With a healthy number of conference games having been played, here is a snapshot of my draft board. As a reminder, I look at the top 10, as 10 is roughly how many players in any given W draft are likely to meaningfully contribute. The top 2 will not change their order on my board. The next two will almost certainly stay in the top 10, but may not stay 3 and 4. This draft will really get going once that third pick comes up with the Atlanta Dream.
- Rhyne Howard Wing 6’2” Kentucky
Howard has by far the highest floor of any player in this draft. A 6’2” good athlete who before this year has shot in the highs 30s from 3 is going to find a place in the W. Every team could use a player like that. Her shot has been a bit down this year, but the body of work is such I bet her percentages will come up. Not to mention she will likely not be taking as many difficult double teamed pull up 2s in the more open W game. Especially since she will likely not end up on the Indiana Fever.
The reason some people have NaLyssa Smith over Howard is because of questions about if Howard can ever be the primary driver of offense on a good team. I think the chances are she becomes that are lower than other #1 picks. This year’s draft is not as strong at the top as the next two. But I think she can at least be the number 2 on offense. If all goes well, a 6’2” Jewell Loyd would be quite a player to get.
Concerns about her motor and attitude are overblown to me. Much of the time when she does not have the ball it is because Kentucky is trying to leverage the attention she gets to open opportunities for others. Howard going 1 on 3 and demanding the ball might look better, but inefficient chucking is not going to help Howard drag her over matched team to wins in a tough conference. Her steal and block rate are the highest of her career. She is defensive rebounding as well as ever. Her value off ball should be a point in her favor, not a demerit.
- NaLyssa Smith Big 6’4” Baylor
The very best outcome for Smith as a pro could absolutely be better than Howard. Smith has another gear athletically even compared to many players in the W. The flashes of a perimeter game are there, which could make her a matchup nightmare. A very optimistic comparison might be a taller, more explosive Napheesa Collier. However, the chance that she settles in as an energy big off the bench a la Monique Billings at the next level is why I have her second. While she shows more perimeter flashes than Billings did as a senior, they are not consistent enough to project with confidence forward. 33% from 3 is decent, but only on 1 attempt per game.
While it came with foul trouble risks, the fact that she was able to do a decent job guarding Ayoka Lee of Kansas State is a good sign. If Lee left this year she might be a top 5 pick in this year’s draft as a 6’6” strong low post scorer. If Smith can play at least some minutes at the 5, her speed and athleticism become even more valuable, and her lack of shooting less limiting.
- Ashley Joens Wing 6’ Iowa State
Joens has two key things going for her as a player at the next level. Good size, decent athleticism makes it hopeful she can play on the wing, though she does play in the post a fair amount for Iowa St. She is also a decent 3 point shooter, at mid-30s for her career, on over 7 attempts per game as a senior.
Reasons this may end up too high for Joens are that she may struggle to finish inside the 3 point line, as she relies on being bigger and stronger than her opponents. These advantages will not be there at the next level. Then again, it is easier to see how she can move to the outside than many other undersized fours. She plays in the paint because of the roster construction at Iowa St, but she shows the ability to do the things expected of a 3 at a reasonable level. While unlikely to be a defensive stopper, she does not seem overmatched at that end either.
- Kierstan Bell Wing 6’1” FGCU
If Bell had played more games against W level talent while at FGCU she could be third on this list without a doubt. Players with her combination of size and skill are the most valuable type of player in the pros. She does everything, with good rebounding, block, steal, scoring and assist rates. High turnover rate, but paradoxically that can be good if the player is otherwise effective as it can be cleaned up. Best case scenario might be Myisha Hines-Allen with better defense.
The major question surrounding scouting Bell is the weakness of her opposition. If she was consistently facing W size and length, how far would her excellent 2 point shooting drop from 65%, as she is shooting now? Her willingness to shoot from 3 is a positive, though it would be nice if a few more of them went in as she is under 30% on the year and low 30s for her college career.
Unfortunately for Bell and anyone hoping to watch her play against better competition, she hurt her knee and is out for a while, if not the whole rest of the year. Hopefully she is able to return for the NCAA tournament, her team makes it, and she gets a good matchup. Bell is the player on this list I have seen the least in the types of matchups I like, against other players who at least have a chance to play professionally, if not in the W.
- Shakira Austin Big 6’5” Ole Miss
Austin looks the part of an excellent defensive prospect at either front court position. She has a good steal and block rate and she moves her feet well when switched onto guards. Her Ole Miss team thrives on defense with her as the anchor. During last year’s draft I overestimated the importance of such defensive ability to W teams with Natasha Mack, so it is possible I am doing the same this year.
The difference between Mack and Austin is that it is easier to see how Austin can contribute on the offensive end. She can handle and face up in a way that Mack was not comfortable doing. Austin’s shooting numbers are not great, but her shot looks decent and may improve with time. For all her Ole Miss team helps her look good defensively, they struggle on offense and so Austin is often playing with zero spacing around her. Frankly, an only somewhat negative assist to turnover ratio in this case is impressive.
