The 2022 WNBA Draft class is entering the league more prepared to succeed than any other that came before it.
No one is going to mistake the 2022 WNBA Draft class for being the deepest to ever come out of college. In fact, there really aren’t any sure stars after the first handful of picks. That showed in just how unpredictable the night was, with Lexie Hull — who ESPN didn’t project going until late second round — going sixth overall and Destanni Henderson falling to No. 20.
But each draft class brings something unique to the W, and this one is no different. It’s a group that arrived at college in a different era — before COVID-19 changed the way we went about our lives, before the social justice movement of 2020 and the reckoning with gender equity in the NCAA of 2021, and before July 1, 2021, when college athletes were finally allowed to profit off their name, image, and likeness rights.
The result? Perhaps the savviest and most confident group of draftees we’ve ever seen. Not all 12 of the invitees to the draft will stick on WNBA rosters this season, but they all seem sure that they will find their way in professional basketball.
Here are a few who made a statement on draft night in TriBeCa:
Rhyne Howard (Kentucky)
First overall pick to Atlanta Dream
Years later, drafts aren’t remembered by their year, but by the first pick. This was the Rhyne Howard draft, and she seemed aware of the moment and unafraid to show emotion — both on-stage and as the night wore on. It was a celebration of four years at Kentucky, where she helped put the Wildcats’ women’s basketball program on the map, punctuated by an upset win over eventual national champion South Carolina in the SEC title game this year.
Howard’s job doesn’t get any easier from here — she heads to an Atlanta Dream team that went 8-24 last year. It helps that Atlanta is located less than two hours from where she grew up in Chattanooga.
“To be so close is huge,” she told the media. “A lot of family and close friends will be able to come and support me. But to go first, I don’t even have words for it right now. I’m still kind of shaking, but it’s super exciting. I’m proud of what I’ve done, proud of myself, and thankful for everyone that’s been on this journey with me.”
Shakira Austin (Mississippi)
Third overall pick to Washington Mystics
Austin is a native of the DMV, and she called the opportunity to come home “an honor.” As soon as she knew that Washington was a possible destination for her, she began thinking of giving back.
“We’ve been nonstop talking about ideas,” she said. “I’m thinking camps. I’m thinking AAU teams. I’m thinking facilities. Just a lot of things that are bigger than me. I have a lot of things that I want to do off the court, and I feel like being back home and being able to impact the community is something that I’ve always wanted to do.”
As Holly Rowe pointed out in her on-stage interview with Austin, the former Ole Miss Rebel oozes confidence. The last thing she said as she left the stage:
“I’m coming home.”
Emily Engstler (Louisville)
Fourth overall pick to Indiana Fever
Even at fourth overall, Engstler was the second frontcourt player the Fever took in the draft, after Nalyssa Smith at No. 2. While Engstler is heading into a situation where she will have to compete with a host of newcomers to join a rebuilding team, she was clear about the goals that lay ahead for her.
“My main goal is to get up there and get signed,” she told the media. “We might have gotten drafted, but we didn’t get a contract yet.”
After that? To win. Engstler can help by continuing to develop her three-point shot, something that would make her much more valuable. She shot 38% from deep as a senior at Louisville, and she knows she can be better.
“I think I can become a 45% three-point shooter if I really just lock in and allow the game to come to me,” she said.
Nyara Sabally (Oregon)
Fifth overall pick to New York Liberty
The Liberty seem to like taking Oregon Ducks. Sabally never had a chance to play with Sabrina Ionescu in Eugene, as she missed Ionescu’s senior season with a knee injury, but the two will finally have a chance to play together this summer. Sabally is looking forward to the opportunity to continue learning from her.
“Sab is such an amazing point guard, such an amazing person,” Sabally said. “I saw her in practice every day. I saw her working every day on the court, so I’m just very excited to finally share the court with her and not just in practice.”
In addition to her Sabrina connection, Sabally has another advantage — her sister, Satou, just finished her second season in the WNBA as a forward for the Dallas Wings.
“Satou has given me a lot of advice, especially just saying that I gotta be ready for the physicality and how fast-paced the game is,” she said. “It’s a completely different level than in college.”
Kierstan Bell (Florida Gulf Coast)
11th overall pick to Las Vegas Aces
Bell was the only invitee from a non-power conference, but she feels just as prepared as anyone for the challenge of playing in the pros. FGCU ran an offense reliant on both the three-point shot and plays near the basket, eschewing the mid-range and becoming one of the most efficient teams in the country.
“A lot of times WNBA teams look for the three-point shot,” she told Boardroom. “You gotta be consistent with it, and I think I have that in my bag.”
Bell didn’t have her best three-point shooting season last year, but with the Aces, she will have more talent around her and won’t need to take nine a game.
One thing she wasn’t able to do at FGCU, far from the national spotlight, was take full advantage of NIL. She had a few opportunities that left her hungry for more partnerships as a pro, and was confident that they would come.
“My followers on Instagram, I don’t have that many,” Bell said. “But they’re definitely going to be up there after this.”
From here, Bell wants to start building her own brand and eventually work with mainstays in athlete endorsements like Polo and Nike.