2022 WNBA Mock Draft 1.0
As the college regular season comes to a close, the Washington Mystics have a tough choice between Rhyne Howard and NaLyssa Smith at #1 with an intriguing group of players behind them.
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Another exciting regular season of college basketball wraps up tonight for most of the major conferences. Before we head into conference tournaments and March Madness, it’s a great time to dive into the upcoming WNBA Draft. The 2022 class of prospects is headlined by two players with superstar potential, Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard and Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith. But don’t sleep on the rest of this crop of players. There is not only star potential that should be available throughout the first round but also players who could make an immediate impact for contending teams. Unfortunately, as noted throughout this mock draft, some of these players will face an uphill battle to even make a roster.
This mock draft is my opinion about how the first round will play out based on game tape, statistical research, and conversations with talent evaluators around women’s basketball. I tried to put myself in the shoes of each WNBA GM and select the player that most fits their roster and culture. For the sake of brevity, I didn’t include citations or too many hard numbers in my analysis of each pick. I conducted research using Her Hoop Stats, CBB Analytics (for shot charts), Pivot Analysis (for on/off data), and Synergy Sports Tech (for play type data). Please comment your thoughts or tweet @herhoopstats or @gabe_ibrahim. Enjoy!
1. Washington: Rhyne Howard, Kentucky
The Mystics lucked into the #1 pick after just missing out on the 2021 WNBA playoffs and now face dual considerations at the top spot. Washington would like to maximize whatever is left of Elena Delle Donne’s career and the veteran-laden roster around her, while also trying to preemptively replace EDD with a franchise cornerstone. If things go at least somewhat to plan, Washington has a two-year window with the core of EDD, Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins and Myisha Hines-Allen. After that, this pick may have much more on their shoulders.
With that in mind, Howard makes more sense than NaLyssa Smith for DC. Howard has the highest floor in the draft as she seems ready to be a competent WNBA player on both ends tomorrow. The question is how much more can she be than that? Even though I don’t buy the concerns about her motor on the court (not everyone has to be Diana Taurasi, folks), Howard has not improved her game over the course of her career to the extent that Aliyah Boston has, for example. With Hines-Allen and Atkins as proof, the Mystics have good reason to believe in their wing development program and I couldn’t imagine a better place for a player like Howard than backing up Alysha Clark in her first year.
2. Indiana: NaLyssa Smith, Baylor
I wouldn’t fault Washington for taking Smith first, though. As the most athletic player in the draft, she has an extremely high ceiling and is pro-ready in many areas. Smith has touch around the rim, is a killer in transition, and can create looks for herself and others from anywhere. One of the things that surprised me this season is Smith’s feel for the game. She cuts at the right times at the right speed and doesn’t pound the ball as much as other post threats. While she doesn’t shoot threes, Smith hits mid-rangers at a high clip.
Smith has a superstar ceiling. However, I’m not sure what type of player she is at that ceiling. If her shot and handle develop, Smith is a superstar big at either the 4 or 5. If her shot never comes around, Smith would still be a solid center at 6’2” due to her sturdiness and the Fever can build a fine offense around her play at the elbows.
3. Atlanta: Shakira Austin, Ole Miss
This pick is where mock drafts start to diverge. Atlanta has essentially a blank slate to work with as their entire roster will be free agents next February (outside of Aari McDonald and Cheyenne Parker). They would be smart to bet on upside and take Austin.
One WNBA talent evaluator I spoke to said that Austin has the highest ceiling in this draft. While I don’t agree, she definitely falls into the “unicorn” category of bigs. At 6’5”, Austin can protect the rim and be a face-up threat from the perimeter. However, she has struggled to do both consistently throughout the season. Additionally, she is very raw on both ends and has not shown a consistent jumper. There’s an all-world player in her, but it’ll take time and effort to get there. Unlike Howard and Smith, Austin’s floor isn’t high enough to confidently say that she’d be a plus-WNBA player without a lot of development.
Atlanta is also in an interesting spot for a trade. The Dream have a bevy of roster spots, while other teams don’t have enough roster spots for their own players. They could trade down with Dallas for more picks or any team that is interested in Austin for young players. I think Atlanta will use the pick because Austin has great upside, but Dan Padover may have options.
4. Dallas: Nia Clouden, Michigan State
This pick may shock some folks, but I promise you that I’m not putting Clouden 4th for shock value. Clouden is here because I think she has the highest ceiling of any guard in this draft. She’s utterly unflappable and seems to always make the right decision. She works her you-know-what off on the defensive end and has been a plus-defender all year. Furthermore, Clouden has improved every single season. She’s shooting 43% on 5.2 threes per game in 2021 as opposed to 27.4% on 3.9 attempts per game in 2019. Her free-throw shooting has skyrocketed from 78% last year to 88% this year.
