Sitting on the bench at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in late June, Atlanta Dream head coach Tanisha Wright did not think much of my question when I asked her who the 2022 WNBA Rookie of the Year should be.
“I mean, I don’t think it’s a question,” Wright said, as customarily blunt as she’s been in all our interactions over the years. “Do you?”
To Wright, the answer was obvious: her starting shooting guard, Rhyne Howard, the top overall pick from April’s draft and the scoring leader among rookies so far this season. Wright’s certainty extended beyond even her other standout rookies, Kristy Wallace and Naz Hillmon, while also looking past the other two top-three picks in the 2022 WNBA Draft, NaLyssa Smith of the Indiana Fever and Shakira Austin of the Washington Mystics.
But around the league, an increasing number of people are viewing this as a three-person race between Howard, Smith and Austin. The three offer significantly different profiles in both the shape of their production and the unfolding of their seasons.
Howard started especially strong this year, averaging 20.5 points per game over her first six WNBA contests on 43.7 percent shooting, including 46.5 percent from three. While her offensive production has regressed somewhat since — she’s averaging just 13.1 points per game and 35.4 percent shooting from the field in her last 16 games — Howard remains a true two-way threat for an Atlanta team that, if the season ended today, would be playoff-bound.
The primary reason for that is Atlanta’s defense — which ranks third in the WNBA — and Howard’s ability to disrupt opponents is at the center of that work. She leads all rookies in steals with 32, and among players with at least 100 possessions, her points allowed per possession on defense (0.708) is fourth-lowest among any player in the league, according to Synergy Sports.
“When my mom was coaching me growing up, she would emphasize defense as well [as offense],” Howard said, sitting at her locker following a win over the Liberty last month. “And so I have all this length, so I might as well use it,” she added with a smile.
But if defense is to carry the day, the case might be even stronger for Austin, who has now vaulted ahead of Howard in Basketball-Reference’s Win Shares among rookies this year. By Synergy’s defensive-points-per-possession metric, Austin is now second-best among all WNBA players, at 0.635, trailing only teammate Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.
Austin is a credible threat on the offensive side of the ball, too. She’s shooting 55.6 percent from the field and has eclipsed double figures eight times already this season.
“I think Austin, she gets better and better offensively,” Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said in June. “And that’s a really good fit for her and Washington.”
While Wright advocated that her star player get top billing, Austin made her own case for the award. “Obviously I’m going with myself [as Rookie of the Year],” Austin said earlier this month. “I think I have the confidence, and I come out here and play for a great team. We’re looking to build a championship right now. So I’m just trying to have that impact and really just continue to showcase what I have this year.”
And then there’s 6-foot-4-inch NaLyssa Smith, who isn’t playing for a contender like her award competition but is turning heads with her modern stretch-big game.
Smith leads the WNBA in rebounding among rookies with 163 — just ahead of her teammate, fellow rookie Queen Egbo, who has 152 — and she combines that with an array of post moves that let her finish at the rim at a 61 percent clip. She also shoots threes, nearly three of them a game, converting at a rate of 37.7 percent.
“One thing that you have to admire about Lyss — all our rookies but specifically Lyss and Queen — they have this chip on their shoulder that’s so big, but it’s effective,” Fever guard (and unjust All-Star snub) Kelsey Mitchell told me Monday. “And I love it. Like, it’s an unexplainable relationship I have for how they approach the game when it comes to being able to compete.”
Some of Smith’s numbers have overtaken Howard’s in recent weeks — she’s up to 13.7 points per game over her last seven contests, hitting 41 percent from the field and an impressive 44 percent from three. (Howard is averaging just 12.6 points and shooting 32 percent from the floor over the same span.) It does bear mentioning, however, that Smith trails both Howard and Austin by significant margins in more advanced stats such as Win Shares and Player Efficiency Rating.
All this is why plenty of experts (including Brondello) see a chance for each of the three rookies to overtake the field in the second half.
“It’s fun. It’s great for the league,” Brondello said. “It’s very competitive. I think they’re all three different players. So I wouldn’t say who’s better than the other.”
Which brings me back to Wright, who continued to challenge me. Did I have a Rookie of the Year pick? It was a reasonable line of questioning, considering I do have a vote and thus a say in the matter.
“Well, there’s three rookies putting up great numbers right now,” I said. “I’ll put it this way: I’m willing to ask the question.”
Wright wasn’t having it.
“Yeah, I don’t think it’s a question,” Wright said. “I think Rhyne Howard — so far — is Rookie of the Year.”
“So far” — yes, even Wright, the most vociferous supporter of her franchise player, added that caveat. That’s how competitive this Rookie of the Year race is getting.
Check out our latest WNBA predictions.