March Madness: Which prospects could the Mystics pick at No. 1

Prospects the Mystics should watch in March Madness with No. 1 pick originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

There are only a few WNBA prospects excepted to be considered lottery picks in any year’s draft class. Even fewer are expected to be selected No. 1 overall. But one of the best times for a prospect to show off their abilities is when the whole world is watching during March Madness. 

The Washington Mystics are selecting first this season for just the second time in the franchise’s history. Head coach Mike Thibault and his staff have been spotted in arenas across the country trying to narrow down who they will be selecting.

Most of the evaluations are sure to be near wrapped up at this point. Still, the pageantry of March can change things – in addition to it swaying the tide on two prospects who are close on a big board.

So which of the prospects are the Mystics looking at? Here’s what Thibault said he’s looking for with the pick.

“I don’t believe that you necessarily – when you have the first pick – pick for a specific spot,” Thibault told the media after the WNBA Lottery. “I think it gives you an opportunity to draft who you think is the best talent for the long term. Who can maybe be a star who’s somebody-can they be, an all-league performer and so, maybe at that point position isn’t that important, but I think you try to get the best player available for the long haul.”

Simply, they’re looking for the best player. But a key point to consider is that they aren’t just looking for the best player for this season. The Mystics are looking for the best WNBA player period.

“I don’t know that the rookie player is going to come in and impact us necessarily for our championship,” Thibault said.

He later added “We need somebody to fit in and make us better but they aren’t going to carry the same weight maybe that somebody would going to another organization that hasn’t been winning.”

So, for those who are inclined to be an arm-chair general manager or just want to be informed on the options available to Washington, most of the prospects are playing in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Here is a short list of the ones that the Mystics might be selecting.

Rhyne Howard, G (Kentucky)

No. 6 Kentucky vs. No. 11 Princeton (March 19, 4 p.m. – ESPN)

One of the areas of need for Washington is their backcourt depth, mainly behind point guard Natasha Cloud. Rhyne Howard isn’t necessarily the floor general that the Mystics need, but her game style is ideal for a Mike Thibault system. The 6-foot-2 guard – who would be taller than forward Myisha Hines-Allen – offers tremendous offensive versatility. 

Many mock drafts are projecting Thibault’s staff to select Howard at No. 1 based on fit and is one of the top two prospects in this year’s class.

When you watch Kentucky games in this year’s March Madness, you won’t be able to miss Howard. She’ll be the explosive playmaker who loves to shoot from deep and likely put up 20 points in the process.

The SEC Champion Wildcats will have a tough path through the tournament. Be sure to catch her games in the early rounds as a No. 6 seed.

NaLyssa Smith, F (Baylor)

No. 2 Baylor vs. No. 15 Hawaii (March 18, 4 p.m. – ESPN2)

Smith is the only other prospect analysts are projecting as the No. 1 pick. In some cases, some actually prefer the 6-foot-4 forward who appears to be ready to contribute as a WNBA starter tomorrow.

Despite the log-jam at the forward position for the Mystics, don’t necessarily count out Smith who will be in the running for the Player of the Year award. She is expected to be the most pro-ready prospect of all the players in this class. 

The only issue is that she hasn’t expanded her range much while in college. That might not deter a team that just three seasons ago was one of the most prolific in the sport. Unlike other forwards, Smith doesn’t clog the paint or is always calling for the rock down low. She’ll also be an ideal candidate to fortify the defensive post alongside Elizabeth Williams and help the Tina Charles/ Emma Meesseman losses.

Smith’s Baylor Bears come in as a No. 2 seed with a favorable path to the Final Four with No. 1 Louisville and No. 3 Michigan being their biggest obstacles.

Ashley Joens, G (Iowa State)

No. 3 Iowa State vs. No. 11 Texas-Arlington (March 18, 10 p.m. – ESPNU)

If you’re looking for the best pure scorer of this class (sorry, Caitlin Clark isn’t eligible yet), look no further. Joens averaged 20.2 ppg as a wing scorer, doing much of her damage as a catch-and-shoot threat from beyond the arc. 

