March 30, 2022
Inside the WNBA’s initial list of 2022 draft opt-ins
Hillmon, Howard, Smith all in; still waiting on Cunane
On Tuesday, the WNBA announced its preliminary list of players who had officially declared for the 2022 draft. The current list contains 88 players in total, already well above the 57 who entered last years’ draft. Eligible players whose teams have survived to the Final Four of March Madness will have until 48-hours after their final game to add their name to the list.
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Notably, because of the extra year of NCAA eligibility granted to cover playing time lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, some draft prospects have instead chosen to continue their college basketball careers at the graduate level. On March 28, guard-forward Ashley Joens announced she will return to Iowa State for a final year, rejoining top guard Emily Ryan and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Lexi Donarski to give the Cyclones another shot at their first-ever Final Four. “This team is special,” Joens wrote in her announcement. “We have more to accomplish, and I can’t wait to play another year with all of them!”
Joens’ absence from this year’s draft, where she was frequently projected to be picked up in the first round, is significant. A well-rounded contributor, Joens rounded out her 2021–22 season averaging 9.5 rebounds and 20.3 points per game, while also taking the top spot on Iowa State’s all-time scoring leaderboard. As the 2023 draft class appears increasingly top-heavy, with South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston charging ahead into a tier of her own with few others around her, the addition of the 6’1 swing in Joens could shake up how the early first round plays out next year.
Later the same afternoon, Ohio State guard Taylor Mikesell also announced her intention to return to the NCAA, rejoining a Buckeye roster which hopes to bring back most of the core that elevated them just three points from their first Elite Eight since 1993.
And, on the afternoon of March 29, Nebraska’s Sam Haiby released her decision to return to a young roster that, despite a disappointing first-round exit, hopes to take the Huskers past the Round of 64 for the first time since 2014.
Other previously announced returns to the NCAA include Iowa’s Monika Czinano and Indiana’s Grace Berger, who will return to their home teams for a final year. Princeton’s Abby Meyers will also make a return to NCAA play and has entered the transfer portal as a graduate transfer, while Oklahoma’s Madi Williams and Taylor Robertson have neither entered the draft nor announced intentions to play in next NCAA season.
As of March 30, the only top prospect who has entered the 48-hour post-Madness decision period is NC State’s Elissa Cunane, the 6’5 center and ACC Tournament MVP who powered much of the Wolfpack’s half-court offense. Whether she decides to return to the NCAA for a final year or pick up a spot in the draft remains to be seen, though she sounded ready for the next level when asked about it on Monday night, following NC State’s loss to UConn.
“I’m just excited to have that next step available, and I’m just going to bring everything I can,” Cunane told The Next‘s Howard Megdal at the postgame presser. “NC State has made me into a great player, a great person, and instilled hard work into me. So I’m just going to carry that through basketball and just through the rest of my life.”
Potential draft entrants still fighting for the NCAA title include Stanford’s Lexie Hull; South Carolina’s Destanni Henderson; and UConn’s Evina Westbrook, Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa. Depending on the outcome of the tournament, decisions to enter the draft will have to be made by April 3 for Final Four exits or April 5 for championship-game teams.
As surprising as their early March Madness exits may have been, the confirmation that Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith, Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard and Mississippi’s Shakira Austin would all enter the WNBA draft was all but a certainty. Bids from Michigan’s Naz Hillmon, Tennessee’s Rae Burrell and Oregon’s Nyara Sabally were also no surprise, as well as Northwestern’s Veronica Burton.
Florida Gulf Coast (FGCU) player Kierstan Bell is leaving behind two years of NCAA eligibility, instead eligible under the WNBA’s age rule (22 in this calendar year) to enter the draft. Should Bell be selected, she would be just the second player out of FGCU to be drafted by a WNBA team. Louisville’s Emily Engstler declared with plenty of time to spare, as she will attempt to push the Cardinals past the Final Four for the first time since 2013.
Just under the radar
LSU’s Khayla Pointer and Georgia Tech’s Lorela Cubaj both finished out their fifth years of NCAA eligibility and have submitted for the draft, with the hopes that their respective standout seasons might have drawn some extra eyes. Michigan State’s Nia Clouden name was also anticipated; despite missing the NCAA tournament, Clouden’s 20.0 points and 4.2 assists per game made a splash for the Spartans in the Big Ten.
Despite their names being absent from the WNBA’s initial list, international prospects Sika Kone and Jade Melbourne are not to be counted out, as WNBA rules allow them to be selected without opting into the draft. With Baylor’s Queen Egbo, TCU’s Lauren Heard and South Dakota’s Hannah Sjerven also entering the draft pool, the field for second-round picks has quickly become crowded.
Despite the absence of Grace Berger, Indiana will have representation in Nicole Cardaño-Hillary, whose trademark defensive energy could earn her a look. Meanwhile, Delaware’s Jasmine Dickey hopes to continue following in the footsteps of Elena Delle Donne, as the Blue Hen standout also submitted her name to the draft. Last, but certainly not least, IUPUI’s four-time Horizon League Player of the Year Macee Williams also entered the draft, attempting to continue her historic career and become the program’s first player signed to a WNBA team.
The upcoming weeks will move fast as March Madness comes to a close and the draft pool becomes finalized. The WNBA draft is scheduled to take place on April 11 at 7 p.m. ET and will occur in person for the first time since 2019, at Spring Studios in New York City. The Washington Mystics were awarded the first pick during the draft lottery, which occurred in mid-December.
Written by Isabel Rodrigues
Isabel Rodrigues (she/her) is a contributing writer for The Next from upstate New York who regularly covers 3x3 and the state of women's basketball in the U.S. and internationally.