Support for Griner at WNBA draft as Howard goes to Atlanta

NEW YORK (AP) — Moments before Rhyne Howard traveled to Atlanta with the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the league is working hard to bring Brittney Griner back to the United States.

Griner, one of the league’s biggest stars, has been detained in Russia since arriving at a Moscow airport in mid-February. Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges that allegedly contained cannabis-derived oil, which could carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

“I want to take a moment to reiterate the WNBA’s support for Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner,” Engelbert said before the draft began. “Know that bringing her home safely remains our top priority, and while we face an extraordinarily complex challenge, there is strength in the community, especially in the WNBA.”

Engelbert said there will be a league-wide charity initiative spearheaded by Mercury to support Griner’s philanthropic project, called BG’s Heart and Sole Shoe Drive. The campaign has collected new or gently used shoes for homeless people in the Phoenix area.

“This is an unimaginable situation for BG,” said Engelbert. “She continues to have our full support. Certainly, we’re trying everything we can, all angles, working with her legal representation, her agent, the elected leaders, the administration. Just everyone in our ecosystem to try to find ways to get her home safely and as quickly as possible.”

Howard, who was the first Kentucky player to reach No. 1 in the draft, will be close to home, having grown to within 90 minutes of Atlanta.

“That it is so close is huge. A lot of family and close friends can come and support me,” Howard said. “To go first, I have no words for it at the moment. Still shaking. Super exciting and proud of myself and thankful for everyone who has been on this journey with me and helped me get here.”

The Dream traded two spots last week to acquire the top pick from the Washington Mystics.

Atlanta went 8-24 last season and has missed the playoffs four of the last five years. The franchise gained new owners last year and brought in a new coach in Tanisha Wright and new general manager Dan Padover. The Dream also had the first pick in 2009 and used it to select Angel McCoughtry.

Indiana, which had four first-round picks, selected Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith with the No. 2 pick and Bears teammate Queen Egbo with the 10th pick. The Fever also nabbed Louisville’s Emily Engstler in the position number 4 and Lexie Hull from Stanford in position 6.

Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard, right, poses for a photo with Commissioner Cathy Engelbert after being selected by the Atlanta Dream as the first overall pick in the WNBA basketball draft, Monday, April 11, 2022, in New York .

“We have four top picks, so there is an opportunity for this team to grow tremendously,” Smith said.

The Fever had the worst record in the league last year at 6-26. Indiana hasn’t had much luck in the draft the past two years, with none of the team’s first-round picks from the past three seasons still on the list.

The Mystics chose Ole Miss’s Shakira Austin in third place and New York drafted Oregon’s Nyara Sabally among Indiana’s top two picks.

Sabally sparred with New York point guard Sabrina Ionescu when they were both in Oregon and is excited to have the opportunity to play with her at Liberty.

“Sab is an amazing point guard,” Sabally said. “I saw her at practice every day and I’m excited to share the court with her.”

Dallas took Veronica Burton from Northwestern with the seventh pick. Las Vegas, which made a trade with Minnesota on Sunday, selected Colorado’s Mya Hollingshed in eighth place.

The Aces then took Kierstan Bell from Florida Gulf Coast at 11. She is the first player from that school to be drafted into the WNBA.

Bell has won the Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year award the past two years and now he will have the chance to play for her.

Los Angeles selected Rae Burrell from Tennessee in ninth place and Connecticut finished the first round by selecting Nia Clouden from Michigan State.

The WNBA season begins May 6, with training camps opening later this week.

Here are other tidbits from the draft:

WAITING FOR YOUR TURN

Naz Hillmon, Elissa Cunane and Destanni Henderson were invited to the draft in New York. All three went to the second round, with Hillmon going to Atlanta (15th), Cunane going to Seattle (17th) and Henderson going to Indiana (20th). Hillmon was the best-chosen Michigan player in history.

PAC-12 SUPREMACY

For the sixth straight year, the Pac-12 had multiple first-round picks. Sabally, Hull and Hollingshed entered the first seven selections. No other conference can match that streak.

SECOND ROUND HUSKIES

UConn seniors Christyn Williams (Washington), Olivia Nelson-Ododa (Los Angeles) and Evina Westbrook (Seattle) were selected in the second round. UConn alumni have had a lot of success as professionals, including Crystal Dangerfield earning Rookie of the Year honors as a second-round pick in 2020.

SELECT COMPANY

Jackson State’s Ameshya Williams-Holiday became the first player selected from a historically black college or university since the 2002 draft. Williams-Holiday was selected 25th by the Indiana Fever. In all, Williams-Holiday is the sixth player from an HBCU to be selected.

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More AP Women’s Basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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