This year's WNBA rookie class is balling out

Yahoo Sports' Cassandra Negley highlights the many achievements the 2022 WNBA rookie class has already attained early in the season.

Video Transcript

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CASSANDRA NEGLEY: This is Cassandra Negley for Yahoo Sports and All in Orange, and this week we're talking about the rookies because this rookie class is balling out only two weeks into the season, and that is a big deal for this league. Five first-year players are averaging more minutes than Michaela Onyenwere, who led all 2021 rookies with 22.5 minutes last year. And two rookies this year are very close to that mark.

We have both number one and number two picks averaging double-digit points, 12 players averaging at least 5 points per game. Last year, only two could say that. Five players are averaging more than 3.7 rebounds per game, which was the high of last year's class. And six are averaging at least two assists per game, the watermark for last year. Those are a lot of numbers, but let's break them down by the class, which includes first-year players that are maybe a little more experienced we'll say instead of old.

Number one overall pick Rhyne Howard faced a lot of scrutiny coming into the WNBA about if she would be able to cut it and if she had the motor. Well, she is clearly showing that she does have it. She was named the Eastern Player of the Week already. She has 102 points through five games. That's the seventh most in WNBA history. And she's leading the Atlanta Dream, who are 4 and 1. It is early in the season, but that is a huge mark for this Atlanta franchise that is looking to rebuild.

Then there's number two pick NaLyssa Smith for the Indiana Fever, who have a lot of rookies who are showing up big. NaLyssa is averaging a double-double, 13 points and 10 rebounds, and her two double-double games are already more than any rookie in last year's class. She also ranks in the top five-- ranking third-- in rebounds in the entire league.

Injuries have already hit this rookie class. NaLyssa Smith sprained her ankle in that game against the Dream last week. We'll see if she'll be able to return sometime soon.

There's also number three pick Shakira Austin with the Washington Mystics. In her fifth game, she came off the bench for 20 points, eight rebounds, and two blocks, shooting 82%. It is the only player to have that line according to Across the Timeline. She's shooting 63% overall and faring very well for a team that's looking like it could make the championship this early in the season.

But it's not just players who made rosters out of the draft. It's also undrafted players who are doing very well. Sam Thomas is in Phoenix. Katie Benzan is in the District. This was a Maryland star who was released from her hardship contract but not before receiving a lot of accolades from those Mystic players. She should be making more appearances on those temporary contracts, and she would be a great reason that you should have practice players stick around and gain experience to jump up to the big league roster when needed.

What's also interesting about this class is the programs that they're coming out of, because these aren't your powerhouse programs anymore or even your Power 5. Jasmine Dickey out of Delaware. She joins Elena Delle Donne out of that state. Amy Atwell out of Hawaii. Kierstan Bell at FGCU. Hannah Sjerven is the first South Dakota player in a WNBA game. She's also the fourth Summit League player. And if you're from a small school like I am and someone from your league makes it to the big leagues, you're absolutely rooting for them, even if they didn't go to your school.

It's been a very small sample size so far, but the crossover for college fans to become WNBA fans is very real and very important. We've talked about it. Cathy Engelbert has talked about it. Players have talked about it. Young success is good for this game, and we're seeing it so far.

But it's not just players straight out of college who are making an impact. Seven players so far this year have debuted at age 26 or older. That's the most since eight did it in 2001. Rui Machida of Japan has dazzled stepping into the Mystics point guard role when called. And then there's Rebekah Gardner, 31-year-old rookie who went undrafted out of UCLA in 2012, who is playing big-time minutes for the Sky.

There's going to be a shift coming very soon where longtime stalwarts of this game leave the court-- Sylvia Fowles, Sue Bird, Allie Quigley, Candace Parker, Angel McCoughtry, Diana Taurasi maybe at some point. We'll see. It was Parker who said that she wanted to see roster expansion versus team expansion because she's worried that there won't be enough stars to carry all of these extra teams.

This is why this class of rookies, both out of college and your more experienced stars, are so important-- build the name while their college stats are still top of mind and you remember them from your alma mater, or, in Rui's case, when you can remember her antics at the Olympics. They are the next stars to say "remember when" about.

Most of our historical data came from Across the Timeline. A big thank you to them. And we'll see you next week at All in Orange.

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