Had Rhyne Howard elected to graduate early and enter the 2021 WNBA draft, she easily could have been selected with the top pick. Howard elected instead to stay in school and is starring once more for the Kentucky Wildcats.
Even though you cannot elevate your draft stock above first — presumably, you come to us at FiveThirtyEight for math facts like these — Howard still has plenty of unfinished business when it comes to developing her game, to hear her tell it. She’s gotten stronger, she’s gotten faster, and the next level will come in time.
She’s not the kind who visualizes, though. She has too much to do.
“Honestly, I don’t think too much about the WNBA,” Howard said when I asked her about this last month. “Because, I mean, anything could happen. Like, I could drop to the second round if I don’t do what I need to be doing here. So I just focus on making myself better over time, making my teammates better and making sure we’re on the same page.”
Even so, there are ways that players who are clearly future pros — as soon as 2022 — can elevate their performances further, both to improve their draft stocks and to maximize their impact when they reach the league.
Howard is fortunate to have in Kyra Elzy a coach who understands that balance — making sure that while Howard is focused on the success of Kentucky this season, she’s also accruing skills to help her at the next stop in her journey.
“She’s extremely talented,” Elzy said to me of Howard. “She is gifted. Her basketball IQ is phenomenal, she can score at all three levels. But one thing we’ve worked on all summer is her post game — being able to post up. She’s a big body for a guard, so posting up more consistently and finishing.”
It’s early, but the initial data suggests this effort has paid off. Not only has the share of her attempts at the rim zoomed from 7.9 percent last season to 13.7 percent this one, per CBB Analytics, but she’s converting 90 percent of those shots — as close to automatic as an Elena Delle Donne free throw.
In addition, Elzy sees a chance for Howard to get better at the other end of the floor.
“She is unbelievable defensively when she’s locked in and playing hard — so challenging her to get steals, pick up the ball, be aggressive and ask her to rebound the ball,” Elzy said of her tasks for Howard this season. “Even though she rebounds really well, I still think she can be in double figures in rebounding.”
Again, it’s early, but the returns are encouraging to date. In her first five games, Howard has lifted her rebound percentage from 11.5 last year to 12.9 this year, powered significantly by improvement on the defensive boards. And her already-elite steal percentage of 3.6 last year is up to 4.4, while her rim protection has soared — 2.1 block percentage last year, 3.8 percent this year.
The only way Rhyne Howard is dropping into the second round is if they cancel the first round.
As for Christyn Williams of Connecticut, the opportunity to rise into the first round, even the lottery, is there for her as she embarks on her senior season. Her coach, Geno Auriemma, is obviously no stranger to sending players to the pros. And he sees Williams’s task in the year ahead as a straightforward one.
“There’s some really elite players at that level,” Auriemma said to me. “And if she wants to get there to that elite level, in that league I think she’s got to become a consistent 3-point threat. You know, she’s a streaky 3-point threat right now. You know, she started off [last] season not making any of them, and she ended up making all of them. So somewhere in between there, there’s a happy medium.”
Auriemma has the breakdown right: Over 14 games, from Feb. 12 through the end of the NCAA Tournament, Williams made 29 of 69 attempts from deep — a 42 percent rate. That followed a 20-for-74 mark in her first 15 games, a 27 percent mark.
Which version of Williams shows up this season will largely dictate where she gets selected next spring.
“She’ll be playing someplace next year in the WNBA,” Auriemma said. “I don’t know where, I don’t know how much, but my guess is she will be. … But if she wants to get to that elite level, she’s got to become an elite shooter. That’d be my biggest thing.”
While Williams has her work cut out for her beyond the arc, a trio of bigs on WNBA radars simply need to diversify their games.
NaLyssa Smith of Baylor excelled in coach Kim Mulkey’s system (before the three-time championship coach left for LSU), but the athletic wing/big played primarily inside. At 6-foot-2, that’s a tough sell to WNBA teams — this isn’t the 6-foot-7 Kalani Brown or even 6-foot-4 Lauren Cox, both who ranged out beyond the arc.
Fortunately for Smith, her coach is now Nicki Collen, who has installed a pro-style offense. The variation of looks is stark — the Bears have already attempted 136 3-pointers through seven games this season. In 31 games last year, they attempted 332 threes. So they are almost 41 percent of the way to their 2020-21 total already.
That doesn’t mean Smith will turn into Diana Taurasi — she’s only attempted seven threes herself so far — but it does mean a greater range of shot options on the floor, along with more spacing and a pace that reflects play at the next level. Smith has the potential to be a lottery pick.
The same kind of calculations are in play for Iowa’s 6-foot-3 Monika Czinano, the most efficient offensive big in the nation. Getting better on defense is something on her mind as she considers her game in this, her senior season.
“I don’t think I would say there’s a specific metric that I’m aiming for,” Czinano told me, discussing defense in the context of rebounding. “It kind of changes if I know the team has a smaller lineup, or that they’re not as good at crashing [the boards], then I’m going to hold myself to maybe a higher standard.”
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The early returns are solid — her total rebound rate through four games is up slightly overall, and a bit more on just the defensive end. Meanwhile, per Synergy, her defensive points per possession have improved considerably, 0.529 after last year’s 0.972. As always, a small-sample-size warning applies here, and Iowa has yet to play its Big Ten schedule.
As for Shakira Austin, the 6-foot-5 stretch five at Mississippi, there’s enthusiasm for her at the next level. But with the similar early-season small-sample warning signs applying, it’s worth considering what we mean by stretch five, especially after she left Maryland to expand her game.
Through seven games, Austin is shooting just 43.8 percent from the field and has yet to hit a three. The problem with assuming she’ll just shake that off is that, even during last season, she made only 17.6 percent from deep, on just 17 attempts. That didn’t stop her from a dominant season overall, but for WNBA teams looking to stretch the floor in four-out and five-out sets, she’s going to need to find her touch from deep if she wants to be in the lottery discussion.
There’s still time for all these players to beef up their WNBA resumes. But 2022 is right around the corner.
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