By Clare Brennan and Emma Hruby
The top three picks from this year’s WNBA draft class have wasted no time making their presence known in the league. But just how well do Rhyne Howard, NaLyssa Smith and Shakira Austin stack up against top trios from years past?
Just Women’s Sports decided to investigate, delving into four previous sets of top picks from the past 15 years. While the sample size for Howard, Smith and Austin is small, they hold their own amid some impressive company.
These three players have five WNBA championships between them across the last 15 seasons, which shows their staying power – indeed, Candace Parker and Sylvia Fowles are still going strong. They also all made an immediate impact upon their introduction to the league.
After setting a WNBA record in her debut, No. 1 overall pick Parker didn’t let her foot off the gas for the Sparks. She finished the season as both Rookie of the Year and league MVP. She also led the league in rebounding.
Parker failed to score in double digits in just one game all season – the final regular-season contest, in which she played just nine minutes as Los Angeles emptied its bench. Her peak performance came against Houston on July 9, when she racked up 40 points, 16 rebounds, five blocks and two steals. She averaged 18.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.3 blocks for the season, which remains one of the best of her career.
Fowles, the second overall pick, didn’t post the same eye-popping numbers as Parker, but her stat line (10.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.1 steals) earned her a spot on the All-Rookie team and the All-Defensive Second Team. Austin boasts similar stats through her first seven games this season.
Rounding out the 2008 trio, Candice Wiggins was named Sixth Woman of the Year in her rookie season. She averaged 15.7 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.8 steals per game for Minnesota despite starting just one game all season.
No. 1 overall pick Brittney Griner ended her first season as the WNBA blocks leader. She posted 81 blocks in 2013, then followed it up with a career-high 129 a season later. As a rookie, she averaged 12.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.0 blocks.
Elena Delle Donne, the No. 2 overall pick, was named Rookie of the Year after averaging 18.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.8 blocks and starting in all 30 games for the Sky.
In her first game, Delle Donne compiled 22 points, eight assists and four blocks to set the tone for the season. She regularly scored in double digits, and she scored at least 20 points 13 times.
Skylar Diggins-Smith took a season to come into her own. Now a star for the Mercury, she began her career with the Tulsa Shock, averaging 8.5 points, 3.8 assists, 1.9 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game in her rookie season. The next season, she averaged 20.1 points per game.
A’ja Wilson headlined the 2018 WNBA draft class as the No. 1 overall pick by the Las Vegas Aces, with Kelsey Mitchell going second to Indiana and Diamond DeShields rounding out the top three after she was selected by Chicago.
The trio stepped into the spotlight from the get-go, particularly Wilson, who earned Rookie of the Year honors. The former South Carolina star averaged 20.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.67 blocked shots in her debut campaign, with Wilson joining Seimone Augustus as only the second rookie in WNBA history to average at least 20 points per game.
Right now, Howard is on pace to join the pair, as she is averaging 20.5 points through six games.
For the Fever, Mitchell logged 70 three-pointers, a tally only surpassed by two other rookies in WNBA history. She averaged 12.7 points and 2.7 assists per game, and she notched 20 or more points on six different occasions.
DeShields dropped the second-most points by a rookie that season, averaging 14.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. The Sky guard topped out at a then-career-high 28 points in one of the last games of the season, putting an exclamation point on her introduction to the league.
The New York Liberty had high hopes for Sabrina Ionescu when they selected the Oregon superstar as the No. 1 overall pick in 2020. The guard was one of the most exciting draft prospects in recent memory after her historic career with the Ducks.
The hype around Ioenscu’s WNBA debut, however, was dampened when the rookie injured her ankle in the Liberty’s third game, sidelining her for the remainder of the season. Ionescu averaged 18.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists in her three games of the 2020 campaign.
Ionescu’s Oregon teammate Satou Sabally was selected second overall by the Dallas Wings, but her inaugural campaign also was plagued by injury, with the former Duck sitting out six games. When she was on the floor, however, Sabally made an impact, averaging 13.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists across 16 games.
Lauren Cox of Baylor rounded out the top three picks, going to the Indiana Fever. The forward played in 14 games with the team, starting in just one appearance, averaging 3.6 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists.
Ahead of the 2020 season, it seemed safe to assume one of the two Oregon stars would claim Rookie of the Year honors, but the award went to second-round draft pick Crystal Dangerfield of the Minnesota Lynx. The guard was the first player not drafted in the first round to win the award.
WHAT A GAME for @howard_rhyne as she lead the @AtlantaDream to their win over the Fever with a career-high of 33 points. 🔥And, we are only 4 games into the season 👀 pic.twitter.com/MZ7qE0jUlO— WNBA (@WNBA) May 15, 2022
WHAT A GAME for @howard_rhyne as she lead the @AtlantaDream to their win over the Fever with a career-high of 33 points. 🔥And, we are only 4 games into the season 👀 pic.twitter.com/MZ7qE0jUlO
So far, this trio has lived up to the hype, starting with top pick Howard. She has yet to score below double digits for the Atlanta Dream, and she dropped 33 points in her fourth game, which puts her in elite company.
Through six games, the guard is averaging 20.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals. While there’s still plenty of ball left to be played, if her scoring trend continues, Howard could be on track for one of the best rookie seasons in league history.
Smith is also having a standout campaign. She’s scored in double digits in all but one game while stacking up the rebounds, including a season-high 17 rebounds against the Liberty on May 13. As of Tuesday, she leads the WNBA in rebounds per game with 10.0, and she is also averaging 13.0 points, good for a double-double on the season.
Since 2008, just one player has averaged more than 10 rebounds per game as a rookie: Tina Charles, who posted 11.7 per game for the Connecticut Sun in 2010.
Austin has earned a starting spot in just three games for a veteran Mystics team, but she has started to come into her own. She has dropped double-digit points totals in each of the last three games, and she’s factored heavily on the stat sheet in each, especially in a 20-point, eight-rebound performance against Dallas on May 17.
She’s averaging 9.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.1 blocks through six games, but those averages could go up if she continues to garner more playing time.
All three of this year’s top rookies will take the court Tuesday night: Howard and Austin will face off at 7 p.m. as the Dream take on the Mystics, and Smith and the Fever will face Parker and the Sky at 8 p.m.