The WNBA All-Star break has come and gone, and now teams are looking to put together a second-half surge to secure a postseason spot. The year has provided plenty of thrilling games and sensational plays across the association thus far.
The league’s first-year players have also made headlines for their impacts on their respective teams.
Atlanta Dream rookie sensation Rhyne Howard has proven she belongs by helping her squad maintain playoff position entering the post-All-Star stretch. Washington Mystics forward Shakira Austin has been a vital part of the team’s success with her offensive and defensive contributions. The Indiana Fever’s foursome of NaLyssa Smith, Destanni Henderson, Emily Engstler and Queen Egbo are also creating buzz in the league for their impressive play.
Here are the rookies who earned superlatives from the season so far with help from ESPN reporters Mechelle Voepel and Alexa Philippou:
Rookie of the Year front-runner
Rhyne Howard, Atlanta Dream
Rhyne Howard is poised to become the first No. 1 pick since A’ja Wilson in 2018 to win WNBA Rookie of the Year after quickly becoming a centerpiece for a surprisingly successful Dream team this season.
The 6-foot-2 guard ranks in the top 15 in the league in scoring (15.1 PPG, best out of all rookies), with the ability to score at every level. She’s also a strong defender and has further cemented her status as a budding star in the league after memorable performances in last weekend’s 3-point contest and All-Star Game. — Alexa Philippou
NaLyssa Smith, Indiana Fever
Since Tamika Catchings retired in 2016, the Fever have been looking for a young player who can tirelessly work the boards and be the offensive threat that she was. It’s too much to ask someone to replicate Catchings, who is on the short list of the WNBA’s all-time best. But it gives Smith a role model.
So far, the 6-foot-4 forward who was the No. 2 pick out of Baylor has six double-doubles, leads all rookies in rebounding average (8.2) and averages 13.2 points. She reached the final of the skills challenge at All-Star Weekend and is likely to be voted an All-Star sooner rather than later. — Mechelle Voepel
Shakira Austin, Washington Mystics
Any rookie of the year conversation must also feature the Mystics’ Austin, who has stepped up massively with Elena Delle Donne in and out of the lineup this season – even assuming a starting role over more experienced posts at times.
The 6-foot-5 forward/center’s defensive presence (she’s top 10 in the league in defensive win shares, per Her Hoop Stats) and grit on the glass (team-high 6.2 RPG) is well beyond her years, helping anchor one of the best units in the WNBA this summer. — Philippou
Queen Egbo, Indiana Fever
Egbo was Smith’s teammate at Baylor and was the 10th pick in the draft. She is a powerful 6-foot-4 center who seems to be blossoming at the pro level. She leads all rookies in blocked shots at 1.4 per game, just ahead of teammate Emily Engstler (1.3). Egbo led Baylor in blocks last season (1.8) and averaged 1.4 for her career. Egbo has had at least one block in 17 of her 22 WNBA games thus far and has made a season-high three blocks in three games. And with her growing reputation as a shot-blocker, Egbo is helping alter shots or dissuading foes from taking them as well. — Voepel
Best rookie who’s not actually a rookie
Rebekah Gardner, Chicago Sky
Gardner is technically a WNBA rookie but has regularly shown this season that she belongs in this league. The 32-year-old former UCLA standout went undrafted in 2012 but accumulated 10 years of experience playing overseas, where Sky GM/coach James Wade saw her play and decided to sign her. The 6-foot-1 guard has been a boost off the bench for the Sky, capable of getting to the rim, being disruptive defensively and making game-changing plays down the stretch. — Philippou
Top rookie comeback story
Kristy Wallace, Atlanta Dream
Three of the rookies spotlighted here are from Baylor, but Wallace didn’t play alongside Bears teammates Smith and Egbo. The 5-foot-11 guard finished her collegiate career on a sad note, tearing an ACL on senior night in 2018. She was picked No. 16 in the second round of the 2018 WNBA draft but then injured the same knee later that year while playing in her native Australia. Uncertain if she would ever compete professionally again, Wallace worked hard at recovery. Four years later, she is a WNBA rookie at 26. She has started 16 games for the Dream, helping them a lot while veteran guard Tiffany Hayes was out injured. — Voepel
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