W.N.B.A. Draft: Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard Goes No. 1 to Dream

The Atlanta Dream, looking for a versatile player to help rebuild its roster, selected shooting guard Rhyne Howard of the University of Kentucky as the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft Monday at Spring Studios in New York.

Before the draft, Dream general manager Dan Padover said the team was looking for a player who would bring “fresh energy and sparks under our franchise.”

Indiana Fever selected NaLyssa Smith, a senior forward from Baylor University, with the second overall pick. At No. 3, the Washington Mystics selected Shakira Austin, a center from the University of Mississippi.

Howard said he planned to bring the same “competitive spirit” to the Dream that he had with Kentucky, where he made sure to remain “calm, cool and collected.”

“I think that’s what really helped me succeed, and I really want to make an impact on the team,” Howard said, adding that he “will continue to make everybody better” in Atlanta.

There’s very little Howard can’t do. She is in the top 10 in nearly every statistical category in Kentucky and has earned the second-most points in program history for women and men. Last month, Howard led Kentucky to its first Southeastern Conference tournament title since 1982 when the team handed 2022 national champion South Carolina its second and final loss of the season. Howard, from Chattanooga, Tenn., finished his senior year at Kentucky averaging 20.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.

Kentucky, seeded No. 6 in this year’s NCAA Division I women’s basketball tournament, lost to No. 11 Princeton in the round of 64. But Howard’s run at Kentucky has helped draw the attention to the women’s basketball program at a university best known for its powerhouse men’s team.

“I’m very versatile, so whatever position I’m playing, I like to match those positions,” Howard said.

In order to select her, Dream shook up the draft last week by acquiring the No. 1 pick in a trade with the Washington Mystics. In return, the Mystics received the No. 3 and No. 14 overall picks from the Dream. The Mystics are also eligible to trade first-round picks in the 2023 draft, which is expected to draw top talent from across the country.

Atlanta finished last season 8-24, the second-worst record in the WNBA, and has missed the playoffs the past three seasons. Adding Howard to the Dream roster immediately bolsters his perimeter game, which should help after the team traded guard Chennedy Carter to the Los Angeles Sparks in the offseason.

“Some drafts are top-heavy; some are deep,” Padover said. “This is probably the deepest more than anything.” He added that this year’s draft offered the best talent since 2018 or 2019.

Liberty selected Nyara Sabally, a 6-foot-5 forward out of the University of Oregon, at No. 5 overall. Sabally, who is from Berlin, scored a career-high 31 points in Oregon’s final game of the season, a loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament. She averaged 15.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per game in the 2021-22 season.

“It’s amazing to be recruited by New York. It’s very surreal,” said Sabally, who joins the league two years after Dallas recruited his sister and college teammate Satou. “I love that women’s basketball is growing and people are recognizing it, especially in a city as big as New York. I’m happy to be able to play in a team like this”.

This year, 108 college players gave up their remaining NCAA eligibility to be considered for the draft, more than double the number in 2021. International players and those no longer eligible to play in the NCAA will also be considered. But the chances of getting a roster spot are slim: There are 36 draft spots for the 12 WNBA teams, which each have just 12 roster spots. With only 144 roster spots in total, many players and fans are calling for bigger rosters and more teams, wishing the WNBA had resisted.

One reason for the surge in college-eligible draft prospects may be the pandemic. College athletes are typically eligible to play four seasons over the course of five years. After the pandemic disrupted schedules, the NCAA added a special bonus year of eligibility for any athlete who missed playing time during the 2019-20 season.

If they don’t make it to the WNBA this year and still have one season of eligibility, athletes can return to their college (assuming there is still a spot for them on the roster).

Horizon League commissioner Julie Roe Lach said this year’s draft class mimics the parity seen in the 2022 NCAA women’s basketball tournament, in which six double-digit seeded teams reached the round. of 16. None of the top three draft picks advanced beyond the round of 16.

“You’ve got some of the names you’d expect to see, but we’re seeing more schools with players that look like strong prospects in the draft,” he said. “That speaks to the surge of talent we’re seeing across the country from these great female basketball players.”

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert opened the draft by acknowledging Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia since mid-February on drug charges that could carry a sentence of up to 10 years if convicted. . “Getting her home is a priority,” Engelbert said.

This was the first in-person draft since 2019, and players and guests didn’t hold back from celebrating. Colorful pantsuits, rhinestone jackets and lots of high heels and sneakers filled the TriBeCa event space. Hall of Famers Dawn Staley, South Carolina’s head coach, and Lisa Leslie posed with draft prospects before ESPN’s coverage began. Sedona Prince from Oregon lived up to her fame on TikTok and was capturing scenes all night long.

The draft capped off a weekend of WNBA events in New York City, including neighborhood playground shootouts and a visit to one of the city’s best sneaker stores. As the WNBA tries to increase its visibility, the league got the biggest boost of all in New York City: The Empire State Building was lit up Monday night in orange, the WNBA’s signature color.

The 2022 season kicks off on May 6 with eight teams in action, including reigning champion Chicago Sky.

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