Dallas needs a guard who can both play next to Arike Ogunbowale and run the offense when she sits in the long run. Moriah Jefferson’s contract is expiring next offseason and Ty Harris has yet to show that she can start in the WNBA. Clouden still has a lot to work on (namely her corner 3s and floaters), but she can certainly be the long-term answer at point guard for the Wings with her two-way and off-ball abilities.
5. New York: Nyara Sabally, Oregon
Sabally, a redshirt junior, appears set to enter the draft after Oregon honored her on senior night. WNBA teams must be elated. Sabally has shown flashes of limitless potential as a 6’5” bruising center who can also run the break, create shots for others, sparingly shoot from outside and drive from the perimeter. Unfortunately, there’s a huge injury concern with her. Sabally has torn her right ACL twice and missed 8 games this year due to knee issues as well as being limited in practice. The risk might be worth the reward, though.
New York’s draft plans are hard to figure out. They need a backup guard, but there are potential answers on the roster in Asia Durr, DiDi Richards, and possibly Marine Johannes. If Dallas doesn’t take Clouden, I would not be surprised if New York snags her. They could also use a backup center considering Stef Dolson’s high foul rate and Kylee Shook’s uneven development. More importantly, the Liberty may just draft for upside because they believe in their potential as a contender going forward. Using this pick on Sabally would be a huge gamble, but the Liberty should get the player with the highest ceiling possible in case their plans of contending this year and getting a big free agent (STEW YORK 2023!) come together.
6. Dallas: Naz Hillmon, Michigan
Hillmon is one of the most interesting prospects in the draft. She has great finishing skills in the post, sets excellent screens, exploits double teams with her passing and helps connect Michigan’s offense with her quick decision-making. Coaches and talent evaluators always mention her high motor and character. However, she will have to develop her game greatly at the next level to be more than a role player. The vast majority of her shots come at the rim, and 59% of her possessions are post ups. She has shown flashes of potential as an elbow creator and as a ball handler. Those flashes will need to be a consistent part of her game.
Dallas may not exactly need Hillmon’s skill set with their crowded front court. But they may take her for two reasons. Hillmon could develop her shot and handle into becoming a truly excellent power forward, which would be very helpful considering Satou Sabally’s injury history. Also, the Wings can live with Hillmon becoming a Reshanda Gray-esque role player, especially if her motor rubs off on her teammates.
That being said, Dallas currently has no available roster spots. After picking up protected 4th-year options for Sabally, Bella Alarie and Ty Harris, the only players without guaranteed money on their contracts are Chelsea Dungee, Marina Mabrey, Awak Kuier, and Charli Collier. They could cut Dungee easily enough (despite how upset that makes me) and could eat Moriah Jefferson’s protected money this year to fit in these two picks without any trades. We’ll see how much they value the players in this draft though.
7. Indiana: Kierstan Bell, FGCU
Bell might be the most fun player in the draft. The 2021 Becky Hammon Award Winner is a 6’1” wrecking ball who plays with an edge, can push the ball in transition, and can score from anywhere (although her three point percentage is low). She earned comparisons to LeBron James in high school and could be an Alyssa Thomas or Gabby Williams type on offense. Bell does benefit greatly from FGCU’s wide open offensive system and could struggle to produce if she ends up in a situation with bad spacing. Her defense is also a source of concern. She works hard and isn’t a total trainwreck, but she’s unlikely to be an average defender in the WNBA. The question is whether she can hold up enough to stay on the floor. Is she a fit with Indiana’s current roster? Probably not. But Indiana just needs to collect talent, and Bell is the most talented player left on the board.
8. Minnesota: Sika Kone, Mali
Minnesota is in quite the quandary. They only have enough cap space to keep one of the following: Bridget Carleton, Rachel Banham, Jessica Shepard, Natasha Mack, Yvonne Turner, and this selection. I don’t think a player at this position in the draft will be better than Carleton this season, so I’d bet against Minnesota keeping this pick. Perhaps there is a trade to be had or the Lynx could pick an international player to stash. I’m not going to pretend to know enough about which draft prospects will get stashed.
