 10 looking at the best player available.”
Indiana is about to construct a team in Dunn’s image. Some combination of Baylor big NaLyssa Smith, Louisville wing Emily Engstler, South Carolina guard Destanni Henderson and Colorado forward Mya Hollingshed would provide head coach Marianne Stanley with plenty to work with.
The Mystics maintained that third pick, and many believe Thibault will select Mississippi center Shakira Austin, while others are equally sure he will go in another direction. Certainly, both Engstler and Michigan big Naz Hillmon are more suited to the tasks of the D.C. offense and defense, but a pick of anyone other than Austin will shake up draft boards around the league.
At the fifth pick, the New York Liberty are in a position to get more value out of the draft, a season after general manager Jonathan Kolb snagged the Rookie of the Year, Michaela Onyenwere, at the sixth overall pick and added a key contributor, DiDi Richards, all the way down at 17. New York needs to get better on the boards, even after adding center Stef Dolson in free agency, and someone like versatile big Nyara Sabally, who was among the best rebounders in the nation this past season, will help tremendously. Hillmon, too, would be a good fit here, though that is mitigated by the extent new head coach Sandy Brondello plans to play five-out and how quickly New York thinks it can expand Hillmon’s range. They did it with Richards a year ago, however.
At seven, the Dallas Wings are a true wild card. Do they find a big to replace Bella Alarie, who is sitting out the 2022 season for personal reasons? They already added Teaira McCowan in a trade, and they have several other bigs, from Isabelle Harrison to 2020’s second overall pick Satou Sabally to last year’s top two picks in Charli Collier and Awak Kuier, to feed minutes to. Do they try to add to an already-crowded backcourt with Marina Mabrey, Arike Ogunbowale, last year’s fifth overall pick Chelsea Dungee, 2020’s seventh pick Tyasha Harris and veteran point guard Moriah Jefferson? It says here the best bet to stash an overseas player such as Sika Kone is at that seven spot. But Wings president Greg Bibb never shies away from adding to his roster crunches and letting the players fight it out for those 12 spots, either.
Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Aces are now in control of Picks 8, 11 and 13, the latter the first pick of the second round. And while we know relatively little about their intentions — Natalie Williams, the GM, has been on the job for only a few days, while the incoming coach, Becky Hammon, plans to play a very different style from departing bully-ball coach Bill Laimbeer — any team employing A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Dearica Hamby and Kelsey Plum in their primes is, by definition, a win-now team. Someone like NC State’s Elissa Cunane can help at the five, while Henderson or LSU’s Khayla Pointer makes sense as a change-of-pace guard to pair with Gray at the 1. Hollingshed also makes sense here.
Exactly what the Los Angeles Sparks can do at No. 9 is hard to pinpoint. As it is, there are really not enough minutes to go around among their bigs — somehow Chiney Ogwumike, a multi-time All-Star and legit star, might end up the fourth or fifth big — and there’s a similar logjam in the backcourt behind Chennedy Carter. It is easy to see L.A. go the stash route with Kone if Dallas doesn’t. Something like adding a combo guard like Christyn Williams of UConn or dead-eye shooter Lexie Hull of Stanford and seeing what they bring to camp could make sense here, too — Los Angeles does need plenty of offense and spacing.
Finally, at pick 12, I’ll make this simple: If Veronica Burton, the elite defensive point guard out of Northwestern, is available, Connecticut Sun GM Curt Miller has an easy path. He needs to replace Briann January, and he and his elite staff, led by Brandi Poole and Chris Kolanes, could get Burton up to speed quickly on pro schemes. While she’s been merely good, not great, from three, her strong free-throw percentages suggest there is growth potential there as well.