With injured players making their returns to the court, the Washington Mystics look like a completely different team compared to just weeks ago.

For the first time since early June, Washington has a healthy roster. Elena Delle Donne and Shakira Austin, who both missed significant time with injuries, are back on the court. And in Tuesday’s 83-72 win over the Lynx, not a single name was listed on the injury report.

“It was just a really dope moment,” Natasha Cloud told the Washington Post. “We’ve been through f—ing hell.

“It was a rough month and a half [of] playing down numbers, playing crazy lineups, having to adjust in a lot of minutes. So just to have everyone back [when] we’re making this playoff push and we’re really starting to peak and putting some wins together, it’s like the sweetest moment of the season for me right now.”

Kristi Toliver also made her return Tuesday, playing for the first time since June 16 after suffering from plantar fasciitis. And while Toliver, Delle Donne, Austin and Ariel Atkins remain on minute restrictions, it’s a step in the right direction.

With Tuesday’s win, the Mystics leapfrogged the Lynx into the fifth playoff spot. The Mystics (17-18) now hold a half-game lead on Minnesota and Atlanta with five games left in the regular season.

“It’s huge,” Brittney Sykes said of the win. “No, seriously, it is really big. We don’t want to get too caught up in looking ahead or thinking about, ‘Oh, well, if these teams win, if we win it, if we lose, they lose’ — it’s literally controlling our controllables.”

Of course, the team still has to juggle its returning players and monitor their progress. But the Mystics could be coming together at just the right time.

“It was good to have options,” head coach Eric Thibault said. “It feels a little choppy yet, kind of because I’m putting people in and yanking them out. We didn’t get a great rhythm, but we made some shots. Made some shots late in the clock, which was probably the difference in the game. We’ve been on the wrong end of a couple of those. We kept defending. I don’t know if we win this game earlier in the season.”

Elena Delle Donne is calling out WNBA officiating, saying she is being treated “like a rookie” by referees.

The Washington Mystics expressed her frustration with foul calls (or lack thereof) during Sunday’s grueling road loss to the Connecticut Sun, the same team the Mystics will host Tuesday night.

“I’m just going to say it,” Delle Donne said. “I’m so sick of being treated like a rookie with calls. If I get fined — whatever. It’s unbelievable. I’ve been through too many back surgeries to — whatever.

“I just keep attacking, in the end I hope that because I can elevate and jump over people, you can see that my arm is getting hit. I just keep attacking and hoping that it’ll change. Hopefully it’ll change next game, but there’s really nothing you can do in those moments. You just, when you see something, you’ve gotta still attack it. And thank goodness for Shakira, who stepped up and took over.”

Both Delle Donne and Shakira Austin finished with double-doubles in the loss, but Delle Donne found herself in foul trouble five five while Austin had four. Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones each had five fouls for the Sun.

“It’s all just about timing — knowing when you should probably do certain things and when you should take advantage and be aggressive one-on-one. Still figuring it out,” Austin said.

Still, Mystics players agreed that the rough defense contributed to some issues. First-year Mystics head coach Eric Thibault received his first technical foul in his new position.

“I wouldn’t say it spooked us or anything like that, but it definitely takes you off your rhythm, especially as an offensive team that has a flow,” Mystics guard Ariel Atkins said. “Obviously you would like a few calls to go your way, but if you put the game in the hands of the ref, you always lose.”

Shakira Austin continues to add to her banner year. The 22-year-old put up a monster performance Friday to lead all scorers in the United States’ latest game at the FIBA World Cup.

Austin posted 19 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks off the bench in Team USA’s 106-42 win over Puerto Rico.

The Washington Mystics rookie was the only one from her class to be named to Team USA for this year’s World Cup after she averaged 8.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game during the WNBA’s regular season.

After being named to the All-SEC First Team during her final season at Ole Miss, Austin was drafted No. 3 overall. From there, the only direction has been up for Austin, who started 32 out of 36 games in her rookie season.

