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WNBA Rookie Watch: Five players exceeding early expectations

Shakira Austin (Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

The total number of rostered players four weeks into the WNBA regular season is roughly 140, not quite the 144 spots allotted by the league due to the financial jigsaw puzzle of fielding a competitive team within the salary cap. Of those 140 current players, 23 are rookies this season.

Here at JWS, we’ll be checking in periodically on the 2022 rookie class to keep you up to date on how they’re stacking up in the competitive WNBA.

Now that most teams have clocked at least 11 regular season games, five rookies have set themselves apart as clear overachievers, demonstrating value on the court that is significantly higher than their predicted value. One is a wildly popular NCAA champion point guard, one is an undrafted free agent making her W debut at age 31, and three are first-round draft picks already exceeding high preseason expectations.

1. Rhyne Howard, Atlanta Dream, age 22

ESPN Fantasy: preseason ranking — 34th, currently 14th in fantasy points per game

Coming in at number one is none other than the top overall pick of the 2022 WNBA Draft. The rookie with the highest expectations earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors her very first week in the league, something no other rookie had done since Tamika Catchings in 2002. Not even heralded players like A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart, Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi or Sue Bird achieved that mark.

Howard then became only the seventh player in WNBA history to score more than 100 points in her first five games. After averaging 20.5 points per game through her first six, her scoring cooled off in Week 3. Still, she is 11th league-wide in points per game and is leading the Dream in scoring and is top three in steals, blocks, and assists. In both win shares and player efficiency rating (PER), two stats that aim to measure the actual value a player provides when they are on the court, Howard is contending with the best in the league, currently ranking seventh and 21st, respectively.

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Howard has joined elite WNBA company during her first month in the league. (Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

At the end of Howard’s record-breaking career at Kentucky, where she departed as the program’s all-time leading 3-point shooter, it was still unclear if she’d go No. 1 in the draft. The draft lottery-winning Mystics even traded down, willingly passing off the opportunity to draft her. Analysts questioned whether she had the motor required to maintain maximum effort up and down the court at the next level. Through the first month of the season, Howard has led Atlanta to its best start since 2017 and silenced all questions about whether she was worth the No. 1 pick.

2. Shakira Austin, Washington Mystics, age 22

ESPN Fantasy: preseason ranking — 87th, currently 61st in fantasy points per game

This is no knock against NaLyssa Smith, the No. 2 pick out of Baylor who has seamlessly transitioned to the pro level with the Fever, but her expected value was already as high as she’s revealing it to be. This is about Shakira Austin, the 6-foot-5 center out of Ole Miss who didn’t get as much mainstream attention until draft night after the Rebels lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Those who had seen Austin play knew she had a lot to offer as a dynamic defender who can protect the basket and hold her own against smaller perimeter players. And she’s been producing on both ends of the court right off the bat, averaging 8.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game. Most notably, she’s currently ranked second in the league in field goal percentage (60.3 percent) and twelfth in total rebound rate (16.3 percent).

Having started eight of the Mystics’ 12 games, Austin has proven herself against some of the league’s best, holding Sylvia Fowles to 13 points in just her second career game. And among her rookie peers, she has the highest PER and is second highest in win shares.

3. Rebekah Gardner, Chicago Sky, age 31

ESPN Fantasy: preseason ranking — 149th, currently 66th in fantasy points per game

When filling the final rookie-scale salary spots on their roster, coaches either go for college draftees with steep learning curves but potentially high ceilings long-term, or veteran players from the overseas market who can fill immediate on-court gaps but have likely reached their ceiling. When the latter option reveals a much higher ceiling than expected, it’s like finding a unicorn.

The WNBA’s leading unicorn for 2022 is 31-year-old Rebekah Gardner, who played at UCLA from 2008-12 and then on a variety of teams in Europe over the past decade before finally breaking into the WNBA this season with James Wade’s Chicago Sky.

Gardner wasted no time in leaving her mark, currently averaging nine points, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per game and ranking fifth in the league in shooting percentage. Serving as the backup to last season’s Finals MVP, Kahleah Copper, Gardner brings composure and tenacity from her experience playing against many of the league’s best while abroad. Of the rookie class, Gardner is third in scoring and fourth in both win shares and PER.

4. Destanni Henderson, Indiana Fever, age 23

ESPN Fantasy: preseason ranking — 147th, currently 80th in fantasy points per game

Destanni Henderson claims the fourth-place spot on our overachievers list, not for any lack of fanfare after her stellar performance in South Carolina’s run to the NCAA championship, but because 19 other rookies were selected before her on draft night. Granted, had she not put on one of the best showcases of her college career in the national championship game, her going 20th overall would not have raised too many eyebrows. Nonetheless, Henderson has quickly proven her stock is worth more than that.

In just her second game at the pro level, she put up 19 points, three assists, three rebounds and two steals and went 3-for-4 from beyond the arc. Henderson, mostly coming off the bench for the Fever, is averaging 7.2 points and 2.8 assists per game and has continued to hit shots from deep, currently ranked second in the league in 3-point shooting percentage (51.9). Within her rookie class, Henderson is second overall in assists per game, third in PER and fifth in win shares.

5. Queen Egbo, Indiana Fever, age 21

ESPN Fantasy: preseason ranking — 100, currently 49th in fantasy points per game

It should be no surprise that Indiana has two top-five overachieving rookies — the Fever had the highest number of first-round draft selections in the history of the league with four this year. Queen Egbo, a center out of Baylor, just barely edged out teammate Emily Engstler, a forward from Louisville, for our (highly coveted) fifth-place spot.

