NEW YORK — Moments before Rhyne Howard went to Atlanta with the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the league is working very hard to help bring Brittney Griner back to the United States.
Griner, one of the league’s biggest stars, has been detained in Russia since arriving at a Moscow airport in mid-February. Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges that allegedly contained oil derived from cannabis, which could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
“I want to take a moment to reiterate the WNBA’s support for Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner,” Engelbert said before the draft started. “Please know that getting her home safely continues to be our top priority and while we are facing an extraordinarily complex challenge, there is strength in community, especially the WNBA.”
Howard, who was the first Kentucky player to go No. 1 in the draft, will be close to home, having grown up about 90 minutes from Atlanta.
“For it to be so close is huge. A lot of family and close friends can come and support me,” Howard said. “To go first, I don’t have words for it right now. Still shaking. Super exciting and proud of myself and thankful for everyone that has been on this journey with me and helped me get here.”
The Dream traded up two spots last week to acquire the No. 1 pick from the Washington Mystics.
Atlanta finished 8-24 last season and has missed the playoffs four of the past five years. The franchise got new ownership last year and brought in a new coach in Tanisha Wright and new general manager Dan Padover. The Dream also had the No. 1 pick in 2009 and used it to draft Angel McCoughtry.
Indiana, which has four picks in the first round, drafted NaLyssa Smith from Baylor with the No. 2 pick and her Bears teammate Queen Egbo at 10. The Fever also snagged Louisville's Emily Engstler at No. 4 and Lexie Hull of Stanford at 6.
“We have four top picks, so there is the opportunity for this team to grow tremendously," Smith said.
The Mystics chose Shakira Austin from Ole Miss third and New York drafted Oregon's Nyara Sabally in between Indiana's top two selections.
Sabally got to practice with New York point guard Sabrina Ionescu when the two were at Oregon and she is excited to have a chance to play with her on the Liberty.
“Sab is such an amazing point guard,” Sabally said. “I saw her in practice every day and am excited to share the court with her.”
Dallas took Veronica Burton of Northwestern with the seventh pick. Las Vegas, which made a trade with Minnesota on Sunday, drafted Mya Hollingshed of Colorado eighth. The Aces then took Florida Gulf Coast's Kierstan Bell at 11.
Bell won the Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year award the last two years and now will get a chance to play for her.
Los Angeles drafted Tennessee's Rae Burrell ninth and Connecticut finished off the first round by picking Nia Clouden of Michigan State.
The WNBA season tips off on May 6, with training camps opening later this week.
Here are other tidbits from the draft:
Engelbert said there will be a league-wide charity initiative spearheaded by the Mercury to support Griner’s philanthropic project, called BG’s Heart and Sole Shoe Drive. The drive has gathered new or gently used shoes for homeless people in the Phoenix area.
“This is an unimaginable situation for BG to be in,” Engelbert said. “She continues to have our full support. Certainly, we’re trying everything we can, every angle, working with her legal representation, her agent, elected leaders, the administration. Just everybody in our ecosystem to try and find ways to get her home safely and as quickly as we can.”
For the sixth consecutive year the Pac-12 had multiple first-round picks. Sabally, Hull and Hollingshed all went in the first seven picks. No other conference can match that streak.