I will use this opportunity to link to Kone’s highlights against France, which are set to funky beats. Kone is a 6’3” super athlete from Mali who is just 19 years old. She reminds me of Natasha Howard at Florida State with her length, ability to bang down low, and impressive passing abilities. Her potential seems limitless even if she is really raw. She did just injure her MCL and is out for the next 4-6 months, which may make her even more attractive to a team in Minnesota’s shoes.
9. Los Angeles: Evina Westbrook, UConn
This pick will have to fight for a spot with Arella Guriantes, Jasmine Walker, Lauren Cox, and Te’a Cooper. Only three of those players can make the final roster. But LA has already traded their 2023 first-round pick and would be wise to keep a full 4-year rookie-scale contract on the books.
Westbrook just screams “LA Sparks” to me. She is a good defender with long arms who can guard 1-3. She’s a capable playmaker as a passer, cutter and finisher. She’s not a good three-point shooter but is willing to take them. Derek Fisher has shown that he absolutely loves players like Westbrook and could use another wing after Nia Coffey’s departure. I’d think about Ashley Joens here because of her shooting, but Westbrook is a much better perimeter defender and fits LA’s ethos.
10. Indiana: Elissa Cunane, NC State
Like Hillmon, Cunane is an outstanding college player who needs to develop to be very productive at the next level. She’s not a slow, plodding center, but she is also not a dynamic floor-spacing big yet. Over 45% of her possessions are post up and almost all of her shot attempts are in the paint. She doesn’t create for others often. I’m no expert on shooting, but her release seems low and slow to me on the few three-pointers she has taken. Also, she doesn’t seem sturdy enough to me to stand up to the league’s biggest bigs.
All that being said, Cunane has good feet, is decisive on the ball, and can run the floor with her speed. She is obviously very talented to lead the Wolfpack, and her motor is evident on tape. She could develop her shot and become the perfect center for NaLyssa Smith (if Smith’s destiny is at the 4). With Teaira McCowan’s contract expiring after this season, Indiana would benefit from seeing if Cunane can be a long-term answer at center before committing to McCowan.
11. Las Vegas: Ashley Joens, Iowa State
Joens is one of the best wing shooters in the draft. She is hitting 37.8% from deep on 7.2 attempts per game this season and ranks among the best catch-and-shoot shooters in the nation. She does so while facing a lot of defensive attention and is the engine of a top-5 offense at Iowa State. She struggles to finish within the three point line, but she will mostly hang out on the perimeter and wait for open shots in the WNBA. Joens’s best use would be as a 3-and-D wing, however her defense may not be up to the task. Synergy ranks her in the 13th percentile of points per defensive possession, but the eye test suggests that she is better than that and moving to small forward may help. Everything with Joens is a little slower than it needs to be at the next level, but she can certainly develop. Vegas needs a wing shooter off the bench and Joens may be able to contribute as a spot-up shooter immediately.
Since rumors have swirled about Joens’s vaccination status, it’s a good time to note that WNBA teams will ask players whether they have received the vaccine according to multiple league sources. As it stands now, carrying an unvaccinated player would have created major problems for teams last season because unvaccinated players required a lot of accommodations to protect the other players. If the player is not on the level of, say, the NBA’s Kyrie Irving, teams might steer clear of unvaccinated players. I have not seen any confirmation that Joens doesn’t have the vaccine and the WNBA could potentially change their policies, so in this mock the Aces snag her in the first round.
12. Connecticut: Lorela Cubaj, Georgia Tech
Number 12 is another pick that seems unlikely to make the team that currently holds it. Connecticut would need to cut one of Kaila Charles, Natisha Hiedeman, or DiJonai Carrington to have enough cap space to afford this pick. With Connecticut’s championship aspirations, they would likely favor their more seasoned players. Maybe a trade, maybe a stash, or maybe Curt Miller lets it all play out in camp.
Cubaj would be an upgrade over Stephanie Jones at backup center. She has great mobility at 6’4'' and can defend both fours and fives. She also may be the best passing big in the draft with a 2.09 AST/TOV ratio and a great rebounder. Cubaj may top out as a backup center, but she would be an awesome backup center if she reaches her ceiling and her floor is pretty high as well.
That’ll do it for my mock first round of the 2022 WNBA Draft! A few players that just missed the cut for me and would go early in the second round are Destanni Henderson, Christyn Williams, and Olivia Nelson-Ododa. Henderson was the hardest player to leave out of the first round because speedy point guards with a jump shot are hard to come by. Be on the look out for more draft and college basketball coverage on our YouTube channel, the Her Hoop Stats Podcast Network, and on Twitter @herhoopstats. Happy March, y’all!