Women's college basketball: Top 25 players for 2021-22

Baylor's NaLyssa Smith averaged 18.0 points and 8.9 rebounds last season, with 13 double-doubles. One of the game's most electric players, she regularly scores via the alley-oop. C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Kim Mulkey has moved on, but NaLyssa Smith remains at Baylor and the senior forward leads the way in ESPN's first women's college basketball player rankings for the 2021-22 season.

Smith, who won the Wade Trophy last season as UConn's Paige Bueckers swept the other major national player of the year awards, helped lead Baylor to the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles and an Elite Eight appearance.

Fresh off winning the 2020-21 national championship earlier this month, Stanford has two players on the list, including Final Four Most Outstanding Player Haley Jones, who checks in at No. 5.

But South Carolina and UConn each put three players in the top 25. Bueckers is third, behind Gamecocks junior Aliyah Boston. Six different conferences are represented in our top 10.

Transfers and players returning for an additional year of eligibility already have impacted the rankings, which we'll update throughout the offseason. (Note: The rankings were determined by votes from Charlie Creme and Mechelle Voepel.)

1. NaLyssa Smith

Smith's ascent to the top of this list has been steady, an improvement over the past three years that could be described as subtle. Yet Smith's game is explosive, electric and dynamic. Whether it's grabbing an offensive rebound and finishing over multiple taller defenders, driving by smaller ones for a layup or leaping over them all to finish an alley-oop, Smith has harnessed her athleticism into what could be the game's most dominant force in 2022.

2. Aliyah Boston

It's not often that a player becomes the centerpiece of a program from the day she steps on campus, but that's what Boston has been in her two seasons in Columbia. As good of a player as she is, it's the maturity Boston has demonstrated handling that responsibility that is so impressive. Already a two-time winner of the Lisa Leslie Award as the country's best center, and with a pair of SEC defensive player of the year awards, Boston has also learned how to beat the frequent double teams that come her way on the offensive end. A developing 3-point shot is the next step in Boston's dominance.

- Bracketology: Baylor starts on top line despite Mulkey departure
- What Kim Mulkey's coaching move means for LSU, Baylor
- UConn, South Carolina lead way in Way-Too-Early Top 25

3. Paige Bueckers

  • UConn Huskies | G | 5-foot-11 | sophomore

  • 2020-21 stats: 20.0 PPG, 5.8 APG, 46.4% 3FG

Last season didn't end the way fans in Storrs wanted, but a 13th consecutive Final Four trip for a team whose best player was a freshman bodes well for the future. Bueckers carried the Huskies at times. According to Her Hoop Stats, she led the country in win shares, which rates a player's value to her team's success. That impact was recognized at season's end when Bueckers became the first freshman to be named the Wooden and Naismith awards national player of the year. UConn returns all five starters, plus Ohio State transfer Dorka Juhasz and star recruit and Bueckers' friend Azzi Fudd.

4. Caitlin Clark

  • Iowa Hawkeyes | G | 6-foot-0 | sophomore

  • 2020-21 stats: 26.7 PPG, 7.1 APG, 40.6% 3FG

The up-tempo, well-spaced offensive system run by Iowa coach Lisa Bluder is the perfect fit for Clark's extraordinary skill set, and that pairing did amazing things last season. Clark led the country in scoring and 3-pointers made and was third in assists. She was the single most valuable offensive player in the country, according to Her Hoop Stats. Clark scored at least 20 points in all but three games last season, and she hit the 30-point mark 12 times. Her court vision is highly advanced and her range is almost limitless. No player is as dangerous with ball in her hand in the pick-and-roll.

5. Haley Jones

Stanford doesn't win a national championship earlier this month without Jones. She hit the difference-making shot in the NCAA title game against Arizona, and her performance in the final two games -- 20.5 PPG and 6.0 RPG -- was as brilliant as it was clutch. Able to play any one of four positions, the versatile Jones put her scoring on display just when the Cardinal needed it. She stood out on a team loaded with talent, and the expectations are that will continue for two more seasons.

6. Rhyne Howard

While it's difficult to say Howard didn't have an exceptional junior season -- she improved in nearly every statistical category from the previous year except points per game -- it wasn't what most anticipated. She won no national player of the year awards and Kentucky was eliminated in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Still, Howard remains one of the most gifted and versatile offensive players in the country heading into 2021-22. She averaged 25.5 PPG in Kentucky's four postseason games, despite Kentucky's early exits in both the SEC and NCAA tournaments. Howard will once again will be among the favorites for most national player of the year awards. She just needs more help around her.

