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Charli Collier emerged as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft, but she wasn’t a lock. And she hasn’t soared into the headlines and highlight reels like top picks of the last decade who went on to be named Rookie of the Year: A’ja Wilson (2018), Breanna Stewart (2016), Jewell Loyd (2015), Chiney Ogwumike (2014), Nneka Ogwumike (2012), Maya Moore (2011) and Tina Charles (2010).
And there is Brittney Griner, the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 who lived up to the hype by winning a championship in her second season (and subsequent back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards), but was eclipsed for Rookie of the Year honors by Elena Delle Donne, drafted second overall, who would become a two-time MVP and 2019 title-winner. And 2017 top pick Kelsey Plum saw her rookie season derailed by injuries, leaving Allisha Gray, the fourth overall pick, to rise as Rookie of the Year.
In 2020, No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu’s rookie season was cut short by an ankle injury minutes into her third professional game, and Crystal Dangerfield — projected to be a high first-round pick but picked fourth in Round 2 — emerged as Rookie of the Year. And in a league jam-packed with talent and no roster spot guaranteed (except to Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, apparently), first-year players in 2021 are having very different rookie experiences, adding kinks and quirks to the Rookie of the Year race and beyond.
18 draftees who snagged roster spots in 2021
13 rookies averaging five or more minutes per game
Of the 36 picks in the 2021 WNBA Draft, only 18 appeared on rosters, and two of those 18 (Rennia Davis and Aaliyah Wilson) have yet to suit up in-game. During training camp, Davis was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her left foot; on June 11, the Minnesota Lynx ruled her out for the season. Meanwhile, the Indiana Fever expects Wilson, also battling a foot injury, to miss 3-6 weeks.
That leaves a pool of 16 rookies who have logged minutes so far this season, in varying roles and ranging differences in playing time, across the 10-12 games each team has played as of Sunday, June 13. Even considering this early juncture of the season, with abundant caution given to the whiplash-fast way roster spots and playing minutes can be given and taken away, some trends are emerging. And if the rookies currently stepping up and standing out continue to do so, with all else remaining the same, they should be considered the early contenders for Rookie of the Year.
But before we highlight the players doing well, a few already are disqualified from the big rookie award because they are simply not getting enough playing time to prove their worth. Haley Gorecki (Phoenix Mercury), for example, averaged three minutes and one rebound in two WNBA games while on a hardship contract. Kiana Williams (Seattle Storm), averaging 3.3 minutes in seven games behind Sue Bird, Jordin Canada, Jewell Loyd, and Epiphanny Prince at guard, hasn’t found the basket yet; her 100% shooting from the free-throw line is on one shot attempted. And Chelsea Dungee (Dallas Wings) has been unable to flash her potential in just 3.7 minutes per game.
Omitting rookies who haven’t played yet this season and those averaging fewer than five minutes per game, our pool is whittled to 13 players. And here’s how they’re fairing in scoring the ball, making plays, defending and disrupting, and making an impact with the intangibles:
Scoring — Michaela Onyenwere (New York Liberty)
The #WNBA Rookie of the Month for May:
— WNBA (@WNBA) June 2, 2021
Only one player is averaging double-digit scoring as a rookie, and that is Michaela Onyenwere. May’s Rookie of the Month is contributing 10.6 points per game in 23 minutes on a solid 40.7% shooting from the field, 41.9% shooting from behind the arc, and 87.5% from the free-throw line. She is also pulling down 3.1 rebounds per game.
Another player making significant contributions with consistent minutes, Aari McDonald (Atlanta Dream), ranks second, with 6.6 points in 15.4 minutes per game. The Dream would be helped by McDonald increasing her 3-point shooting from its current 27.6% (she is shooting 32.8% from the field), but she is coming up big at the free-throw line, completing 20 of her 22 (90.9%) attempts.
Bernadett Hatar (Indiana Fever) is averaging 6.7 points in 16 minutes per game on 53% shooting from the field; she also is helping her team with 2.7 rebounds per game. However, she has played just three games this season, and her role with the Fever — like the identity of this team in general — is unclear.
Making plays — Aari McDonald (Atlanta Dream)
And that's on AARI had a little lamb pic.twitter.com/95q7wDaBjn
— Atlanta Dream (@AtlantaDream) June 13, 2021
McDonald leads all rookies in assists, with 1.8 per game, but the number does not adequately represent her court vision and passing that put the ball in motion, leading to another player making an assist on a converted shot attempt.
Of the other players averaging more than one assist per game, the Indiana Fever’s Kysre Gondrezick (1.3), the fourth overall draft pick, appears to just be finding some rhythm in the 10.7 minutes she is playing off the bench. But Walker (1.0) will have to wait until next season to show her game.
Though Destiny Slocum is recording just 0.9 assists for the Phoenix Mercury in 8.2 minutes, the sharpshooting guard is flashing masterful playmaking ability, especially when she is driving an upbeat tempo that prevents the Mercury, prone to languishment, from falling into lackluster offensive production.
Defending and disrupting — Charli Collier (Dallas Wings)
— Dallas Wings (@DallasWings) June 13, 2021
Charli Collier was drafted as the No. 1 overall pick, and Awak Kuier as the No. 2 because the Wings needed size inside — players to clog the paint and battle for rebounds so that the sharpshooting guards like Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey can operate impressive mid-range and 3-point games. With a rookie-leading 4.2 boards per game, Collier is quietly making a splash on the Wings’ defense. And even if her 13.2 minutes and 4.3 points per game on a rookie-high 53.8% field-goal shooting turn out to be too modest to garner awards, developing into a big who is willing to take a backseat to other stars for the sake of team wins could prove fruitful for the Wings, and Collier’s career, long term.
Onyenwere averages 3.1 rebounds per game, making her the rookie who, thus far, has flashed the most well-rounded complete game. And while Hatar is averaging 2.7 boards, she is not playing enough games consistently to have a major impact on the Fever’s dismal one-win season the way DiJonai Carrington (Connecticut Sun), with 2.2 boards per contest, is helping to keep the Sun hot.
Impacting with the intangibles — DiJonai Carrington (Connecticut Sun)
Dijonai is never afraid to shoot her shot. pic.twitter.com/cfzpDnW4cW
— Connecticut Sun (@ConnecticutSun) June 5, 2021
Carrington may be averaging just 2.9 points and 2.2 rebounds per game, but her impact in just 10.8 minutes per game cannot be measured accurately by the box score. It is Carrington’s sharp basketball IQ, her formidable momentum-changing presence, and a relentless commitment to defensive assignments that make her game special beyond measure. Picked in the middle of the second round, Carrington is a player who, if given enough minutes, will prove why she undoubtedly deserved to be a top-five overall selection.
Bonus: One to watch
In 12 minutes per game, second-round pick Arella Guirantes is averaging 3.9 points and 1.6 rebounds per game. While the Sparks try to stay afloat without Nneka Ogwumike (sidelined up to six weeks with a knee sprain) and Chiney Ogwumike (week-to-week knee), head coach Derek Fisher is looking for players to pick up some of the slack. And if Guirantes can find a stride in limited, sometimes sporadic minutes, she has a chance to break out as the season moves along.
This article was created with a big research assist from Evan Cooper.