The 10 best WNBA rookies of 2022: Thirtysomethings, a No. 1 draft pick and a Fever foursome

Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire

Just about a month into the 2022 WNBA season, April's draft lottery picks are excelling. That isn't surprising. But we couldn't have predicted that ESPN's ranking of the top 10 rookies so far would include a pair of thirtysomething first-year players in the league.

As much as "veteran rookie" sounds like an oxymoron, it's accurate in certain cases. Two of our top rookies are in their 30s, one is 29 and another 26. All have played professionally for several years but are finally getting their chance to be on a WNBA roster -- a very challenging thing to do -- and making the most of it. While the 2021 draft class struggled to make much of an impact last season, this year's is off to a better start.

The Indiana Fever are in rebuilding mode and had four first-round draft picks in April. Three of them, and one of the Fever's second-round selections, have made our top 10. That is good news for interim coach Carlos Knox, who replaced Marianne Stanley last week. "They had a rude awakening when it came to playing against teams that were overly physical," Knox said of the Fever's newbies. "But I have their full attention. When I talk to them about this rookie season, they are extremely excited. They're in the gym, they're in film with me every single day. They want to learn, they're excited about the next steps in development."

We break down the best of the WNBA rookies to this point.

1. Rhyne Howard, Atlanta Dream

2022 stats: 16.9 PPG, 2.8 APG, 42.6 3FG%

Howard's start to her WNBA career has quelled any doubts over her motor and arguably surpassed expectations, as the 6-foot-2 two-way force has stormed out of the gates averaging a team-best 16.9 points per game behind lethal shooting from 3, at one point even leading the league in scoring. The early front-runner for Rookie of the Year -- which would make her the first No. 1 pick to take home the award since 2018 -- has the Dream (5-3) off to their best start since 2016. -- Philippou

2. NaLyssa Smith, Indiana Fever

2022 stats: 13.6 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 42.9 3FG%

Smith missed four games with an ankle injury, but not much else has slowed her down. She is the highest ranked of the four Fever rookies on this list and the leading rebounder among all rookies. While she hasn't taken many 3-pointers, she has shown accuracy from behind the arc (9-of-21). When asked whether anything about the WNBA has surprised her, the 6-foot-4 Smith said, "It's kind of been what I expected. I knew I would have to play fast, it was going to be physical. I feel like I've adjusted well." -- Voepel

3. Shakira Austin, Washington Mystics

2022 stats: 8.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 59.7 FG%

With so much in flux with Washington's frontcourt to start the season, Austin has been a pleasant constant who has given the Mystics just what they need whether starting (over half their games so far) or coming off the bench. The 6-5 pro-ready center has established herself as a staunch defender, reliable rebounder, accurate finisher and an energizer capable of going up against more experienced bigs in the league. -- Philippou

4. Emily Engstler, Indiana Fever

2022 stats: 7.3 PPG, 7.2 RPG

The 6-1 Engstler's rebounding and versatility on defense were qualities that made her a lottery pick, and so far she has provided both, in addition to some great energy, for the Fever. Engstler has scored in double figures in three of her past four games and had her season high in rebounds (13) on May 24. Engstler's "let's get this done" personality is exactly what rebuilding Indiana needs. -- Voepel

5. Queen Egbo, Indiana Fever

2022 stats: 6.7 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.4 BPG

Some might have been surprised she was taken so high at 10th overall in April's draft, but Egbo has proved her worth in her early days with the Fever. The 6-4 forward dominates the defensive glass, comes through with timely and emphatic rejections in the paint and chips in offensively as well -- one of the many young pieces the Fever will look to build around in this new phase of the franchise. -- Philippou

6. Rebekah Gardner, Chicago Sky

2022 stats: 9.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 54.5% FG

Gardner was born seven days after Nneka Ogwumike in 1990, and both played in the Pac-12. But while Ogwumike was the No. 1 pick out of Stanford in the 2012 WNBA draft, Gardner went undrafted out of UCLA. Gardner never gave up on basketball, though, playing overseas for the past decade. Sky coach James Wade saw the 6-1 guard competing in Spain and signed her to help the defending champs. Now a 31-year-old rookie, Gardner has scored in double figures five times and is one of the WNBA's best stories thus far in 2022. -- Voepel

7. Destanni Henderson, Indiana Fever

2022 stats: 7.7 PPG, 2.9 APG, 54.5 3FG%

After a dream performance for victorious South Carolina in the NCAA championship game, Henderson was the 20th pick in the draft, surprising some after she dropped that far. The 5-7 guard earned her roster spot and has been very accurate from behind the arc. Henderson's speed was a strength in college, and it could be in the WNBA as well. -- Voepel

8. Kristy Wallace, Atlanta Dream

2022 stats: 8.3 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.5 APG

Wallace had a heartbreaking end to her Baylor career in 2018, suffering a knee injury on senior night and missing the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments. Still, she was drafted at No. 16 in the second round that year, with Atlanta seeing her as a pick for future seasons. Unfortunately, Wallace injured the same knee again late that year while playing in her native Australia. She wasn't sure she would ever compete again. But after a lengthy recovery and return to play in Australia, she is now in her debut season for the Dream at age 26 as another of the WNBA's 2022 feel-good stories. The 5-11 guard has started every game for Atlanta. -- Voepel

9. Rui Machida, Washington Mystics

2022 stats: 2.8 PPG, 3.3 APG

An Olympic silver medalist with the Japanese national team, the 29-year-old Machida has served as an apt backup point guard to Natasha Cloud in her debut WNBA campaign, particularly impressing with her flashy passes and ability to push in transition -- if only she would just shoot more, as coach Mike Thibault has encouraged her to do. The 5-4 guard's emergence has bolstered the Mystics' depth, making them legit contenders this summer. -- Philippou

10. Yvonne Anderson, Connecticut Sun

2022 stats: 5.0 PPG, 1.7 APG, 52.2 FG%

The 5-7, 32-year-old rookie was brought on to provide extra backcourt depth for the championship-minded Sun, who ended up needing it after the season-ending injury to Jasmine Thomas. Anderson's steadiness as a ball handler and point guard, and any additional shooting to boot, would be an asset to a Sun team that was already looking to shore up its backcourt's offensive punch. -- Philippou