Can the 2022 WNBA rookie class make more of an impact than last year's first-season players?
Low evaluations of the 2021 draft played out during the WNBA season. Just one rookie -- the New York Liberty's Michaela Onyenwere, who won Rookie of the Year -- averaged even 20 minutes per game, while the five who played at least 10 MPG in at least 10 games were the fewest in league history by a wide margin. At least 10 first-year WNBA players had seen that much action in every previous season.
Still, this year's group of rookies has a better shot at contributing. Led by No. 1 pick Rhyne Howard, who has started both Atlanta Dream preseason games, they should get more opportunities to play big minutes. And their college stats suggest more players capable of helping their teams right away.
Using past WNBA draft picks as a comparison, we take a look at how the top 2022 WNBA rookies project as pros, listed by their draft pick last month. (Note: Nyara Sabally, the No. 5 pick in April's draft, will sit out this season after undergoing knee surgery. Mya Hollingshed, the No. 8 overall selection, was released by the Las Vegas Aces on Monday.)
1. Rhyne Howard, Atlanta Dream
The Dream traded up one spot to secure the ability to make Howard the centerpiece of their young core. As my ESPN colleague Alexa Philippou wrote earlier this week, the Washington Mystics trading out of the No. 1 spot added to questions about Howard's motor. There isn't much in Howard's statistics to support those concerns.
Notably, Howard racked up steals and blocks at high rates at Kentucky while also being a focal point of the Wildcats' offense. In my database of college statistics, which goes back to the 2001 draft, just eight other WNBA-bound prospects have also posted at least three steals per 100 team plays, three blocks per 100 2-point attempts and a usage rate higher than 25% of the team's plays. Six of the eight went on to become All-Stars, including all four top-two picks who met those criteria: Alana Beard, Angel McCoughtry, Maya Moore and Candace Parker.
Howard could stand to improve her rebounding in the WNBA, and her modest 47.5% accuracy on 2-pointers is something of a concern, but she projects as the best player in this year's draft. Add in what will likely be a large role in Atlanta and Howard is the clear Rookie of the Year favorite.
Smith's combination of high-volume scoring and strong efficiency is a relatively rare one. Just four other WNBA-bound prospects have topped both 30% usage and a .600 true shooting percentage as Smith did last season at Baylor. For whatever reason, that combo hasn't translated well to the WNBA. The group includes fringe players Megan Frazee (who was at mid-major Liberty), Megan Gustafson and Alanna Smith, along with 2017 No. 1 pick Kelsey Plum.
3. Shakira Austin, Washington Mystics
Given the trade between Atlanta and Washington before the draft, Austin's development will inevitably be compared to Howard's throughout their careers. If Howard's 2-point percentage is a concern, that goes double for Austin, who shot a similar 47% at a position where the average WNBA-bound player makes 55% of their 2s. However, Austin was a focal point of the Ole Miss offense (30% usage rate) in a way that won't be necessary on a veteran-laden Washington roster.
Instead, Austin can focus on providing value at the defensive end of the court. The 30% of available defensive rebounds Austin pulled down ranks fifth among WNBA-bound prospects in my database, while she also recorded blocks and steals at above-average rates for a center.
4. Emily Engstler, Indiana Fever
Using advanced statistical analysis, I've concluded that Engstler was more effective as a senior after transferring to Louisville than at Syracuse. More seriously, the magnitude of Engstler's improvement was remarkable. She rated as the very best player in this year's draft on a per-minute basis last season after previously rating as a fringe prospect.
Naturally, Engstler's combination of steals and blocks stands out. No other WNBA prospect in my database has ever recorded at least five steals per 100 team plays and five blocks per 100 opponent 2-point attempts. Add in Engstler's offensive skill and she's a one-of-a-kind prospect who perfectly fits Lin Dunn's aggressive defensive philosophy for the Fever.
6. Lexie Hull, Indiana Fever
After the Liberty selected Sabally, Dunn surprised prognosticators by taking Hull sixth overall. The appeal is clear: Hull is a strong shooter (39% on 3s last season, 37% career) who also brings disruptive defense with 3.7 steals per 100 plays. The concern is Hull made just 42% of her 2-point attempts, which made her an inefficient college scorer despite the 3s she made.
Given her steal rate -- 5.4 per 100 plays -- it's kind of surprising Burton made it past the Fever. Just three WNBA-bound prospects have beaten that in my database: Sherill Baker, Lexie Brown and Angel McCoughtry. Burton also projects as a sure-handed point guard, with an assist-to-turnover ratio in the top 10 among players in that group.
Although this year's draft class looks stronger than the 2020 group, the Aces waiving Hollingshed was a reminder of how difficult it is for rookies to make WNBA rosters. At No. 9, the Sparks will hope Burrell performs more like she did as a junior in 2020-21 (shooting 46% from the field and 40% from 3-point range) than last season (36% overall, 32.5% on 3s) after missing 12 games due to a leg injury in Tennessee's season opener. Given Burrell contributes little in terms of defensive box-score stats, she'll need to score efficiently to make an impact in the WNBA.
10. Queen Egbo, Indiana Fever
Of the players taken in this year's draft, Egbo projects as the best rebounder. Although Austin was more dominant on the defensive glass, Egbo is the superior offensive rebounder, pulling down 14.5% of available missed shots. Their defensive box-score stats are also similar, though Egbo is not the kind of scoring threat that Austin was at Ole Miss.
11. Kierstan Bell, Las Vegas Aces
Even after adjusting for relatively weak opposition at Florida Gulf Coast, Bell projected as one of the top players in this year's draft based on her versatility. Bell also qualified for the list of players similar to Howard with high steal, block and usage rates. In fact, her 38% share of the FGCU offense is the highest for any WNBA-bound prospect in my database. In that context, Bell's 64.5% accuracy on 2-point attempts is remarkable. Oh, and did I mention the 6-foot-1 Bell is an elite defensive rebounder?
Certainly, Bell will have to either improve her 3-point shooting (29% last season) or dramatically reduce her attempts (9.4 per game in the 3-heavy Karl Smesko system) to be an efficient WNBA scorer. Still, her unique combination of skills makes Bell potentially the steal of the draft.
If she sticks in Connecticut, Clouden will probably be asked to focus more on her improved 3-point shooting (40% as a senior but just 34% overall) than the shot creation she provided at Michigan State, averaging 20 PPG last season -- fourth most among WNBA draft picks.
Second-round picks to watch
Given Michigan's Naz Hillmon was a two-time AP All-America first-team pick, her slide to the second round was a surprise. Hillmon ended up in a good spot to make a team in Atlanta. From a productivity standpoint, Hillmon was clearly a first-round talent, making 58% of her 2s and pulling down a remarkable 17% of available offensive rebounds -- a top-10 mark among WNBA-bound prospects.
UConn's Olivia Nelson-Ododa, taken 20th by the Los Angeles Sparks, also stood out for college productivity. Nelson-Ododa faces a tough path to make the Sparks' roster but helped her cause with 15 points, 12 rebounds and five assists in Los Angeles' lone preseason game.
Like Hillmon, South Carolina's Destanni Henderson went lower than expected but to a potentially favorable situation with the rebuilding Fever. Henderson's 40% 3-point shooting is a WNBA plus, but she shot just 41% inside the arc for a subpar .507 true shooting percentage -- one reason she might have dropped in the draft.