- Rae Burrell Wing 6’ Tennessee
What is Burrell’s actual shooting ability? That is the big open question in regards to her prospects in the W. If she is closer to who she was as a junior, who shot 40% from 3 and 82% from the line, she deserves to be considered for a top 10 pick. If she is more like she was before that, 30% from 3 and 60% from the free throw line, she does not. Injuries have hampered her senior year and so far she is splitting the difference between those two shooting levels, shooting well from 3, 38%, but poorly from the free throw line 66%.
Defensively Burrell is merely solid, not exceptional. She is not going to stick because she is hounding the opponent’s best perimeter player. A negative assist to turnover ratio is also not great, though not the killer it would be for a guard. She is a player who is capable in every area, but if she turns out not to be a shooter, she very well may slide out of the top 10. She does benefit from the relative positional scarcity at wing vs. other positions.
- Destanni Henderson Guard 5’7” South Carolina
If I had finished writing this a month ago as I intended to, I would not have had Henderson in my top 10. My major concern with her is how effective she will be offensively at the next level. Dana Evans was much craftier at finishing in the paint and she really struggled in her rookie year getting anything to go in inside the arc. A solid floater would be a great addition for her.
However, Henderson excels in so many other areas that she is at least a good candidate to be a backup point guard at the next level. Think of her as a lower ceiling pick than some I have after her, but more of a sure thing. She is a good passer, an excellent point guard defender, and a good 3 point shooter. Her speed will also serve her well as her W team will almost certainly have better spacing than her South Carolina teams.
- Jade Melbourne Guard 5’9” UC Capitals (Australia)
Last year, a young Australian guard was taken with the 8th pick in the draft and it did not go well during the season. However, the Shyla Heal experience is unlikely to repeat with Melbourne. The most notable difference is that Heal is a point guard, whereas Melbourne has spent her entire career as an off guard. The transition to the W is rough for any position, but is especially tough for point guards. And hopefully Melbourne will not be drafted by a team expecting her to immediately run the second unit.
Melbourne ideally will be who Chelsea Dungee was supposed to be when the Wings drafted her at 5. A good scoring off guard with athleticism. Especially promising for Melbourne is that her three point shot is starting to come around this year in the WNBL, as she pairs with Brittney Sykes. At only 20, Melbourne will be a bit of a longer term project. A good option for a team that is already good, but wants to keep one eye on the future like the Minnesota Lynx or Seattle Storm.
- Christyn Williams Guard 5’11” UConn
Williams has had a tough senior year, including covid issues. She is back playing, a hopefully good sign. But the athleticism and talent is undeniable and might get her drafted in the first round regardless of how she plays. A strong, powerful guard, she has shot over 50% from 2 for her career, an impressive feat for a (generously listed) 5’11” 2 guard.
Williams is an interesting case of being pretty good at the ancillary skills that separate prospects. Decent three point shooter, but not particularly good. Positive assist to turnover ratio, but barely. In her favor, she is not like Evina Westbrook, who tends to dominate the lesser competition UConn plays in conference and but not show up to the same degree against tougher opponents.
By the end of the first round, a bet on pedigree might be worth it. And while this is*not* a mock draft, another UConn player to Seattle would be fitting.
- Nia Clouden Guard 5’8” Michigan St.
How real is a jump in shooting that happens in a player’s senior year? That is an important question for Clouden. She is shooting 41% as a senior from 3, after shooting 27% her sophomore year and 32 last year. The rise in free throw shooting is a good sign, as those going up in tandem can reflect real improvement. Clouden is a shifty and fast scoring guard. While she may not be the perfect lead guard, she has the size and athleticism to play off ball in the right matchups, so does offer some versatility off the bench.
Quick Notes on players who could be in the top 10 by my next update in no particular order:
Nyara Sabally: Just based on talent and production when healthy, Sabally would likely be the second big on this list for me after NaLyssa Smith. Unfortunately, she has dealt with knee injuries and has only recently been playing this year. If teams are confident in her health she could absolutely be a first round talent.
Veronica Burton: Superficially Burton looks good, with an ok three point shot, good assist numbers, and one of the best defenders in college. I still have questions about what she will do on offense at the next level, but she is #1 in players I need to watch more of this year.
Elissa Cunane: It’s possible I am missing on Cunane because I have seen her struggle in high profile matchups where it is unfair to expect her to dominate. I definitely think she has W potential, I’m just not sure she has the upside I’d hope for in a top 10 pick.
Naz Hillmon: A’ja Wilson/ Ben Simmons-like with the early 3 point attempts and then not attempting them again. Alas, unlike Wilson or Simmons, Hillmon is not especially long nor effective defensively for her position. Hillmon is a good college player. I do not see it at the next level.