If you need a reason to get excited about the 2021-22 women’s college basketball season, here it is: This list was hard to make. Really, really hard. And that’s a great thing. The separation between the top players is slim, and the depth of talent immense. I reordered the top three nearly 10 different times before settling on the current order.
Here are my picks for the top 25 players of the upcoming season, which tips off Nov. 9:
By the numbers: 20.1 points, 5.9 assists, 2.3 steals, 45.9% 3-point shooting
Putting Bueckers at No. 1 might seem like an unimaginative pick, but there’s a reason she’s the name everyone knows, basketball fan or not. And winning the Associated Press’s Player of the Year Award, the Wooden Award and the Naismith Award means something. Being the first freshman to achieve the honor means even more.
Bueckers stepped onto the court as a freshman and was a dominant force for UConn. With her fellow starters returning, No. 1 recruit Azzi Fudd joining the squad and Dorka Juhász transferring in from Ohio State, Bueckers should be even more comfortable this season.
Bueckers’ ability to stop on a dime, get her feet under her and fire a quick release while on the move makes her virtually impossible to guard. She can score in a variety of ways, but her ability to see the court puts her on another level. Bueckers gets to the lane and almost always makes the right decision once she’s there, whether that’s finishing herself, finding a dump pass or kicking it out to a shooter.
By the numbers: 18 points, 8.9 rebounds, 79.2 FT%, 26 total blocks
I wouldn’t be mad at anyone who wanted NaLyssa Smitha at No. 1 on this list. Choosing between her and Bueckers was nearly impossible.
Smith was the best player on a Baylor team that narrowly lost (69-67) to No. 1 seed UConn in the Elite Eight — she had 14 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks in that contest.
At 6-foot-2, Smith is an obvious presence in the paint, but her ability to read and intercept passing lanes is arguably her biggest defensive strength. On offense, Smith combines athleticism with clean footwork and great body control to split defenses and spin around opponents in the paint. She also is capable of facing up off the post, catching and shooting or dribbling into a midrange shot. Smith helped the Bears at the free-throw line as well, shooting a team-high 79.2 percent on 154 attempts (also a team high).
By the numbers: 13.1 points, 11.5 rebounds, 2.6 blocks
Averaging a double-double is impressive, but what makes First Team All-American Aliyah Boston stand out is the way she gets rebounds. Four of her 11.5 per game come on offense, meaning her teammates are able to be aggressive on that side of the floor because, with Boston on your team, a ball coming off the rim is almost as good as a pass. The 6-5 Boston knows where to position her body and how to track the ball in the air to anticipate where a rebound will end up. It’s a skill she makes look easy, except it’s anything but. Her awareness extends past rebounding, as Boston has a knack for reading defenses and making moves in the paint away from defenders, even when opponents send a double team.
Just like Boston’s rebounding allows teammates to be aggressive on offense, her shot-blocking has the same impact on defense. The Gamecocks can take chances on the perimeter because Boston will be there to clean things up at the rim.
By the numbers: 26.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 41 3-point%
No one in the NCAA hunts their shot quite like Caitlin Clark. If she gets a smidgen of daylight, she’s shooting, and sometimes it doesn’t even matter if her defender executes the perfect contest. She can shoot from well beyond the NBA 3-point line. She can shoot off-balance. She can shoot on the move. She can just shoot the ball, period. But Clark is dangerous because, despite her ability to hit from long-range, she isn’t just a 3-point shooter. She’s simply a scorer. The kind of pressure defenses have to apply on the perimeter to stop her from hitting a 3 is also the kind that allows the guard to blow by her defenders. Clark can also finish at the rim or pull up for an excellent floater. And if someone else has a better look, expect Clark to make the right pass — she averaged 7.1 assists a game last season.
Side note: If you have a young kid in your life looking to learn basketball, direct them to Clark’s shooting form. It’s perfect and unchanging every time.
By the numbers: 13.2 points, 2.9 assists, 7.4 rebounds, 55 FG%
Haley Jones may be the most versatile player in college basketball. She’s a walking mismatch for opposing defenses. Put a smaller guard on her, and Jones will take her to the paint where she has a slew of post moves. Put a big on her, and Jones will attack her defender off the dribble. Once she gets the ball at the free-throw line, Jones exhibits her high basketball IQ, reading defenses and deciding to finish or find an open teammate. Jones is also a threat without the ball, as her ability to find space and cut to the rim constantly catches defenders off guard.