As a result of her success in the WNBA, Austin was named to the league’s All-Rookie Team.

And now, she’s doing the same thing she’s been doing all year down in Australia. With her performance Friday, Austin is currently averaging 11.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game through the first two games of her first-ever World Cup tournament.

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.

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.

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.


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.

Just Women’s Sports recently sat down with Ole Miss center Shakira Austin to talk about her journey to becoming one of the most versatile players in the WNBA draft in a new series called “Next Up.”

Austin, who spent two years at Maryland before transferring to Ole Miss, was the No. 3 pick in the draft Monday. She was selected by the Washington Mystics.

In speaking with Just Women’s Sports, Austin says she began to work with Mike McMiller, who put her through some of the toughest workouts she’s faced and helped her up her game.

“The work ethic that he drove into me elevated my game from high school to college,” Austin says.

In deciding to go to Maryland, Austin says that she wanted to play close to home and bring something back to her hometown.

“I just felt like it was the right place. I do believe that it was a good fit at that time,” she says, adding that things didn’t go the way that she expected. The decision to leave, Austin says, was “heartbreaking.”

“I felt like I had to make a decision for myself to really move on and hope to find a better environment that will let me just expand my game,” she says. “It was a tough decision leaving, I felt like that was my home.”

Ole Miss had won just seven games total, none of them in the conference, in the year before Austin traveled to Oxford. The team presented a stark contrast to the Maryland team that had won the Big Ten tournament in 2020 and had been regular-season champions in each of her two years.

But the year she arrived at Ole Miss, the team won 15 games. Last season, the team won 23 and made the NCAA tournament. The senior averaged 15.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks to lead the team but was even better in the SEC tournament, averaging 21.5 points and 9.5 points en route to the semifinals.

“Nobody has done what I was able to do with a team like Ole Miss,” she said. “People don’t take risks like that, and put their careers on the line, for a program. I feel like if any coach was to look at the draftees, they would be able to see that I was able to do something different.

“At the same time, when you look at what I’m able to do on the floor, people who are successful right now in the league look like me.”

Watch the whole video on our YouTube channel:

NASHVILLE — From competitive early rounds to a thrilling finish in the championship game Sunday, the SEC women’s basketball tournament delivered.

Here are my main takeaways from four days spent watching some of the best in the sport before the NCAA Tournament begins.

Kentucky shocked us all

Every program in the country strives to do what the Wildcats have accomplished these last few weeks, playing their best basketball at the right time. Kentucky bounced back from an underwhelming campaign to end the regular season and conference postseason on a 10-game win streak and stun No. 1 South Carolina for the program’s first SEC tournament championship in 40 years. The only people who believed they could win the SEC Tournament were the Wildcats themselves.

Rhyne Howard certainly did not need to prove her greatness in Nashville, but to lead her team to a championship against all odds is next-level heroics. The 6-foot-2 senior guard earned tournament MVP honors after averaging 22 points in Kentucky’s four games, including a 32-point performance against LSU and a near triple-double against Tennessee.

The projected top WNBA draft pick has faced immense pressure these last two years. Howard not only brought a championship back to Kentucky, she also did it against the team that’s been ranked No. 1 in the country all season long and in front of nearly every WNBA franchise there to watch her. Regardless of where she goes in the draft, Howard’s impact on the game of basketball will span far beyond her collegiate career.

South Carolina’s “big” lineup is unbelievable

South Carolina took the loss Sunday, but Dawn Staley’s lineup of three to four post players will be difficult for any opponent to game-plan for in the NCAA Tournament.

When the 6-foot-4 Aliyah Boston and the 6-7 Kamilla Cardoso throw high-low passes to one another from the free-throw line, their length is nearly impossible to defend. And when you add 6-4 Laeticia Amihere and 6-2 Victaria Saxton to the mix, South Carolina has one of the biggest rotations in the country.

On the other end of the floor, Kentucky struggled to find looks at the basket against the pair, especially in the second quarter when they managed just three points. When you’re facing a lineup of that size, it’s easy to get in your own head and second guess your decision-making. The Gamecocks will be betting on that as they make a run at the national championship later this month.

