The WNBA welcomed 36 more players to the ranks on Monday night with the 2022 draft headlined by No. 1 overall pick Rhyne Howard to the Atlanta Dream. The league is taking the handoff from the NCAA tournament, which ended eight days ago, and will tip off its 26th season on May 6.
One of the biggest wins of the night was hearing more on Phoenix Mercury star and Team USA gold medalist Brittney Griner, who remains jailed in Russia since mid-February. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert began her press conference with the media by addressing Griner’s situation and saying the league is working to bring her home but everyone “needs to be patient.”
Griner was a talking point during the broadcast with updates from Holly Rowe as well. Players have remained largely mum about the situation likely because they do not want to bring unwanted attention to it and have Griner used as a bargaining chip in the war with Ukraine.
Here are the winners and losers from the draft itself. All of the 36 draft picks can be found here.
Rhyne Howard’s No. 1 night — Howard has long been an expected No. 1 overall draft pick and led many mock drafts earlier in the year. But Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith, who ended up going second, was a favorite pick for many when the Washington Mystics held the pick out of December’s lottery.
The Dream pulled off a trade last week to give up their No. 3 and No. 14 picks to bring in Howard, a two-time SEC Player of the Year selection and only the ninth player to be a three-time Associated Press All- America first-team pick. Atlanta has had its fair share of turmoil over the past two years, some of which was no fault of its own, and it has to feel good to know a team traded up to bring you there.
“To go first, I don’t even have words for it right now,” Howard said. “I’m still kind of shaking. But it is super exciting, and I’m proud of what I’ve done, proud of myself, and thankful for everyone that’s been on this journey with me and that’s helped me to get here. “
Howard is coming off a surprise SEC tournament championship and a third consecutive season of averaging at least 20 PPG, 6 RPG, 2 SPG and two attempted 3-pointers per game. She will play near her hometown of Cleveland, Tennessee.
In-person again and oh my, the fits — The draft was held in-person for the first time since 2019 and it was refreshing to see the live moments, not to mention the proud families sitting with their professional basketball players. Shoutout to Grandma Brenda at Spring Studios in Tribeca, where Fashion Week is held.
It’s always the fashion that grabs attention at any draft, and the WNBA consistently leads the way. Players are more authentically themselves than ever and showcase the range of the league itself. There are so many different ways to be a person; the WNBA doesn’t subscribe to fitting in a mold.
Who will easily forget South Carolina guard and Indiana Fever draftee Destanni Henderson in a perfectly blue suit. Or Ole Miss star Shakira Austin, the Mystics’ No. 3 overall pick from that Dream trade, in a starry jumpsuit?
Mid-majors and HBCUs in particular — It was a big night for mid-majors starting with Florida Gulf Coast guard Kierstan Bell. The two-time Becky Hammon award winner for best mid-major player in the country is heading to play for Becky Hammon herself and the Las Vegas Aces.
The award given by Her Hoop Stats is only in its third year and strives to showcase the talent beyond the Power Five conferences that are often expanded to include the Big East, led by UConn. And it was a big tournament for mid-major schools as parity grows in the collegiate ranks.
Joining Bell on the night: Hawaii’s Amy Atwell (Sparks, No. 27), South Dakota’s Hannah Sjerven (Lynx, No. 28), Delaware’s Jasmine Dickey (Wings, No. 30), North Florida’s Jazz Bond (Wings, No. 31 ) and IUPUI’s Macee Williams (Mercury, No. 32). It once again goes to show good scouts will find good talent, no matter what name is on the front of the jersey.
It was an HBCU that stood out brightest beyond Florida Gulf Coast and Bell’s selection, though. Jackson State nearly upset LSU and legendary coach Kim Mulkey in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Now center Ameshya Williams-Holliday is the program’s first-ever draft pick at No. 25 to the Indiana Fever.
Williams-Holliday averaged 19.2 points and 11.4 rebounds per game while shooting 54% from the field. She is the sixth HBCU player to be drafted to the league and the first in 19 years.
ESPN shortchanging the W. Again — There’s a chance it’s the first time you’re hearing of the historic aspect to Williams-Holliday’s pick even if you did watch the WNBA draft live. ESPN didn’t discuss the pick when it happened, just as it didn’t discuss most of the second or third-round selections. Her name and “Pick is in” went on a bottom third graphic instead of being called out by the hosts. It was another missed opportunity by the broadcaster to showcase the league it has a business stake in by owning broadcast rights.
ESPN has always skipped through the later rounds of the draft and instead of calling out picks as they’re in, the news is delivered on a ticker and later the hosts list a group of five or six together by name. The only ones they stopped for were draft picks at the site who had dropped past the first round.
Is it really fair to shortchange two-thirds of players in a small draft? This is their one big opportunity to hear they’ve been drafted, a huge feat in itself. It would have been so special to later see TikTok or Instagram Live reactions of these mid-major players after hearing their name called on TV. A professional league draft is made in the mini moments, not a recap of rosters or first-round selections.
Many of these players will not make rosters — This is the grim annual reality. There are 12 teams with 12 roster spots each creating the “144” of the league. But that’s not a true number as many teams will have 11 players due to salary cap concerns. Last season half of the draftees did not make a roster, and fewer of those picks will be on rosters in year 2.
Teams are more apt to sign a known veteran talent than a rookie one, though the rookie salary might make it enticing to keep them over a higher-priced star. But a lot of these players are in tough situations with the teams that drafted them already carrying a solid roster.
“My main goal is to get up there and get signed,” Emily Engstler, the Fever’s fourth overall pick out of Louisville, said when asked about her goals. “We might have gotten drafted, but we didn’t get a contract yet. That’s my first step. I want to live in the moment. I think it’s important for us to do that or it becomes a little too much.”
Approximately .8% of collegiate women’s players make it to the WNBA, a statistic so much lower than any other professional league the bar graphs are staggering. ESPN did show those to start the broadcast, making their omittance of the few who did “make” it — at least for a few weeks — all the hardest to swallow.
Expanded roster talk —Expansion is the talk of every availability with Engelbert, and Monday was no exception. The COVID-19 pandemic forced a pause on expansion that will hopefully ease up soon and Engelbert teased more information coming this summer.
“I wish I could be in a different position to talk about it, but we’re going to get there and it’s definitely in our future,” Engelbert said.
Roster expansion is taking over team expansion after a season that saw some teams use six available players for games and the hardship exemption used more than ever to sign players to short stints. Rebecca Lobo, citing discussions with coaches and general managers, floated the idea of two practice player spots during a pre-draft media conference call. Engelbert doesn’t “see that in the very near term” and he would take a change to the collective bargaining agreement since those players need to be paid.
“If I get my way and we disrupt the media rights fee model and we’re able to afford that, we’ll absolutely take a look at that,” she said. “I think everything will be on the table in a couple years. In fact, I expect that.”
Expect more hardship signings and shorter rosters in the coming season, especially since it’s an expanded 36-game season in a shortened window due to the FIBA World Cup in September.