This is my third year doing a draft board for the WNBA draft. Lessons have been learned from past years editions and will continue to be learned. Two that stand out are that centers with great defensive potential maybe ought to do something on offense and that teams value athleticism in wings, even when they aren’t yet able to shoot. Then again, though my love for Natasha Mack’s game has not panned out yet, neither have the choices to draft Stephanie Watts or Aaliyah Wilson.
I have tiered the player on my draft board to give a sense of how I think they might turn out and which players are comparable. I am tiering these players based on an 80th percentile outcome. So this is if they develop well, but for instance if any of these players develop like Jonquel Jones, I will be too low on them. I have learned from last year to assume lower than how I labeled them then. The W is really high level basketball and the tendency in draft evaluations is to overestimate player contributions, not the other way. And as good as the top 2 players in this draft are, there are no A’ja Wilsons or Breanna Stewarts, most likely.
Also, some people hate player comparisons because they are so imperfect, but I think for ease of communication they are hard to beat. When I am reading about a prospect I know nothing about, I appreciate envisioning who in the league they could have some similarities with.
Couple of time All Star:
- Rhyne Howard Wing 6’2” Kentucky
Howard’s shooting and positional size will keep her in the league as a solid starter and give her a shot at an all-star or two. Whether she can become the 1st or 2nd option on offense for a good team is the major question to watch. She is a fine passer, but may not be able to break down defenses and get to the rim to allow that playmaking to shine. She is a smooth athlete but does not have the greatest first step. Similarly, a good handle, but is not a point guard with a wing’s size, more of a straight line driver.
Still, her floor is a solid starter given teams can always use athletic wings who can shoot. Teams year after year take chances on wings who can’t shoot hoping they develop. Howard already can! Of all the draft prospects, she could have started for that Phoenix Mercury team that made the finals last year, as someone who had the size to matchup with Sky and nail open 3s from Griner’s passes.
I have no inside information, so teams will be able to do more research, but the character concerns surrounding her seem overblown and stem from people trying to explain away the lack of top SEC talent around her at Kentucky and why she couldn’t drag them farther.
Above average starter
- NaLyssa Smith Big 6’4” Baylor
Smith absolutely could be the best player from this draft class. While not especially likely, the outlines of a taller more explosive Napheesa Collier are there. To move her #1 though for me, I would have wanted to see more of her perimeter game. To see more of her shooting from the perimeter and more of an ability to create open shots for others. A 1 assist to 2.5 turnover ratio is not ideal. .
Smith used her verticality well at times at center, including holding up against Ayoka Lee. But for someone with her athleticism, her defensive impact did not show through in her block or steal rates. If her perimeter game doesn’t develop and she doesn’t provide the rim protection needed to be a starting five, an energy big off the bench at best is a possible outcome, a la Monique Billings. This is what separates Howard and Smith. Less downside risk with Howard, but still star potential.
- Kierstan Bell wing 6’1 FGCU
Bell would be the high risk, high reward pick here. If she ends up being taken towards the end of the first round or even the second, I would not be shocked. But If you are picking in the lottery, you should consider swinging for the fences. Will Bell be Alyssa Thomas but a better shooter? Probably not! But she has the size, skill and athleticism that is hard to find in potential 3/4 types.
While her team was overwhelmed by Maryland’s size in the tournament, I thought Bell showed she can hang with elite size and athleticism. Maryland has a good collection of players with W size and speed and Bell held her own.
- Shakira Austin big 6’5” Ole Miss
Austin is more of polished on the defensive end than offensive end at this point. She is a potential lottery pick based on potential growth on the offensive end. She will show flashes in each game of a do it all center who can shoot 3s and handle and be an effective center in a modern 5 out offense, the kind we have seen win the past 4 championships. However, the results really are not there yet, 46% 2 point percentage is low for a center and 24% from 3 is not good. A 1.7 to 2.4 assist to turnover ratio is actually pretty good, especially given how rough the guard play at Ole Miss could be at times on offense, but not good enough to say she will be an amazing passer at the next level.
Austin defensively could be really good. She has the size to play more traditional drop defense and the lateral quickness to play in a more switch heavy scheme. She may be able to run around with quicker power forwards, so if the offensive game continues to develop she might be able to offer some positional versatility as well.
- Nyara Sabally big 6’5” Oregon
If Sabally had not dealt with a couple of serious injuries, I would likely have had her #3 as my favorite center prospect in this draft. If teams are scared off by her medicals, she definitely could fall into the second round. Multiple ACL tears is tough for a young athlete. I don’t have access to those medicals, so I guess I hope she has better injury luck in the pros.
But on the court, Sabally is the actual stretch five that people talk about Austin being. She shot over 40% from 3, admittedly on low volume, in her career at Oregon. She averaged 2 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks, all good if not amazing numbers. While not a dominant inside presence on defense, but she moves well for her size and does offer rim protection.
I do wonder about having 2 centers at 4 and 5. Last year Charli Collier was the only center taken in the first round. That trend might continue if teams feel multiple good wings are more valuable than multiple centers. And good wings can be harder to find than serviceable centers. I thought about accounting for that, but while it is possible at least a couple of the wings and guards I have after here will go above Sabally, I had a harder time figuring out which should.
- Christyn Williams 5’11” guard UConn
Williams does not excel in any one area, but she is solid across the board as a big guard/wing. A 35% 3 point shooter, decent but not good. A positive assist to turnover ratio, but not exceptional. She has the size and strength to play the 3 in 3 guard lineups at least some of the time. There is a good chance she will benefit from the additional spacing at the next level. UConn plays with fine spacing relative to the college game, but the W is still more open.
