The Washington Mystics will pick first in the 2022 WNBA Draft. Today, we will focus on Baylor Lady Bears forward NaLyssa Smith, who is regarded as a co-consensus favorite to be picked at that spot later this season.
Stats: Smith is averaging 22.4 points and 11.6 rebounds per game for the Lady Bears. Baylor is currently in the second round of the NCAA Division I women’s basketball tournament after beating Hawaii, 89-49 yesterday.
Best game this season: There are two ways to look at what a “best game” is. First, we can look at raw numbers. This season, Smith’s best games would have been a two-game stretch from Feb. 26 (vs. Kansas) to Feb. 28 (vs. Iowa State) when she scored 33 points and 16 rebounds; and 28 points and 20 rebounds respectively. While Kansas also made the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, I’d consider her performance against Iowa State to be a better quality one, given that the Cyclones were second in the Big 12 this season and are a Top 10 team in the national polls.
You can see here highlights against Iowa State in the video below.
Diamond Holton also highlighted her 30 point, 15 rebound loss to Maryland on Nov. 21.
Other highlights: Smith was a freshman on the 2018-19 team that won the national championship under then-head coach Kim Mulkey. She was a reserve, averaging 8.4 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, but Smith has since blossomed into the All-American she is today.
Smith also won the Wade Trophy, one of women’s college basketball player of the year awards in the 2020-21 season. The last four players to win that award were Sabrina Ionescu (Oregon), A’ja Wilson (South Carolina), Kelsey Plum (Washington, meaning the University of Washington) and Breanna Stewart (Connecticut). What do those four players all have in common? All of them were the No. 1 picks in the WNBA Draft once their college careers came to an end.
What strengths does she have? Smith has been a prolific inside scorer and rebounder, especially in their last two college seasons.
In addition, she plays for head coach Nicki Collen, who came to the Lady Bears from the Atlanta Dream where she spent three seasons (2018-20). Collen has openly stated that she would like Smith to play for Mystics General Manager and Head Coach Mike Thibault.
What weaknesses does Smith have? Lack of perimeter shooting. She only shot 9-of-37 from deep this year, possibly as part of a measure to increase her range for the pro grame.
Why would or should Smith be higher in the draft than Howard? Howard and her team are seizing the moment. The Lady Bears are No. 7 in the country and will be one of the teams favored to make an Elite Eight appearance, perhaps better.
Howard, on the other hand, plays for a Kentucky Wildcats team that had to win 10 straight games, including the SEC Tournament to turn their season around from bubble team to an automatic berth where they will face a Princeton team that is also nationally ranked. Yes, the Wildcats are No. 15 in the country, but again, they were unranked before the tournament.
This is something that ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel noted in a recent mock draft where she placed Smith above Howard and cited team performance as a reason why.
How will Smith fit in with the Mystics? Smith would join a Mystics roster that is already quite deep at the power forward and center positions.
To put things in perspective, Elena Delle Donne, who’s healthy, will start at power forward though she can move down to small forward. Myisha Hines-Allen will likely start most games at power forward if Delle Donne is at the small forward position. And Elizabeth Williams appears to be the starter at center if Washington goes with a more “traditional-put-each-player-at-her-listed-position” philosophy.
Starting games and getting playing time, however, are two different things. While Smith may be coming off the bench, she will get plenty of opportunities to play. Tianna Hawkins and Erica McCall will certainly have some minutes, the Mystics have regularly given their young players ample opportunities to make an impact, even during the last few years when they were WNBA championship contenders. So Smith may be a sixth woman type of player, especially if her three-point shooting continues to improve.
If everyone, especially Delle Donne is healthy all season. I don’t see Smith winning Rookie of the Year given Washington's existing depth. However, the Mystics are strong at player development and this pick is for the long term. Smith can still be a long-term starter and All-Star player in the years ahead as Delle Donne heads toward the twilight of her playing career.