And who could forget Jones’ performance in the NCAA Tournament, where she led Stanford to its first title in nearly 30 years? Jones scored 24 points against South Carolina in the Final Four, including a jumper with 32 seconds left that gave Stanford the lead, and then recorded 17 points and eight rebounds to help the Cardinal top Arizona in the final.
By the numbers: 17.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists
Ashley Owusu’s game is unique to anyone else in college basketball right now. The only way I can describe it is this: Bully ball meets finesse. And when I use the word “bully” to describe her, I mean it in the best way. She’s strong enough to displace a defender if she wants to, and if she wants to score, she will. But it’s not sheer strength that sets her apart; it’s the ability to balance that with skillful finesse. Once she gets to the lane she has a soft touch and polished footwork. Add in her passing and decision-making (2.25 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio), and quick hands on defense, and you can see why I have her so high on this list. Owusu is a true floor general for Maryland. Where she goes, the Terps go.
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By the numbers: 24 points, 11.4 rebounds 62.3 FG%
There are two moves that come to mind when I think of All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year, Naz Hillmon: drop-step and spin move. Both are nearly impossible for opposing defenses to stop. When she is dribbling to the paint, Hillmon spins with such force and quickness that she can beat or split a double-team. As for the drop-step, it’s a simple move that every player has who spends time around the lane, but Hillmon takes it to the next level. Hers is faster and more athletic than that of the average post, and the fake she throws out before completing the move is so realistic that it tricks defenders even when they know it’s coming.
Then there’s her efficiency. Hillmon averages 24 points per game. while shooting 62.3 percent from the field. She’s aggressive but selective with her scoring, which is a killer combination for Michigan.
By the numbers: 20.7 points, 3.8 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 2.5 steals
The Kentucky senior is a pure scorer who also has a well-rounded game ranging from from defense to rebounding to, of course, putting the ball in the hoop. Rhyne Howard’s entire offensive game stems from an ability to create space and a versatile hesitation move. She has a step-back jumper that extends beyond the 3-point line, and when she executes, her defender is left steps away from her, leading to an open look. Howard is also a good ball-handler, but that’s not what makes her dribble moves effective. It’s the way she changes speeds. Howard is great at setting up her defenders and then accelerating at the right time. Off that hesitation, she is able to read defenses and blow by them, pull up for a shot or make a pass.
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By the numbers: 24.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists
Iowa State lists Ashley Joens as a guard/forward, but she can plug into any position on the floor, truly embodying positionless basketball. Versatility has been the theme for the top players on this list, and Joens is no different. The Cheryl Miller Award winner puts up big numbers and does it all over the floor. She’s great at sliding into open spaces to catch and shoot and even better at creating her own shot off the dribble. Perhaps her most impressive work is done in the paint, even though she stands at just 6-feet tall. Joens is a master of the pivot, finding the best angle to shoot over or around her defenders. The highlight of her interior game is an up-and-under move that is executed to perfection. She alternates between finishing with a scoop shot and her regular form, constantly keeping defenders guessing.
By the numbers: 16.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 53.3 FG%
NC State’s guards have a huge luxury when it comes to playing with the 6-5 Elissa Cunane. The All-American has wide-receiver-like hands. If her teammates throw a pass in her vicinity, Cunane is going to coral the ball, and finish — her 53.3 percent field-goal shooting was 26th in the country last season. She also has a soft touch around the rim and the ability to pass on the move after grabbing a defensive rebound. She’s technically a center, but it’s easy to forget when she puts the ball on the floor or finds a cutting teammate, showcasing skills generally seen in a guard. Cunane is at her best in the paint, but she is capable of stretching defenses and hitting from long range as well, shooting 38.7 percent from beyond the arc last season.
By the numbers: 18.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, 51.9 FG%
In a video on the Ole Miss Rebels’ YouTube channel, Shakira Austin said when she transferred from Maryland to Ole Miss, she wanted to show that she was enough to turn a program around. With her on the squad, the Rebels went 17-12, improving on a 7-23 record from the year before — including a win over Rhyne Howard’s No. 14 Kentucky. Austin is an athletic, versatile big at 6-5 with guard-like skills. She can grab a rebound and go coast-to-coast to finish on the other end. She’s strong in the paint and can finish through contact, but Austin really shines when she catches at the free-throw line and faces up. The senior is able to break down her defender off the dribble, getting to the rim and either finishing or drawing multiple defenders and finding an open teammate.