The two bigs are neck-and-neck in practically every stat sheet. Egbo is averaging 6.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.5 blocks per game, while Engstler is recording 6.8 points, seven rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.3 blocks per game. Engstler also is currently second league-wide in offensive boards per game. But in almost every other statistical category, Egbo is either right by her side or slightly ahead. Even in league-wide and fantasy stat sheets, if you scan for one name, the other is lurking very close by. So, it really comes down to preseason expected value.

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L-R: NaLyssa Smith, Queen Egbo, Lexie Hull, Emily Engstler and Destanni Henderson (front) during the Fever's media day. (Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

Engstler was the higher pick, taken fourth overall with Egbo going six picks later. Engstler’s ESPN preseason fantasy ranking was 80, and though her jump to 53rd in fantasy points per game is impressive, Egbo has the upper hand, rising from 100th to 49th. Both have quickly proven worthy of taking up two highly coveted WNBA roster spots, and we suspect they will for many years to come.

Underachievers

Overachieving during your rookie season is no guarantee of sure footing in the WNBA. Look no further than 2020 Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield, who bounced around the league to start the year before landing with New York. But underperforming is a much harder trench to climb out of.

Two first-round draftees — Lexie Hull (IND) and Veronica Burton (DAL) — went higher than expected in the draft (much higher in Hull’s case), and are now up against inflated expectations as both have dropped in fantasy rankings from where they started. Granted, you have to get playing time in order to perform or underperform, and those were always going to be hard to come by for Hull and Burton this season. Hull is averaging seven minutes and Burton is getting 11.3 per game, but both are in the bottom 5 percent of the league in PER. If they can prove their value in practice day in and day out, their chance to establish themselves in the WNBA may come down the road.

The same will be true for Naz Hillmon (ATL), Kierstan Bell (LVA) and Nia Clouden (CON), three other first-round picks who have yet to prove whether they are here to stay. The highly anticipated WNBA expansion can’t come soon enough for many in this year’s rookie class.

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

After a record-breaking Draft Night, WNBA roster cuts loom

2023 WNBA no. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston playing for the indiana fever
Despite going No. 1 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston had to fight hard to make it onto Indiana's roster. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2024 WNBA Draft has officially concluded, leaving the newly minted rookie class facing a tough road ahead.

Only 144 roster slots are available throughout the league’s 12 teams, the reason why the players are sometimes referred to as the “144.” And Monday’s draft picks are set to join a large group of established players competing for those same roster spots, from seasoned veterans to young athletes determined to prove their value on the court.

Last year, just 15 of the league’s 36 draftees made it onto their drafting team's opening-day squad.

In reality, there are oftentimes fewer than 144 spots available, as not every team maxes out their roster. Per the league's CBA, each team roster must maintain a minimum standard of 11 players, but those lists can include players out with injuries or on other forms of leave. Players can also be assigned to short-term hardship contracts, something waived players must be prepared for at any point during the season.

Earlier this week, Laeticia Amihere — a 2022 national champion with South Carolina who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream — took to TikTok to provide some insight into the WNBA training camp process. 

"You can either get drafted on Draft Night, or you can get signed by a team," she said. "Once that happens, you go to training camp literally like two weeks later... Basically everybody's got to try out. There's 12 roster spots, and there's like 18 people at the at the trial."

@laeticiaamihere Replying to @dantavius.washington #wnba #draft ♬ original sound - Laeticia Amihere

Amihere also had an important point to make: Getting cut does not signify a player’s abilities. 

"If you get cut after training camp, that does not mean you're not good," she said. "That does not mean that player sucks, don't stop supporting that player. Literally, there's so many reasons somebody can get cut."

"If you guys look at the best players in the league, most of them have bounced around teams," she added. "And I promise you it is not a bad thing, it's just how the league is."

Things, however gradually, are changing. With Golden State's WNBA team scheduled to launch in time for the 2025 season, league expansion is just around the corner. On Monday, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league is aiming to grow to 16 teams by 2028. But by then, it might be too little too late for the generation of talent emerging from an increasingly competitive NCAA system.

WNBA draft shatters records with 2.45 million viewers

wide shot of BAM during the 2024 WNBA Draft
It wasn't just attendees that were glued to the on-stage action at the 2024 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Monday night’s WNBA draft added to the nationwide uptick in record-breaking women's sports viewership, pulling in 2.45 million viewers throughout the nearly two-hour broadcast and peaking at 3.09 million, according to an ESPN release. 

That number shatters the previous draft viewership record — 601,000 in 2004 — which was fueled primarily by then-No. 1 pick Diana Taurasi entering the league after UConn's historic three-peat March Madness performance.  

The 2023 WNBA draft drew 572,000 viewers, the most for any televised WNBA event since 2.74 million tuned in to NBC for a Memorial Day matchup between the New York Liberty and Houston Comets back in 2000.

While many came to watch Caitlin Clark get drafted No. 1 overall, it’s important to note that viewership didn’t take a massive dip after the superstar shooter left the stage. The numbers show that a bulk of the audience stuck around to watch the remainder of the show, making 2024's event not just the most-viewed WNBA draft in history, but also the most-viewed WNBA program to ever air on ESPN platforms.

Draft Day's popularity is yet another sign indicating an expected rise in WNBA regular season viewership. Clark and Iowa's NCAA tournament showdown with the Chicago Sky-bound Kamilla Cardoso's South Carolina side drew a record 18.7 million to ABC's Sunday afternoon broadcast. Banking on this trend, 36 of Indiana's upcoming 40 games are set to be shown on national television. In-person ticket sales are also soaring, leading the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces to re-home their matchup with the Fever to a venue that can accommodate some 6,000 more fans.

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