7. Ashley Joens

One of the most versatile offensive players in the country, Joens keeps getting better. Masterful with her foot work, use of angles and ability to finish plays, Joens has become a dominant interior scorer at just 6-foot. This year's winner of the Cheryl Miller Award as the nation's best small forward, Joens is also a more than capable 3-point shooter at 35.4%. Her scoring average ranked fourth in the nation and topped Bridget Carleton's previous Iowa State single-season school record by 2.5 points.

8. Naz Hillmon

Michigan's biggest priority heading into next season probably should be getting Hillmon as many touches as possible. When she gets her shots, Hillmon -- who beat out a competitive field for Big Ten player of the year -- is massively productive and the Wolverines are successful. She scored at least 19 points in all but three games as Michigan reached its first Sweet 16. Hillmon's only single-digit output was followed by a 50-point outburst against Wisconsin. Even if her teammates can't get her the ball, Hillmon figures out how to get it, finishing sixth in the country with 4.8 offensive rebounds per game.

9. Elissa Cunane

With the addition of grad transfer Diamond Johnson and Raina Perez's decision to stay an extra year in Raleigh, the Wolfpack have two outstanding point guards. Nonetheless, Cunane is still NC State's quarterback. Built in the mold of an old school low post player, Cunane has the vision of a guard and everything runs through her. The offense flows better when Cunane touches the ball. She's equally dominant at the other end of the floor, where she anchors a defense that has been the underrated source for the Wolfpack's recent success.

10. Ashley Owusu

On a team loaded with offensive talent, Owusu was the best. After a Big Ten freshman of the year season in 2019-20, she took her game to an even higher level as a sophomore, increasing her scoring output by nearly six points per game. Even more importantly, Owusu became the leader and catalyst of the country's highest scoring team. She ran the show. When Maryland needed a basket, the ball was in Owusu's hands. Her power game from the point guard position makes her difficult to stop. If Owusu adds the 3-pointer to her skillset in the offseason -- she was 11-for-38 in 2020-21 -- it might become impossible.

11. Christyn Williams

  • UConn Huskies | G | 5-foot-11 | senior

  • 2020-21 stats: 16.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.2 APG

Williams spent the better part of the past two seasons searching for the player that her freshman year foreshadowed she would be. As UConn's 2020-21 season concluded, Williams might have finally rediscovered that player. She scored 27, 21 and 20 points in the Huskies final three NCAA tournament games, with an aggressiveness and confidence that too often disappeared during a mostly productive but uneven regular season. The shooting was streaky and the inconsistency was baffling at times -- twice she went scoreless in a game -- but by March, Williams had found something, setting herself up for a big final season.

12. Shakira Austin

  • Ole Miss Rebels | F | 6-foot-5 | senior

  • 2020-21 stats: 18.6 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 51.9% FG

The energy and enthusiasm of fourth-year head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin has revitalized the Ole Miss program, but all the positive vibes in the world might not have mattered had Austin not decided to leave Maryland for Oxford a year ago. A good player who was second-team all-Big Ten, Austin became great in the SEC. Given more opportunity, and more responsibility on offense, Austin delivered. Her scoring averaged jumped eight points per game and she was first-team all-conference. More importantly, Ole Miss went from 7-23 without Austin to 15-12 and an appearance in the WNIT title game with her.

13. Diamond Miller

Perhaps it was the presence of Owusu, or that Maryland had so many notable veterans, but Miller flew under the radar much of last season. Miller scored in double figures in all but one game and was a first-team all-Big Ten selection. Second only to Owusu on the Terps in scoring, Miller was a confident, take-charge leader by season's end for a team that won the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles. One year after having to replace all five starters, Maryland coach Brenda Frese returns all five with Miller joining Owusu in one of the country's top backcourts.

14. Cameron Brink

The numbers aren't gaudy, but the NCAA tournament illustrated just how close Brink could be to becoming a full-fledged star. The offense is developing, but Brink's defense has already arrived. Propelled by outstanding mobility and an extensive wingspan, she was second in the country in block shot percentage, according to Her Hoop Stats. That rim protection was a vital piece to both of Stanford's one-point wins in the Final Four. Brink blocked a combined nine shots against South Carolina and Arizona and impacted many more.

15. Zia Cooke

Not flashy almost to the point of being quiet, Cooke has simply become one of the best players on what has arguably been the best program in the country over the past two seasons. After an impressive freshman season, Cooke upped her scoring average by more than three points per game and led the Gamecocks as a sophomore. And on a team that doesn't prioritize the 3-pointer, Cooke's shooting is critical. She has made 38 percent over her first two seasons and accounted for over a third of South Carolina's made 3-pointers in 2020-21.

