Just five days before the 2022 WNBA Draft, the Washington Mystics shuffled the deck by trading away what would have been just the second No. 1 overall pick in the franchise's history.
By doing so, Washington gets a strategic haul of assets back which positions it well for the future. A wider potential for a lottery pick next season holds even more value than what the Mystics could draft this year at No. 1.
In the trade with the Atlanta Dream, Washington moves down just two spots to claim the 2022 No. 3 pick owned by Atlanta and also grabbing the No. 14 pick. Even more importantly, though, the Mystics now own the right to swap picks with the Los Angeles Sparks' 2023 first-round pick (currently owned by the Dream after a prior trade).
Obtaining the top overall draft selection is a rare opportunity for the organization. Since head coach and general manager Mike Thibault took over before the 2013 season, they've only been in the lottery (a top four pick) three times. The first time they selected Taylor Hill (2013), the second time the pick was traded away in a deal for Elena Delle Donne Donne (2017). Getting to pick an asset like this is not common for Washington which expects to contend for championships year after year.
Maximizing the value of this pick is what Thibault wants. A roster full of stars and a two-time MVP in Delle Donne allows him to have this flexibility.
While this draft class is not considered 'weak' like some think of the 2021 class, there is not a clear bonafide star at the top of the prospect list. There's great depth up and down the first round, just not a Sabrina Ionescu, A'ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart, etc. Combine that with the current talent assembled in D.C., a college player cracking even the top seven in the rotation this season would be difficult.
If Washington competes for a championship, it won't likely be because of the first-overall pick. It's not necessarily just because of the talent level of the selection. Thibault said as much earlier this offseason.
"I don't know that the rookie player is going to come in and impact us necessarily for our championship," Thibault said after the draft lottery.
"I would assume based on our roster, nobody's going to come in necessarily and start for us," Thibault continued. "When you come into a team like ours, they aren't expected to be saviors. A lot of times when you're in a lottery, in any sport, that pick is supposed to be that person that turns it around. We don't need this draft pick to be somebody that turns us around. 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. We feel like we have a winning culture and a winning group of players that are already signed. This just enhances that more than anything."
The original plan, though, was to keep the pick "unless something wacky happens." Many mock drafts pointed to Rhyne Howard (Kentucky) as the No. 1 overall selection for Washington - or whoever was drafting first.
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The trade also likely signals that the Mystics see a similar value at No. 3 that they did at the top spot. Other projected top three selections include NaLyssa Smith (Baylor) and Shakira Austin (Ole Miss). Those three are the consensus among mock draft experts. The Mystics also will get another pick in the second round after not holding another pick in this year's draft.
Of course through all of this, don't forget Thibault's history of second-round picks with Myisha Hines-Allen, Natasha Cloud and Emma Meesseman. Finding a diamond in the rough isn't as difficult for the Thibault as it is other teams.
"We are very comfortable with all three players that we have ranked as the possible top three picks in the draft. Whichever player comes to us will add to the depth of this year’s team and will have the chance to grow into a very important role over the next few years," Thibault said in a release on the trade.
Next year's draft, however, is where things get interesting. It has much more talent at the top among draft eligible players.
And now with the right to be able to get Los Angeles' pick next year, there are two potential paths to a 2023 lottery selection. Granted, Washington intends to be back for a deep playoff run this year which would take it out of the running for a lottery pick.
So if this season's goal is winning a championship, the team is minutely sacrificing their potential depth on their bench. At the same time, they are bolstering their chances of a better pick in 2023 and allowing them to grow their depth further with the 14th pick.