Unlike other prospects on this list, most mock drafts don’t have Joens anywhere close to the Mystics. There are concerns about how she can contribute to a pro roster where she won’t be the focal point. That’s not saying she can’t become a focal point later, her skills say that she will, right now there are just some limitations. 

Still, Thibault is known to zig while others zag. He wants the best player in this draft going to Washington. In some respects, she may be that on the offensive side of the ball.

She’s bound to have some high-scoring games in this tournament, it helps the Cyclones are a darkhorse team for the Final Four.

Shakira Austin, C (Ole Miss)

No. 7 Ole Miss vs. No. 10 South Dakota (March 18, 1:30 p.m. – ESPN2)

At some point, this generation of the Mystics as assembled will come to an end. Reasonably, their championship window – with a core of Elena Delle Donne, Alysha Clark and Natasha Cloud – will shut in five years.

Looking past that point is where Austin could be considered. In many respects, she’s an extremely raw player on both ends of the court but shows potential to be a ‘unicorn’ (a center-type that can be the floor general). There’s tremendous potential and a decade from now she could possibly be the best player from this class. At the same time, she may not be able to fully develop into the star that her potential has billed for her. 

With no Charles and Meesseman, the Mystics lack height in the interior. Aside from the 6-foot-5 Delle Donne – who doesn’t play the center position defensively, nor can Washington afford for her to get beat up there anymore – Williams and Tianna Hawkins are the only rostered players that stand above 6-foot-3.

Austin, 6’5″, would drastically change that make-up and also give the team more rim protection when Williams cannot be out on the court. 

For all the development concerns some may have, if Thibault selects Austin expect it to pan out. It’s rare for Thibault to miss on a pick, even if at the moment it seemed to be a pick or two too soon.

Nyara Sabally, C/F (Oregon)

No. 5 Oregon vs. No. 12 Belmont (March 19, 5:30 p.m. – ESPN2)

Younger sister of WNBA player Satou Sabally, Nyara is expected to follow her path to the league. She has yet to say either way if she – as a redshirt junior – will enter the draft or play one final season in college. As another versatile post player, she has a similar skill set to Myisha Hines-Allen except she’s four inches taller at 6-foot-5. 

What makes her even more enticing is the comfortability that Sabally has when takes the opportunity to shoot from deep. That’s exactly the type of big the Mystics’ offense could thrive with, using a five-out set. 

The reason she’ll likely slip in the draft is her injury history. Two ACLs injuries plagued her collegiate career and she’s missed time due to minor tweaks and soreness as well. Taking a No. 1 overall pick with a past riddled with injuries is a risky business. 

Nevertheless, the lottery talent is there. A potential Second Round clash against Tennessee would be great to see Sabally show off on the brightest stage.

Kierstan Bell, G (Florida Gulf Coast)

No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast vs. No. 5 Virginia Tech (March 18, 2:30 p.m. – ESPNU)

Don’t brush off the fact that Bell hails from a mid-major. Before transferring to the Eagles, Bell was a top-10 recruit for the Ohio State Buckeyes. Her 23.2 ppg average was also the fifth-best in the nation, just ahead of Smith. 

As only a junior, Bell announced on Facebook that she is entering the draft this season, since she will be 22 this calendar year. She’s yet another electric backcourt scorer that would be a phenomenal fit for the wide-open offense the Mystics have. 

This season she was named the Mid-Major Player of the Year by HerHoopStats. Most of her work is done at the rim, attacking open lanes and crafty finishes at the basket. Ultimately, though, any lottery prospectus will be undone by her sub-30% 3-point shooting. 

Still, she’s a fun player. Even if there wasn’t the faint chance Washington would select her, she’s more than worth the price of admission.

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