The Atlanta Dream, who traded up last week to acquire the top overall pick in the 2022 WNBA draft, selected Kentucky guard Rhyne Howard at No. 1 on Monday night in New York.
The Washington Mystics won the draft lottery in December, but traded the top pick to Atlanta last week, as the Dream moved up from No. 3 to guarantee they got Howard.
The 6-foot-2 Howard, the SEC Player of the Year as a sophomore and a junior, averaged 20.5 points and 7.4 rebounds during her senior season, leading the Wildcats in points, rebounds, 3-pointers, steals and blocks. The only other SEC player to do that over the past 20 seasons was Mississippi State’s Tan White (2003-04 and 2004-05).
“I’m shaking right now,” Howard told ESPN’s Holly Rowe after being drafted at No. 1. “It’s a dream come true.”
Baylor’s 6-foot-4 forward NaLyssa Smith, the Big 12 Player of the Year the past two seasons, was the No. 2 pick by the Indiana Fever, who had four first-round selections.
“I’m coming in hungry,” said Smith, who can play either the power forward or small forward position in the WNBA. She is known for scoring in the paint and believes her range will keep growing.
Smith averaged 22.1 points and 11.5 rebounds this past season for the Bears, who won the Big 12 regular-season title for the 12th year in a row. She was part of Baylor’s 2019 national championship team as a freshman.
The top three picks went as expected, as the Mystics selected Ole Miss 6-foot-5 center Shakira Austin at No. 3. Austin averaged 15.2 points and 9.0 rebounds for the Rebels in 2021-22 and can be a force on interior offense and defense for Washington.
The Fever were expected to go big on defense and posts with their early-round picks, and the last pick in the lottery at No. 4 fit both: Louisville 6-foot-1 forward Emily Engstler, who helped the Cardinals make the women’s Final Four in 2022. Same description goes for the Fever’s No. 10 pick, Smith’s Baylor teammate, 6-foot-3 center Queen Egbo.
But the Fever’s selection at No. 6 was a surprise: Stanford guard Lexie Hull, who many projected as a second-round pick. But Hull, who helped the Cardinal win the NCAA title in 2021 and make it back to the Final Four this past season, impressed Indiana general manager Lin Dunn with her nonstop hustle and ability to hit 3-pointers.
It was the first time a WNBA team has had four picks in the first round. With Smith, Engstler, Hull and Egbo, Dunn hopes Indiana has a young foundation to help the Fever return to the playoffs for the first time since 2016. Franchise legend Tamika Catchings retired following that season.
“We’re gonna rebuild with young players,” Dunn said of the Fever, who last had a winning regular-season record in 2015. “I’m seeing highly skilled players coming out of college, but the real key adjustments are the physicality and the speed of the game. I need players who can adapt to that quickly.”
The No. 5 pick brought another “sister act” to the WNBA, as Oregon center/forward Nyara Sabally is headed to New York. Her older sister, Satou Sabally of Oregon, went to Dallas with the No. 2 pick in 2020.
Sabally got to practice with Liberty point guard Sabrina Ionescu when the two were at Oregon and she is excited to have a chance to play with her in the WNBA.
“Sab is such an amazing point guard,” Sabally said. “I saw her in practice every day and am excited to share the court with her.”
The Wings, meanwhile, had the No. 7 pick this year and went with Northwestern guard Veronica Burton, who was the Big Ten and WBCA Defensive Player of the Year. The 5-foot-9 Burton is considered a top-tier perimeter defender for a Dallas team that could use an upgrade there.
Another surprise came at No. 8, as Las Vegas took Colorado forward Mya Hollingshed, who helped the Buffaloes make the NCAA tournament this past season for the first time since 2013. The Aces then took Florida Gulf Coast’s Kierstan Bell at 11.
Bell, who started her college career at Ohio State and averaged 23.6 points and 9.4 rebounds while at FGCU, won the Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year award the past two years and now will get a chance to play for her.
Tennessee wing Rae Burrell, who helped the Lady Vols to the Sweet 16, was the Los Angeles Sparks’ selection at No. 9.
Connecticut finished off the first round by picking Nia Clouden, who averaged 20 points this past season for Michigan State.
Howard is the second player the Dream have picked No. 1, following Louisville’s Angel McCoughtry in 2009. McCoughtry led the Dream to three appearances in the WNBA Finals.
Howard’s 284 career 3-pointers are part of what makes her a multidimensional threat, as she is also big enough to post up against most defenders. Howard can seize the opportunity to become a signature player for a Dream franchise that went 8-24 last season and has missed the playoffs four of the past five years.
Howard, who was the first Kentucky player to go No. 1 in the draft, will be close to home, having grown up about 90 minutes from Atlanta.
“For it to be so close is huge. A lot of family and close friends can come and support me,” Howard said. “To go first, I don’t have words for it right now. Still shaking. Super exciting and proud of myself and thankful for everyone that has been on this journey with me and helped me get here.”
Draftees were able to attend the event in person for the first time since 2019, as the draft had to be done remotely in 2020 and 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The WNBA season tips off on May 6, with training camps opening later this week.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.