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WNBA Draft: Surprises reign at first in-person event in three years

Naz Hillmon greets Cathy Engelbert after being selected 15th overall by the Atlanta Dream. (Evan Yu/Just Women’s Sports)

NEW YORK — Cathy Engelbert spent her Monday in an unfamiliar position.

After overseeing the last two WNBA Drafts from her home in New Jersey amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the WNBA commissioner traversed New York City with the prospects and their families Monday morning before calling players’ names and greeting them live on stage in a bustling, intimate draft room. As the selections were made from Spring Studios in TriBeCa, the top of the Empire State Building shone bright orange in honor of the WNBA’s signature color and courtesy of a lighting ceremony with Engelbert and New York Liberty forward Betnijah Laney earlier in the day.

Engelbert, entering her third full season as commissioner, embraced the opportunity to send the players into the next phase of their basketball careers with an in-person celebration.

“I get to see and shake hands and hug these players who, as I call them to have them attend the draft tonight, you hear things like, ‘You’re making my dreams come true,’ and you hear things like, ‘It’s an honor. It’s a real honor,’” she said.

“I can see a lot of really powerhouse marketing storytelling opportunities amongst this group. They really have personality.”

Not everyone who heard their name called early in the draft had the chance to shake Engelbert’s hand. The surprises began as early as the sixth pick of the night, when the Indiana Fever selected Stanford guard Lexie Hull, a player many mock drafts had going in the second or third round. Hull was not in attendance Monday, as one of seven players taken before all the prospects who were invited to New York City came off the board.

The draft shake-ups are especially notable this season, when even fewer draftees are expected to make WNBA rosters due to salary cap limitations. The Minnesota Lynx got out ahead of their current roster restrictions Sunday, trading two picks to the Las Vegas Aces in favor of future selections.

From the risers to the fallers, we break down the biggest surprises of draft night.

Lexie Hull: Indiana Fever, No. 6

Given the trades and draft-board maneuvering that ensued in the days leading up to the draft, there were bound to be a few shockers on Monday night. I’m not sure anyone, however, expected it to come this early and this forcefully.

Hull was a standout four-year player at Stanford, helping them win a national championship her junior year and playing some of her best basketball this past year as a senior. She is a lengthy guard at 6-foot-1 and brings scrappy defense and efficient 3-point shooting, but there are questions as to how her game will translate to the speed and physicality of the WNBA.

The Fever had four picks in the first round and seven overall. Could they have waited and scooped up Hull at No. 10 or No. 20? It’s possible — JWS analyst Rachel Galligan had Hull going 16th to the Los Angeles Sparks in her mock draft — but if the Fever wanted her that badly, they avoided the risk by taking her early and still managed to get a potential steal in South Carolina guard Destanni Henderson at No. 20.

The Aces were not expecting Kierstan Bell to fall to them at No. 11. (Evan Yu/Just Women's Sports)

Mya Hollingshed: Las Vegas Aces, No. 8
Kierstan Bell: Las Vegas Aces, No. 11

For as long as the odds seemed for Hull to go off the board in the first round, the chances (based on projections) were slimmer for Hollingshed. A third-round pick on JWS’ mock draft, the Colorado scoring star appealed to Aces general manager Natalie Williams because of her ceiling and her fit in first-year head coach Becky Hammon’s offense.

Hammon has said she wants to stretch the floor with a high-pace and high-volume shooting attack. So, after acquiring the No. 8 and No. 13 picks from the Lynx on Sunday, the Aces went out to add length, athleticism and shooting ability to their roster. They liked Hollingshed enough to avoid the risk that she might not fall to them at No. 11.

“Mya Hollingshed is not only an incredible athlete, but her 3-point shooting is hard to come by,” Williams said. “The coaches, the staff, everybody’s super happy.”

The Aces got a bit of a surprise themselves when the draft came back around to them and Florida Gulf Coast guard Kierstan Bell, who was a projected top-five pick in many mock drafts, was still available with the 11th pick. Bell said afterward that she, too, was surprised she was heading to Las Vegas since she hadn’t talked to the team’s staff during the pre-draft process.

Christyn Williams: Washington Mystics, No. 14

The Mystics have a case for being the ultimate winners of the draft. After trading away the No. 1 pick for the third and 14th selections and a 2023 first-round pick, the Mystics took Ole Miss center/forward Shakira Austin, a player they believed was good enough to go No. 1, and Williams in the second round.

Washington coach and general manager Mike Thibault didn’t hide his excitement after the draft, indicating that the Mystics believe they got a steal in Williams. The 5-foot-11 guard was a top scorer at UConn during her four-year career and has traits — speed in transition, ball-handling and long-range shooting — that should translate immediately to the pro level.

“Christyn Williams is the kind of player that we were hoping would be at the 14th pick when we made the trade,” Thibault said. “She is an effective offensive player both on and off the ball. She can create her own shot and get good shots for her teammates. She can also defend all three perimeter positions. This is an exciting pick for us.”

Naz Hillmon: Atlanta Dream, No. 15

Hillmon heard the knocks on her size and offensive skill set as a post player entering the draft. One of the all-time greats at Michigan, Hillmon didn’t let the criticisms or the outcome faze her as she fell out of the first round and to Atlanta with the third pick of the second round.

“This has been a dream of mine for a very long time. So just being picked up by a team, for somebody to believe in me, first round, third round, I’m excited to be where I’m at,” she said from the podium in New York.

Hillmon acknowledged that while she can’t change her 6-foot-2 height, she will continue to expand her game to be able to compete with physical bigs in the WNBA. She worked on her footwork and outside shooting during her four years at Michigan, where she became the first player in program history — men’s or women’s — to record 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in her career. Hillmon’s motor and tenacity on the boards are unquestioned, and the rebuilding Dream walked away Monday night feeling pretty good about their selections of Hillmon and top pick Rhyne Howard.

“Everything is motivation. I could have been picked No. 1 and I still would have been motivated to get better, to perfect my craft,” Hillmon said. “I wouldn’t say disappointed, but always ready to work.”

Hannah Withiam is the Managing Editor at Just Women’s Sports. She previously served as an editor at The Athletic and a reporter at the New York Post. Follow her on Twitter @HannahWithiam.