16. Kierstan Bell

Despite being a member of the Big Ten All-Freshman team in 2019-20 at Ohio State, Bell left Columbus for Fort Myers. And coach Karl Smesko's well-spaced, 3-point shooting-based offense and Bell appear to be a perfect fit. She ranked sixth in the country in scoring and third in 3-point attempts. Bell stepped onto a team that had lost 90 percent of its scoring from the year before and still led the Eagles to a fourth straight Atlantic Sun title, and the second in three seasons with an unbeaten conference record.

17. Charlisse Leger-Walker

Leger-Walker already has a place in Cougars lore. With her unflappable confidence, the New Zealand native led Washington State to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 30 years. The Pac-12 freshman of the year led the Cougars in scoring, steals, 3-pointers and minutes, and in delivering in big moments. She hit game-winning shots in critical wins over Arizona and Oregon State and scored 13 of the Cougars' final 15 points in an upset of UCLA, the program's first win over a top-five ranked team.

18. Charisma Osborne

  • UCLA Bruins | G | 5-foot-9 | junior

  • 2020-21 stats: 17.8 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.8 APG

After an outstanding freshman season playing alongside Japreece Dean in the UCLA backcourt, Osborne had to take the lead guard role as a sophomore following Dean's graduation. She's not a natural point guard, but as Osborne got better, so did the Bruins. She led UCLA in assists and was second to All-American teammate Michaela Onyenwere in scoring and rebuilding. Despite being 5-9, Osborne is a physical guard whose top skill remains creating her own shot. With Onyenwere off to the WNBA, Osborne will have to do more of that this coming season.

19. Destanni Henderson

Although it's not the entire story, speed tends to define Henderson's game. It's a challenge to watch a South Carolina game and not hear an announcer reference how fast Henderson gets the ball up the floor with the dribble. The Gamecocks would rather play up-tempo and Henderson makes that work. Boston and Cooke get more headlines, but Henderson spearheads both the offense and defense at South Carolina from her point guard spot.

20. Lorela Cubaj

Most expected that Cubaj would be in a WNBA training camp at this point. She has pro-level size and strength, but the native of Terni, Italy, decided to take advantage of the NCAA's extra season. Cubaj is back with the Yellow Jackets to continue to build on what coach Nell Fortner has brought to the program. The success of the past two seasons under Fortner has largely been built on defense, and that defense has largely been built around Cubaj's presence in the middle.

21. Elizabeth Kitley

The Hokies are coming off their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006 and no player is as responsible for breaking that streak as Kitley. First-team all-ACC, Kitley finished among the conference's top four in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage, blocks and free throw attempts. Smooth foot work, the ability to score with either hand and smart decision-making against the double team helped Kitley make big improvements from her freshman to sophomore seasons. An equal step forward this year and she will challenge Boston and Cunane as the country's best center.

22. Mya Hollingshed

In one of the most stunning upsets of the season, Hollingshed scored 32 points against eventual national champion Stanford. And by season's end, she decided that wasn't enough. Hollingshed decided to use that extra year of eligibility, looking to add one more building block onto a college career that has been a steady climb. She has improved with every season in Boulder and will be the fifth-leading returning scorer and second-leading rebounder in the Pac-12 in 2021-22.

23. Azzi Fudd

It takes a supremely gifted player with a lofty résumé to make this list before even playing a college game. Bueckers was part of our preseason player rankings last November and went on to win the Wooden and Naismith Awards. By all accounts, Fudd -- the No. 1-rated recruit by espnW HoopGurlz -- is also that special. She was the first sophomore to be named national Gatorade Player of the Year. Her recruitment began in the sixth grade. Geno Auriemma has already raved about her shooting ability. The Huskies' rotation is crowded, but a talent like Fudd should make a major impact immediately.

24. Rae Burrell

From spot minutes as a freshman to role player as a sophomore to surprising breakout star this past season, Burrell is now Tennessee's best player. At times, she carried the Lady Vols in 2020-21. They might not have overcome the early season struggles of Rennia Davis without her. While Burrell's game is primarily built on energy and outworking the opponent, all of her shooting numbers have made huge improvements, most notably her 3-point percentage, which went from 32.8% as a sophomore to a team-leading 40.2% last season.

25. Ayoka Lee

Because the Wildcats have gone 25-31 over the past two seasons, Lee has played in relative anonymity. Most fans outside of Manhattan missed an outstanding sophomore season. Lee led the Big 12 in field goal percentage and was the only Division I player to shoot 60% from the field and 80% from the free throw line (81.2%). She was also second in the conference in blocks. With little help, she scored 21 points in a meeting with Baylor and 27 later in the season facing WNBA second-round draft pick Natasha Mack of Oklahoma State.