Which Teams Followed Our Advice In The WNBA Draft — And Which Teams Didn’t?
The WNBA’s most magical night of the year — when professional dreams come true in five-minute increments — has come and gone, with Monday night’s 2022 draft now in the rearview mirror.
Earlier that day, we spelled out what each team picking in the first round needed this season. So, with all the picks in, we’re back on the clock to determine just how well every team did.
Here, we present our diagnoses followed by each team’s prescription.
What we wrote: “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.”
What happened: Well, no shock there: The Dream now get to build around Howard, who was selected first overall. But in a mild surprise, Atlanta also snagged Michigan big Naz Hillmon with the 15th overall pick, after the 6’2” center fell because of concerns about her size and perimeter game. You loyal FiveThirtyEight readers doubtlessly remember my take on this back in the winter — that using her height, rather than her wingspan, is an imperfect tool. And both Hillmon’s finishing around the rim and her rebounding — especially her rebounding — suggest a player more than capable of competing against WNBA bigs. Her floor, then, is a contributor, and the ceiling, if she adds the perimeter game, is considerably higher than her fellow second rounders.
What we wrote: “Indiana is about to construct a team in [new general manager Lin] 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.”
What happened: Well, I nailed three of the four as Fever picks, though (full disclosure) Indiana didn’t have to select Henderson until 20th overall, and it added shooting guard Lexie Hull of Stanford at No. 6 and Baylor big Queen Egbo at No. 10 as well.
“I’ve already had people texting me trying to trade for some of my picks. And when that happens, you know you’ve done a good job,” Dunn told assembled media after the draft.
As I wrote on Monday, the draft offered Dunn and the Fever the perfect opportunity to begin a rebuild. While I’m sure many are impatient with Indiana’s results and want a win-now team, it would be a big mistake to bury these rookies and deemphasize development. They have a brilliant basketball mind at the helm in Stanley, and Dunn knows what she’s doing in building a team. Let these two work together and give them a three-year runway.
We should see loads of lineups with Egbo, Smith, Engstler, Kelsey Mitchell and Henderson, and mistakes will be made. But this is where the Fever are — making sure their top prospects get floor time and understanding that 2022 is about hopefully improving and winning the Aliyah Boston Lottery in the 2023 draft.
What we wrote: “The Mystics maintained that third pick, and many believe [Washington head coach and GM Mike] 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.”
What happened: Good news for draft boards: Thibault went with Austin, and she knows the task ahead of her.
“For me it’s just about maintaining my energy coming into the pros,” Austin said to the press over Zoom on draft night. “I’m really just focused on my defense. I’m pretty sure that’s going to be able to translate easier than my offense, and that’s going to get me time on the floor and that’ll build my confidence as well.”
She’s not wrong, and there’s a single stat that helps clarify the pick. Last year, the Mystics had only one player with a block rate above 3 percent, Theresa Plaisance, and she signed with Las Vegas Aces this past offseason. Austin, meanwhile, blocked 7.2 percent of available shots her senior year at Mississippi.
The Mystics went on to draft UConn guard Christyn Williams at 14, with Thibault believing there is more offense to unlock out of her.
“She fits the kind of player we want: a winner, unselfish, knows how to score but knows kind of when to score, too,” Thibault said at the Mystics’ draft party. “But I think we’ll probably be yelling at her to shoot a little bit more.”
Whether his yelling produces different results than Geno Auriemma and Chris Dailey’s remains to be seen.
New York Liberty
What we wrote: “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.”
What happened: Well, New York went ahead and did just that, selecting Sabally at the fifth pick, and then compounded its interior gains with the selection of Georgia Tech big Lorela Cubaj, the ninth-best defensive rebounder in the country, at 18th overall.
My favorite Cubaj stat, though, is her 28.2 assist percentage, an Alyssa Thomas-esque number that reflects her ability to be a secondary distributor in Sandy Brondello’s offense.
“We really liked that part, but her ability to facilitate, that’s kind of rare,” Brondello said on Locked On Women’s Basketball following the draft. “And we think she’s going to keep developing on her offensive skills, that having a post player that can set great screens and make the right passes for easy baskets to get our shooters open.”
What we wrote: “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? … 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.”
What happened: Down in Dallas, Bibb is letting chaos rule the day, as I suggested he might. And so, in addition to Dungee, Harris and Jefferson, Mabrey and Ogunbowale, the Wings added Veronica Burton, the point guard out of Northwestern who I suggested could be a target for the Connecticut Sun at No. 12. She didn’t come close to falling that far, though, and for a team looking for more defensive production out of its backcourt, this move could signal that Burton will not only make the roster but play early and often.
Bibb often cites the desire to create roster crunches to maximize competition, and it seems like Harris is responding in just that way.
Las Vegas Aces
What we wrote: “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 [Chelsea] Gray at the 1. Hollingshed also makes sense here.”
What happened: Again, not bad: two out of three. Hollingshed, the big wing from Colorado, went to Vegas at No. 8, Pointer at No. 13, while Kierstan Bell was taken 11th overall. The FGCU guard? — big? (I mean, she played the 5 much of the time for the Eagles, but let’s call her a wing) — adds scoring off the bench for coach Becky Hammon’s Aces.
The most important thing about Hollingshed was her improved three-point shooting this season at Colorado — 39.6 percent. Serving as an apprentice to Dearica Hamby will require her to do more of the same in the Las Vegas rotation. See if you can spot the Hambyness in this description from Aces GM Natalie Williams.
“Mya Hollingshed, I can’t say enough about this kid. A stretch 4 who can shoot the 3 as well as she can, defend probably 1 through 5,” said Williams of Hollingshed. “Her three-point shooting and her athleticism is something that Becky Hammon really loved.”
Pointer will spell Gray at the 1, and Bell is a true wild card with loads of talent — but she’ll need to prove she can guard at whatever position she ends up playing. Worth the gamble at 11, though.
Los Angeles Sparks
What we wrote: “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.”
What happened: The Sparks did something different from what I suggested, but I like it. Hull was off the board by the time they picked, and while Williams went soon after to D.C., the Los Angeles brain trust was thrilled to get a lottery-tier talent (but for a knee injury in her senior season) in Tennessee wing Rae Burrell.
“She sees herself as a guard and she does have those types of guard skills and we just feel that’s important to the way we want to play offensively,” Sparks head coach and general manager Derek Fisher said. “Everybody knows we had to get better on that end of the floor . . . We love the versatility she possesses on the offensive end in terms of shooting the basketball and being able to do some things off the dribble, getting to the spots that she likes to get her shot off.”
Burrell isn’t really defined by her final year stats in Knoxville. Instead, the Sparks brought someone in who can make the roster, play hard in practice and soak up knowledge from the veterans around her. No one left at the nine pick had a higher ceiling.
What we wrote: “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.”
What happened: As mentioned, I suggested that Miller try to replace January, who signed with the Seattle Storm this past offseason, with the 12th pick. But with Burton off the board, Miller went with more of a combo hybrid, 5’8” guard Nia Clouden out of Michigan State. Miller told assembled media Monday night he expects to use her at both the 1 and the 2.
“She’s got the wiggle that we were looking for, and she’s a talented player off the ball screen,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of college players who don’t play in ball screens, so Nia coming in with the experience playing off of ball screens already really jumpstarts her into her pro career.”
Clouden is an accomplished offensive player, but don’t sleep on her defense, either — she allowed just 0.669 points per possession in her final season with the Spartans, good for 135th among 660 qualifiers with at least 200 possessions nationally.
That’s not as valuable as January just yet. But it’s a start.