By the numbers: 24. 3 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.3 blocks
After transferring from Ohio State, Kierstan Bell had the best season in Florida Gulf Coast history, boasting an incredible stat line — 24.3 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.9 steals — all while shooting 52.7 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from beyond the arc. She’s strong and athletic, with a smoothness to her game. She attacks the rim well off the dribble and uses a jab step to read her defender, deciding whether to blow by or pull-up from long-range. Add in a high-basketball IQ and rebounding ability, and the guard is the complete package.
By the numbers: 15.9 points, 2.0 assists, 39.3% shooting from 3-point line
At 5-9, Zia Cooke is a master of getting creative around the rim. She consistently finds the right angle to avoid shot-blockers and is able to finish even when she’s off-balance or her body is contorted. Outside of the paint, Cooke is an athletic guard with elite handles. The All-SEC First-Teamer has incredible speed with or without the ball and is a major threat for South Carolina in transition. She’s also able to shoot the 3 (39.3 percent from beyond the arc) and has a nice mid-range game. Cooke uses her dribbling skills to set up defenders and is then able to elevate for a jumper. She gets so much height on her pull-up that she is able to rise over bigger defenders.
By the numbers: 17.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 50.6 FG%
Diamond Miller is one of the best transition players in the country, and she does it with or without the ball. She can get out on the fast break and dribble through traffic, using her 6-3 frame to cover ground quickly and step around defenders to finish. If she doesn’t have the ball, Miller uses her court awareness to find lanes for cuts or open space around the 3-point line to set up for a shot. The All-Big 10 First-Teamer attacks the glass on both ends of the floor and knows how to hunt a rebound in order to finish on offense. Defensively, her long limbs provide a challenge for opponents, as she is able to get in passing lanes, alter shots and make players think twice about attacking her off the dribble.
By the numbers: 9.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.8 blocks
Cameron Brink really came alive for the Cardinal during their NCAA Tournament run, recording six blocks in a 66-65 win over South Carolina and four blocks in the 54-53 championship victory over Arizona. And she did that while battling some nagging injuries. Defensively, she is the ideal shot-blocker. She’s long, athletic and moves her body well, covering ground quickly and positioning herself in the perfect spot to either impact or completely block an opponent’s attempt. When watching Stanford, it’s clear that players are scared to drive when Brink is in the lane, meaning she impacts opponents’ offense even when she’s not in their vicinity. Offensively, Brink should take off this season. She has a soft touch in the paint and can catch almost any pass. Brink is also able to extend defenses and step behind the 3-point line, adding another element to her game.
By the numbers: 16.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists
Paige Bueckers isn’t the only player of note on the Huskies. Christyn Williams came into her own for UConn last season, being named to the All-Big East First Team and averaging 21 points per game during the team’s run to the Final Four. That included two 27 point-games against No. 5 seed Iowa and No. 2 seed Baylor. Williams has great awareness and helps anchor the UConn offense with her court vision and calm demeanor. She can be counted on to make good decisions. Last season, she became much more aggressive, using a quick first step to slice to the rim while also understanding when and where to pick her scoring opportunities. Williams is also a strong defender and is skilled on the offensive break.
By the numbers: 17.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists
Charisma Osborne’s athleticism is on full display on defense, where she can pick the pocket of skilled guards and read passing lanes to grab easy steals for transition buckets. On offense, her hesitation move and ability to change speeds on the attack create scoring opportunities for herself and everyone around her. Those 3.8 assists per game are a testament to her playmaking skills, as she forces defenders to react when she drives and finds teammates for wide-open looks. She has good range as a shooter, knocking down shots from steps beyond the 3-point line (she shot 34 percent from 3 last season) and finishing in a variety of ways around the rim.
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By the numbers: 18.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.3 steals
If there was a moment that defined Charlisse Leger-Walker’s freshman season at Washington State, it had to be her buzzer-beating crossover to a left-handed scoop shot to top No. 7, and eventual NCAA Tournament runner-up, Arizona 71-69 in overtime. It was an aggressive move that sums up the kind of player Leger-Walker is. She’s fearless when attacking the rim and uses her strength to finish through contact. The New Zealand native has tons of experience playing at a high level; she was the youngest player to appear on her country’s national team at just 16. That experience is evident in the way she understands the game and creates opportunities for the Cougars.