Shakira Austin shows off pro-ready skills

Austin was named First Team All-SEC for the second consecutive season and solidified herself as one of the greatest players to ever wear an Ole Miss uniform. The senior center averaged 15.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks to lead Ole Miss to a 23-7 finish, its best record since 2006-07. Austin also elevated her play in the SEC tournament, averaging 21.5 points and 9.5 rebounds to lift Ole Miss to the semifinals.

Her 27-point, 13-rebound double-double against Florida in the quarterfinals in front of 10 WNBA teams was the highlight of the tournament. Austin is an automatic lottery pick in the upcoming WNBA draft and deserves to be in the conversation for No. 1 because of her pro-ready frame, athleticism and ceiling. For as good as she currently is, she will only get better as a pro. When you watch her 6-5 frame elevate over opponents, snag a rebound with power and proceed to advance the ball down the court, you realize her sheer potential might surpass any other prospect in this draft class.

The relentlessness of Florida

Florida has been one of the best stories of the college basketball season. This was a dormant program that overcame an early-season scandal and the transfer of their leading scorer earlier in the season and to earn five top-25 wins and a 21-10 finish. Kelly Rae Finley rightfully had the interim tag removed from her title last week, signing a five-year contract as head coach and solidifying her position as the leader of this program.

WNBA draft prospect Kiki Smith had a phenomenal season, averaging 14.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game before going down with a season-ending knee injury in Florida’s one-point win over Vanderbilt in the second round. When Smith hit the floor, the Florida team circled together and held hands in support of their leader. After the win, Finley’s eyes swelled with emotion as her players ran to the training room to be with Smith.

The following day, Smith joined her team on the bench in a different role, clipboard in hand as the Gators fell to Ole Miss, 70-60, and now await their NCAA Tournament fate. As outsiders, it’s difficult to understand everything this team has gone through in the last eight months. If they get a bid to the NCAA Tournament, their first since 2015-16, they’ll do so with a level of collective resolve that will be hard to count out.

Keep an eye on Vanderbilt

First-year head coach Shea Ralph took over a Commodores program that won just nine conference games in the last four seasons and led them to a 14-18 record, their best finish since 2015-16.

Vanderbilt has shown flashes of promise throughout the season, but none more clearly than in the last two weeks when the Commodores beat Florida on Feb. 24 and Texas A&M in the first round of the SEC tournament, 85-69. Vanderbilt was one point away from advancing to the SEC tournament semifinals, falling to Florida 53-52 last Thursday.

While the Commodores’ season could continue in the WNIT, the SEC has gotten the message: Watch out for Vanderbilt next year. Senior guard Jordyn Cambridge is expected to return following a strong season, and All-SEC Freshman honorees Iyana Moore (12.2 points per game) and Sacha Washington (seven) earned valuable experience. With top-100 recruits Ryanne Allen and Amauri Williams entering the mix next fall, Ralph’s team is on the rise.

Missouri’s rocky SEC finish

Aijha Blackwell did not play in three games in the final two weeks of the season, including losses to Kentucky and Georgia. The 6-foot guard leads Missouri in scoring and averaged 31 minutes per game this season, but she played just 11 minutes in Missouri’s 61-52 overtime loss to Arkansas in the first round of the SEC tournament. She remained on the bench in overtime as the Tigers fought to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive. A win would have nearly solidified an at-large bid, and yet head coach Robin Pingeton kept Blackwell sidelined.

No matter what was going on behind the scenes, Missouri will now have to wait patiently until Selection Sunday to find out if their 18-12 overall record, 7-9 SEC record, and 70-69 win over No. 1 South Carolina back on Dec. 30 will be enough to send them to the tournament.

Rachel Galligan is a basketball analyst at Just Women’s Sports. A former professional basketball player and collegiate coach, she also contributes to Winsidr. Follow Rachel on Twitter @RachGall.