UConn players can be tough to scout because how much talent they play with. Katie Lou Samuelson going higher than she should have and Tiffany Hayes lower are examples. Williams has not been asked nor given the opportunity to be the main scorer. Unfortunate championship game aside, Williams has been able to effective even when the offense isn’t run for her. She is also a good defender and has the size, strength, and athleticism to play the 3 in 3 guard lineups.
- Nia Clouden 5’8” guard Michigan St.
Clouden is a fast guard who can also shoot. If she gets shoehorned into running a teams offense, that might not go so well. But if she can pair with another guard, she can be an effective off ball player. She shot 40% from 3 this year on decent volume. A bit lower in prior years, but her free throw percentage also took a jump this year, which is a good sign that her shooting improvement was real.
Defensively she was not a disaster, but is likely what would keep her from being a starter. She is a bit undersized for the 2 and not a lock down defender at the point guard. Has the tools to be a fine defender, but I would not be drafting her for her defense.
- Destanni Henderson 5’7” guard South Carolina
Henderson picked a great game to have her career high and maybe the best game of her career. But it didn’t change where I have her on my board, though it was impressive. For Henderson, I think of Dana Evans as a rookie and the pros and cons of what she offered. She could shoot 3s when open, she could run a functional offense, and wasn’t a disaster on defense even though she was giving up size.
This would be my most likely prediction of Henderson at the next level, but even more so. Henderson is a better spot up shooter and defender, but not as good off the dribble and might struggle to do anything in the paint at the next level.
Backup to the backup
- Sika Kone 6’3” big Mali
Unfortunately for Kone, she is out with a knee injury for a couple of months. Reports are she may be able to play in some of the W season, but it is unclear if she will or would even want to. However, towards the end of the first round of the W draft, taking a player who won’t even come over this year could be a good choice. And between 9-12 would be a good value place to draft the Malian big and have her come over for the 2023 season when she will be only 21. Her inexperience shows in little things like defending on the perimeter, but the talent is there.
Kone is a very good athlete with a nose for the ball and a great rebounder. She showed off her skill and athleticism facing a good French squad where she went 10 for 10 for 26 points with 9 rebounds. What is keeping her from being higher on my draft board is questions about what position she is. If Kone can continue to improve her skills, a late first early second round pick might be a steal. But equally possible she tops out as an energy big who struggles to stick in the W.
- Emily Engstler 6’1” wing Louisville
I very nearly did not have Englster in my draft board at all because of concerns about what she will do on offense in the W. While her 3 point shooting was solid the last couple of years, her free throw shooting is a major worry. It is very unusual for a good shooter to be a 63% free throw shooter and she was worse in prior years. She also would have a couple of really bad misses on open jump shots most games and I wonder about her form.She likely does not have the handle or speed to be making plays for herself, so she will need to provide value spotting up off ball.
What did end up landing her on my draft board is her defensive feel is so high. If she can improve her shooting to be a positive off ball, she could be an excellent defender at either the 3 or the 4. Her combo of steals and blocks is excellent. She also gets steals generally without gambling way out of position, as her positional defense is also good. She may be a bit undersized at the 4, but she held her own quite well against the size of South Carolina.
- Elissa Cunane 6’5” big NC State
Watching Cunane it was easy to focus on what she asked to do, but was not necessarily WNBA level good at. Namely, no team who drafts her should expect to be getting a player who can post up other W centers and score efficiently in the post. However, she can do enough other things that she could still be a solid backup big at the W level. She has good size and has shown the ability to defend in the post against the best centers such as Aliyah Boston. Boston won the matchups, cause she’s the best player in college basketball, but Cunane did better in single coverage than most do. More of a good positional help defender, she would likely need to play drop defense. Not gonna be able to switch, most likely.
She also can likely shoot better and more than she was encouraged to in college. Amanda Zahui B., though a very different prospect than Cunane as a shot blocking extraordinaire, offers the outline how Cunane could be a useful backup big. Cunane is likely a better shooter than Zahui B., the defense will be the question.
- Jade Melbourne 5’9” guard Australia
Jade Melbourne has not had the hype of Shyla Heal, but Melbourne is another Australian guard worth a look at from WNBA teams. Melbourne is a fast, athletic off guard who could be a solid option off the bench for a W team, and possibly grow into more. She first impressed me as an 18 year old in last year’s WNBL when she willingly challenged Liz Cambage in the paint. Cambage got her once and Melbourne finished the other time, but it showed that she has a good mix of athleticism, skill and confidence.
The big question for her going forward is whether she can improve her 3 point shot. She only shot 28% from 3 this season, but the shot looked improved from prior years. If she can continue to improve on that, she is a good slasher and all around player. She did not look out of place athletically on the court against the likes of Jackie Young and Marina Mabrey and alongside her teammate Brittney Sykes. She’s not a Sykes level athlete, but very few are.
Players most likely to make me look foolish:
Veronica Burton: Defensively she is excellent, but not sure being an amazing 2 position defender, given her shaky shooting and not especially quick first step on offense, is enough. But she could definitely prove me wrong. Jasmine Thomas is a model for that kind of guard.
Rae Burrell: If Burrell had been healthy all year, she very well may have ended up in the 7-9 range. It is where I had her in my first edition of this draft board. I just have too many questions about whether she is athletic enough to hang at the next level and what her shooting is. If it is closer to her junior year where she shot 40% from 3 and 80% from the line, then maybe I overreacted to an injury plagued senior year and should have used her full body of work to evaluate her.