The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two names dominate the WNBA draft, but the Mystics are focused on three

Oregon forward Nyara Sabally could be on the Mystics' radar with the No. 3 pick. (Wade Payne/AP)
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Mike Thibault was on the sideline in Minneapolis the week before last, watching players sprint up and down the court as the U.S. women’s national team held its final training camp ahead of World Cup competition this fall.

In the pristine facilities dubbed The Courts at Mayo Clinic Square were No. 1 draft picks Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson. As Thibault approaches his 20th season leading a WNBA team, the winningest coach in league history knows what a No. 1 pick looks like. And Thibault, who doubles as the Washington Mystics’ general manager, opted to trade away the first selection of the 2022 draft last week.

Thibault’s decision helps sort out the top of this draft. There isn’t an undisputed No. 1 choice — such as Wilson in 2018, Stewart in 2016 or Sabrina Ionescu in 2020. Kentucky guard Rhyne Howard and Baylor forward NaLyssa Smith are widely considered the cream of the crop as the draft arrives at 7 p.m. Monday, but Thibault and his staff believe three players should be in the conversation.

“The vote we took around the table was, ‘If we don’t know who we’re getting, are we all still good with [picking at] three?’ ” Thibault said. “Whichever one ends up there, we’re good. And that was the vote.”

On Wednesday, the Mystics traded the No. 1 pick to the Atlanta Dream for the No. 3 and No. 14 selections and the ability to swap 2023 first-rounders, with that pick coming from the Los Angeles Sparks. Multiple people familiar with the situation indicated the Mystics didn’t come to a consensus among three prospects in the draft, including Howard and Smith.

Mystics trade WNBA draft’s No. 1 pick to Atlanta, move back to No. 3

As a senior, the 6-foot-2 Howard averaged 20.5 points and 7.4 rebounds. A dynamic scorer on all three levels, Howard is a big guard with a quiet, unassuming nature that some perceive as passivity.

Analyst Debbie Antonelli said Howard has every attribute she needs to thrive at the next level.

“Her offensive game 100 percent transfers to the WNBA,” Antonelli said. “People question her motor. … At Kentucky, she’s got to do everything. She’s going to take every shot, look for some offense, handle the ball — everything. And so she might take a break on defense, or she might go into the corner on one offensive set and not do anything like a decoy. Her effort and her productivity and her desire and all of that is going to be much more efficient in the WNBA. … I have zero questions about her.”

Howard heard the criticism. She showed up to a pre-draft meeting with the Mystics in business attire to send a message: Don’t let my soft-spoken demeanor, which includes an artsy side, overshadow my on-court production.

“I think I’ll be a better professional player than a college player,” she said. “I know I took a couple of plays off, but there’s going to be people better than me, and every day’s going to be a dogfight, even in practice. I’ll be forced to always go hard, or I’m not going to play.”

Smith, a 6-4 rebounding machine, brings a different skill set. There are no questions about her motor; she averaged 22.1 points and 11.5 rebounds as a senior and attacks the glass with reckless abandon. Her offensive game isn’t as wide-ranging as Howard’s, but she’s a physical post presence and an underrated passer.

“Can guard every position, rebounds, runs, very physical, body ready,” Antonelli said. “And then there comes her skill set — around the rim, pull-up jump shot. Now she’s a screen and a roll or a screen and a short pop, but she’s not a screen pop to the three-point line and shoot a three yet. I think she could get that. But I think you draft her because you need help on the glass, multiple defensive capabilities and an evolving offensive game.”

When discussing her future, Smith referenced changing the course of her franchise. Those aspirations come from the same place that created her “Energizer Bunny” on-floor persona.

It just comes from the will to win,” she said. “I hate losing, and I just want to win every single game. So it’s just doing what my team needs me to do to win a basketball game, just wanting to be great. I feel like my purpose on the team is to help this team win a championship.”

Things get tricky at No. 3. Thibault’s Mystics are not a typical lottery team, trying to rebuild; they missed last season’s playoffs on a tiebreaker after they were hamstrung by injuries. The roster is full of veterans, and this team still has legitimate aspirations — when healthy — to add to its championship from 2019 with a core of Elena Delle Donne, Alysha Clark, Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins, Myisha Hines-Allen, Elizabeth Williams and Tianna Hawkins. Whomever the Mystics select at No. 3 is unlikely to start or be expected to log heavy minutes.

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The Mystics could use another scorer on the wing or another post player after saying goodbye to Tina Charles and Emma Meesseman in free agency. As most mock drafts did, ESPN analysts LaChina Robinson and Rebecca Lobo pegged 6-5 Mississippi center Shakira Austin, the former Riverdale Baptist and Maryland standout, as the third-best prospect after she averaged 15.2 points and 9.0 rebounds last season. But Thibault has been known to zig when others expect him to zag.

Oregon center/forward Nyara Sabally could be in the mix after averaging 15.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. She only played two years with the Ducks; a pair of ACL surgeries erased her first two seasons.

“Nyara is loaded with talent — the biggest question is her health,” Lobo said. “I think that’s going to be a big factor in terms of where she’s taken, but she’s certainly skilled.”

Added Robinson: “I remember being at Oregon and everyone was talking about ‘Nyara, Nyara.’ [WNBA all-star sister Satou Sabally] was still there at the time, and [the talk was] how she was just as good and could be better potentially than her sister as a pro. So, very talented.”

The consensus is that this draft is deeper than last season’s, given the additional prospects available after college players were granted an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic. That’s why Thibault sought to add another pick. He has dug up some second-round gems, including Cloud at No. 15 in 2015 and Hines-Allen at No. 19 in 2018. And if the Sparks struggle this season, he could have another high pick in what’s expected to be a talented top half of the 2023 draft.

Thibault took a risk by moving down to No. 3 in a draft in which two names have dominated the conversation, but 20 years leading WNBA franchises made him comfortable with that decision.