Rhyne Howard for WNBA Rookie of the Year? Shakira Austin's impact says not so fast

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Most WNBA fans have deemed the Atlanta Dream's Rhyne Howard, the 2022 No. 1 draft pick, the runaway favorite to win WNBA Rookie of the Year. But the race shouldn't be as lopsided as it might appear because of the stellar, yet somewhat subdued in comparison, play of the Washington Mystics' Shakira Austin.

Howard is understandably the front-runner. The 6-foot-2 guard leads a standout rookie group in scoring (15.1 points per game), assists (2.7) and steals (1.5), and is second in minutes (30.6 per game) for an Atlanta team poised to make the playoffs for the first time since 2018. Though her numbers fell back down to earth as the summer went on, Howard became just the seventh WNBA rookie to score at least 100 points in her first five games (averaging 20.4 PPG in that span), and was the only first-year player to be named a 2022 All-Star.

We saw the impact on the Dream, too, when Howard was removed from the equation: Atlanta went 1-1 when she missed two games with a shoulder injury and suffered its worst loss of the season, by 25 to the Connecticut Sun.

The box score stats for Austin, a 6-3 forward/center who was the No. 3 overall pick in April's draft, aren't particularly eye-popping: She's averaging 8.0 points (fifth-best on the Mystics) and 6.1 rebounds per game (second-best). She isn't a focal point offensively for Washington, but coach Mike Thibault says he appreciates that even though he doesn't run plays for her, Austin still finds ways to score by setting good screens and crashing the glass. Her finishing has been impressive for a rookie: Her 53.8 field goal percentage ranks ninth in the league for players averaging at least five shots per game and appearing in at least 10 contests. She also has converted 67.8% of her attempts within 5 feet of the rim.

But it's her defensive prowess that sets apart Austin, who has started all but four games this season, and each one since May 20. She's not the team leader in steals or blocks, but teammate Ariel Atkins deemed Austin the "safety of the [Washington] defense," which boasts the second-best defensive rating in the league behind Seattle. Thibault went as far to say that he thinks she'll be a "a mainstay on the [all-league] defensive team at some point in her career."

It's the little things that don't appear in the box score that Austin does so well to help the Mystics hold true as the defensive force they've become, particularly as two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne was in and out of the lineup due to load management much of this season.

"One of the best attributes of a post player defensively is to be able to direct traffic and call out coverages on pick and rolls and things in the lane," Thibault said. "When we watched her in college, she was a really good communicator with her teammates on defense, calling out screens loud, coverages, blocking out, knowing when to help and when to get back. She just has defensive instincts.

"It's hard enough, I think sometimes at any level, to get your whole team talking and communicating the right way. But if you have a rookie that can come in and do some of that stuff on the first day, it's really helpful."

Would the Mystics be where they are -- fifth in the WNBA standings, practically guaranteed a playoff spot, despite Delle Donne missing nine games -- without Austin?

"We wouldn't be," Atkins said.

"She's a big part of what we do. I don't think we necessarily drafted someone to come in and have to do the things that she's doing. But she stepped up to the plate and showed us that she was capable of doing it. So that's something that we expect of her every night ... and I'm excited to see what she's going to give us the rest of the season."

Howard and Austin are neck-and-neck in win shares per Her Hoop Stats -- 2.5 and 2.4, respectively -- but Austin's win shares per 40 (0.17) are marginally better than Howard's (0.14) (as part of a crowded group featuring veteran post players, Austin only plays 21 minutes per game). Austin's defensive win shares per 40 are third-best in the league behind Breanna Stewart and Ezi Magbegor, who are defensive player of the year candidates.

Ahead of the All-Star Game, I wrote in our midseason picks that while recognizing the brilliance of Austin, Howard is the likely rookie of the year, and that remains true at this time. She is more critical to what Atlanta has done on both ends of the floor -- and if you ask ESPN's Kevin Pelton, his wins above replacement player metrics really like Howard over Austin.

But at the end of the day, whoever wins 2022 Rookie of the Year might not mean as much in the grand scheme of things, which is this: Howard and Austin both have the potential to be lasting superstars, arguably even MVPs, in the WNBA.

Games of the week

Atlanta Dream at Los Angeles Sparks (3:30 p.m. ET Thursday, NBA TV): A game with meaningful playoff implications. The teams are sixth and seventh, respectively, in the WNBA standings entering Thursday's games, which means if the regular season ended today both would be headed to the postseason. Atlanta's playoff chances look increasingly solid after recent wins over the Phoenix Mercury and Las Vegas Aces, but the Dallas Wings and the Phoenix Mercury are breathing down both squads' necks. The Minnesota Lynx and New York Liberty also remain within striking distance, making this a must-win game for each team -- though even more so for L.A.. Atlanta is 1-0 in the season series, with a final matchup in August remaining.

Seattle Storm at Phoenix Mercury (10 p.m. ET Friday, NBA TV): The final regular-season matchup between WNBA legends Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, their 46th regular-season meeting of all-time, which is tied for the most between any two WNBA players (alongside Tamika Catchings vs. Swin Cash and Lindsay Whalen vs. Candice Dupree). Bird leads the series 25-20, while also owning one more title than Taurasi (4-3), and will maintain bragging rights regardless of how Friday's matchup unfolds.

Las Vegas Aces at Chicago Sky (8:30 p.m. ET Tuesday, Amazon Prime Video): Commissioner's Cup Championship Game. Maybe winning the Commissioner's Cup doesn't mean that much to players aside from a much-appreciated financial bonus, but both teams still have plenty to prove in the second iteration of this in-season championship. Following their hot start to the season, the Aces appeared poised to host this game before their downswing in June/early July, while Chicago's hot streak allowed it to clinch home court. Could this high-stakes matchup between the top two teams in the standings forecast which team is the favorite to take home the WNBA title come September, or could year two of the competition be like last season, where neither Cup finalist (Seattle nor Connecticut) ultimately reached the WNBA Finals?

Stat of the week

The Dream's 92-76 win over the Aces Tuesday marked the largest upset of the WNBA season, as Atlanta closed as 13-point underdogs, according to Caesars Sportsbook. The Dream's 16-point win was also the largest by a double-digit underdog over the last five WNBA seasons.

Fantasy women's basketball picks

Who to start: Phoenix's Shey Peddy has been hot fantasy-wise recently, averaging 27.0 fantasy points over the last three games as the Mercury continue to fight for a playoff spot despite the absence of Brittney Griner and mid-season departure of Tina Charles.

Chiney Ogwumike has averaged 30.0 fantasy points over the last three games, and earned starts when Liz Cambage was out with COVID-19. She could still be a worthwhile player to start even now as Cambage works her way back into proper conditioning for the Sparks.

Who to sit: New York's Marine Johannes has been struggling, averaging 13.7 fantasy points per game over the last three games, as Sandy Brondello's squad falls further out of playoff contention with four straight losses. Moriah Jefferson has also seen a dip in productivity, averaging just 10.0 fantasy points across her last three games as the Lynx attempt to make a late playoff push.