ISO Spotlight: Is NaLyssa Smith the top prospect in the WNBA Draft?

Rhyne Howard.

NaLyssa Smith.

Those two names will be called first and second next week in the WNBA Draft. The only question is which one will be first and which will be second—who'll start their career on an Atlanta Dream team that is entering a new era with a new head coach and who'll start on a Fever team that has struggled since Tamika Catchings retired. Any other outcome at this point would be shocking, though the WNBA Draft does tend to feature some shocking picks sometimes, like when the Fever made Kysre Gondrezick a lottery pick last year.

Will The Dream draft NaLyssa Smith?

Until Wednesday, the Mystics held the No. 1 pick in the draft and I was fairly sure that they were taking Rhyne Howard. Here's what I wrote on that topic:

My expectation here is that the Mystics will take Howard first, while the Fever will take Smith second, which I think is the correct move. I'll address why Smith might be the better prospect in a second, but first I want to address why the Mystics are right to pass on Smith.

Despite having the No. 1 pick, Washington is in win-now mode. The team has Elena Delle Donne on the roster, who is one of the WNBA's best players when healthy. The problem is that Delle Donne hasn't been healthy since 2019, and if she is healthy now, then the Mystics need to maximize their window. The team's biggest immediate need is on the wing, as they have Elizabeth Williams, Myisha Hines-Allen and Elena Delle Donne to play the four and five. Washington needs a three. Rhyne Howard is a three. The Mystics should take her, as she fills a need on a team that might still have another title run left in it if things go right.

Obviously, things could change now that the Dream have traded for the No. 1 pick.

I still think Atlanta will go with Howard because getting a possibly-elite wing might be the toughest thing to do in the WNBA, but there's more of a chance for Smith to go No. 1 now because the Dream have a bigger need for a big than the Mystics. Atlanta's frontcourt rotation is Monique Billings, Cheyenne Parker and Kia Vaughn. There's room for Smith there.

Still, I think Howard probably goes first still. Positional scarcity and all that.

What's NaLyssa Smith's pro potential?

That leaves Smith for the Fever, a team that has a huge hole up front and an immediate spot for Smith, who would instantly be the best big on this team.

But, what makes her the best big? And what's her ceiling?

Let's break down the Baylor star's game.

From a pure "what did she do statistically" perspective, Smith's numbers from this past season really pop. Here are her averages plus her percentile rank via Her Hoop Stats: 22.1 points per game (100 percent), 11.5 rebounds per game (100 percent), 1.1 assists per game (51 percent), 1.1 blocks per game (94 percent), 55.0 field goal percentage (97 percent) and 79.5 free throw percentage (80 percent). Pretty good numbers.

But Smith's impact goes beyond the box score. She took a Baylor team that lost its head coach and some of its best players and kept that team in the national conversation all year. Smith took her already strong level of play to another level this season.

The first thing that sticks out with Smith — and has since she arrived at Baylor — is her motor. NaLyssa Smith puts it all on the line on the floor. She's impossible to stop in transition. She's ferocious on defense. 

Smith also finishes strong at the hoop. You can run these plays like this where Smith cuts from out near the arc and gets a head of steam towards the basket and from there — well, from there, what do you do? Smith went 129-for-172 this season in the restricted area, a 75 percent mark that was 16.2 percent above average per CBB Analytics. She's one of the best finishers inside that there is.

But lots of players can score at the bucket, especially when they have an athletic edge over most of the players they're competing against. The history of college basketball is filled with bigs whose careers ended at the end of their collegiate careers because they didn't combine their ability to score in the paint with something else.

Smith brings that something else.

For one, she's lethal in the midrange. Per CBB Analytics, Smith shot 46.2 percent from the midrange this season, which ranked in the 93rd percentile. Smith can work at multiple positions in the WNBA because she's able to score from around the floor. Her three-point game didn't develop like people hoped for this year as she was 8-for-32 from there, but if she can keep working on her range, then Smith is the ideal offensive big at the next level, someone who can get into the paint and make things happen but who can also adjust when playing against a top defensive big and step away from the basket.

On the other end of the floor, Smith's a strong defender who has a good nose for the ball.

She has some great instincts. On the play above, Smith isn't the primary defender, but she anticipates where the drive is going and comes over to the block the shot from behind. Smith always seems to be in the right place defensively, and she did a solid job of not fouling on her block attempts, as she ranked in the 79th percentile at her position in blocks per personal foul. Smith was also in the 65th percentile in personal foul efficiency, suggesting that she should be able to avoid getting into routine foul trouble at the next level. That's especially important if she winds up in Indiana, as the team doesn't have the depth up front to survive having its best big get into trouble.

But is Smith the best prospect?

NaLyssa Smith will be very good in the WNBA, but is she a better prospect than Howard?

It's close. I think Howard's ceiling is higher, as she has the chance to be a game-changing wing in a league where those kind of players are in short supply.

But I lean Smith because I think her floor is higher. While I don't think either player ends up busting, I feel more confident in Smith working out, because she was able to show more consistency in college. Sure, part of that is that she played for a better team and had a supporting cast that allowed her to function in an ideal environment. But also, Smith finally got a chance to play in more of a pro-style system this year with Nicki Collen taking over as head coach and she produced the best numbers of her career. That matters, in my opinion. Smith was a great player under Kim Mulkey, but she was even better under Collen, who had just come to Baylor from a WNBA head coaching position.

So, yeah — I think Smith is the prospect I'd rather take a chance on in a vacuum. But because we don't exist in a vacuum, I think Atlanta drafting Howard ahead of her is probably the right choice for what that team needs.

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