By the numbers: 12.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists
Destanni Henderson does a lot for South Carolina, but perhaps her most important skill is the ability to make a crisp post-entry pass. When you have Aliyah Boston — and now transfer Kamilla Cardoso — on your team, getting the ball to the post is crucial. Henderson knows how to set her teammates up in places where they can have success, which was reflected in her SEC-leading 5.1 assist per game last season. South Carolina’s floor general is also a capable scorer who understands when to get to the rim and how to finish under control when she gets there, in addition to knowing when to pull up for a midrange jumper or 3-pointer.
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By the numbers: 12.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.3 blocks
Analysts always talk about crafty guards, but Lorela Cubaj brings that craftiness to her post game. The Italian-born forward scores in so many different ways, using spins, jab steps, up-and-unders and dribble moves — sometimes all in one possession — to fake out her defender and score. Her footwork is polished, and it’s nearly impossible for defenders to guess what she is going to do because she reacts to their movements and rarely forces anything. Averaging a double-double, the All-ACC team member is the centerpiece for Georgia Tech on both offense and defense. Cubaj uses her athleticism and 6-4 frame to get into shot-blocking position, something that helped earn her ACC Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors.
By the numbers: 15.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists
Colorado standout Mya Hollingshed put the college basketball community on notice last season when she scored 32 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a 77-72 overtime win over No. 1 Stanford on Jan 17. She was 12-for-24 from the field that game, going 4-for-10 from the 3-point line. At 6-3, the fifth-year senior knows how to take advantage of a mismatch and uses her strength and size to back down smaller defenders. She also has a solid midrange game and can pull-up off the catch or create for herself, using jab steps and crossovers to get her defender off-balance.
By the numbers: 18.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 53.1 FG%
Virginia Tech’s All-ACC First-Team center Elizabeth Kitley possesses a skill that has become rare among basketball players: the ability to create in the post without dribbling. Kitley has great awareness, using her body to feel where defenders are and making a move based on their positioning. She has strong footwork, which she shows off in a variety of spin moves and drop steps, usually with one or no dribbles. Kitley has a soft touch and uses her 6-6 body to turn, face and shoot over defenders. On defense, Kitley is a solid rim protector, averaging just under two blocks per contest.
By the numbers: 16.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists
Another upset-maker, Rae Burrell helped lead Tennessee past No. 2 South Carolina, 75-67, with 19 points on Feb. 18. Burrell is an athletic guard who can find lanes to the hoop with or without the ball; she’s constantly in motion for the Vols. She’s great at setting up defenders and then making a quick move and drive to the hoop. At the rim, Burrell can finish off-balance and with contact. She’s also efficient beyond the arc, shooting 40.2 percent, and in the midrange, where she wastes no movement and often needs just one dribble to clear space.
By the numbers: 19.1 points, 8.7 rebounds, 62.1 FG%
What strikes me about Ayoka Lee’s game is her efficiency. The All-Big 12 team member and All-American honorable mention attempted 298 field goals last season (all from 2-point range), knocking down a whopping 62.1 percent of them. That was the third-best shooting percentage in the country behind Iowa’s Monika Czinano (66.8) and Michigan’s Naz Hillmon (62.3). The 6-6 Lee can catch almost anything that’s thrown her way, even corralling passes with one hand on occasion. She knows how to use her body to get low, create space and seal a defender. Then, Lee exhibits a traditional low-post game. It’s not very flashy, but it certainly is efficient.
By the numbers: 11.2 points, 2.1 assists, 1.16 steals, 5.2 rebounds
In her first year, Hailey Van Lith recorded the second-most minutes per game (30.2) out of anyone on her team’s roster, showing the trust the Louisville coaching staff has in her. She was also named to the All-ACC Freshman team. While her stats from last season aren’t over-the-top impressive, Van Lith showed consistency and flashes of brilliance for Louisville, and anyone who has seen her play in high school or compete for the United States national team knows Van Lith is poised to break out as a sophomore. The left-handed guard has a scorer’s mentality and never stops looking for her shot. She can drive and dish or create for herself. Van Lith finished the season shooting 43 percent from the 3-point line and 83 percent from the free-throw line.
By the numbers: 13.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 57.6 FG%
At Syracuse last season, the 6-7 Kamilla Cardoso was named Freshman of the Year and Co-Defensive Player of the Year before transferring to South Carolina. Her height alone is enough to impact a game, but Cardoso will now be playing alongside stellar post player Aliyah Boston, putting her in a position for success. With Boston drawing defenders, Cardoso will be able to find openings. When she does, expect solid body control, good movement off the pick-and-roll and the ability to get up the court quickly.
Eden Laase is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She previously ran her own high school sports website in Michigan after covering college hockey and interning at Sports Illustrated. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.