Vanessa Nygaard says she ‘didn’t mean’ to diss Skylar Diggins-Smith
Nygaard had slighted the All-Star game for not selecting Diana Taurasi.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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