The 2021-22 women's college basketball season will feature exceptional play at all positions. While storylines won't focus on just one player, there is only one yearly winner of the sport's most prestigious award.
UConn freshman sensation Paige Bueckers won the Naismith Player of the Year award last May and was the first UConn Huskies player to do so since Breanna Stewart took three consecutive Naismiths from 2014 to 2016.
Since Stewart won those three straight awards, the talent level in women's college basketball has risen, and that is exemplified by the fact that seven players could have a fair shot at the Naismith.
Who out of a wide talent pool are least and most likely to walk away from the 2021-22 season as the nation's top player? What are the chances that Bueckers repeats? And how will sensational play this season help the WNBA draft stock of those who are eligible?
Naz Hillmon: Traditional Post Player with an Expanding Game
Speaking of draft-eligible players, Michigan's Naz Hillmon and Kentucky's Rhyne Howard are in their senior seasons and have the W in their futures. In addition to leading their teams as far as they can go this season, both Hillmon and Howard have made it clear that they are looking to develop their craft in preparation for the pros. The two are used to being the focal point of their team's offensive output.
For Hillmon, whose reputation has always been a traditional back-to-the-basket post player with a high motor, she's also looking to expand her game. She made two open looks from beyond the arc in a preseason exhibition on November 4. And she remains one of the strongest players in the country.
Hillmon won't abandon her vintage power finishes and elite rebounding despite the expansion of her game. Last season she put up 50 points against Big Ten rival Ohio State, proving her ability to score in droves against other Top 25 programs.
Rhyne Howard: 'I Am the Best Player On the Court'
What will it take for Kentucky's Howard to get her team to take some of the load off her shoulders? It's hard to know. She has her senior season to prove to WNBA coaches and general managers that she's not just an efficient, athletic three-way scorer. This year she needs to prove she has the ability to lead and motivate her teammates. One pro talent evaluator remarked that last year they thought she didn't buy into supporting her team and that this year she needs to show much more care.
For Howard, who told reporters she's in the best shape of her life, her goals are to put the work in to show the entire nation that she's not only a gifted scorer, but also one of its elite players.
"This year I'm just playing to show everyone that I am the best player on the court and leave no doubt about it," she said. "That I'm working hard, and I'm giving everything I got for myself and for my teammates."
Both Howard and Hillmon should have statistically sound seasons, but the lack of reliable depth that both Michigan (besides maybe Leigha Brown) and Kentucky have might hold both players back from claiming the college game's highest honor.
Haley Jones: A Matchup Nightmare
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Stanford's Haley Jones has the skill set that characterizes the modern game and allows for the Cardinal to play her at not only the 3 but also at the 4 or the 2, which makes her a matchup nightmare for opponents.
At 6'1", Jones' game is predicated on her versatility, including her passing as a secondary ball-handler and her ability to post up and take smaller guards off the dribble. One WNBA talent evaluator called her sense for the game quite rare.
She came alive in the NCAA tournament and became a reliable scorer and playmaker when now-WNBA player Kiana Williams couldn't get going. She led her team in scoring in both Final Four games and as a result was named the Most Outstanding Player in the national championship game.
While she attempted a low volume of three-point shots last season (17 total during the regular season and the tournament), she proved she could knock them down, especially during Stanford's national-title run.
While Jones is Stanford's most complete player, what could impede her road to POY is the system she plays in. Williams is the only impact player the defending champions lost. The Cardinal will return depth, including defensive stalwart Anna Wilson, two-way wing Lexie Hull and bigs in sophomore Cameron Brink and junior Ashten Prechtel. And Stanford's version of the Princeton-style offense also balances the attack rather than centering it on an individual.
Aliyah Boston: The Most Talented Center
Aliyah Boston is the most talented center in women's college basketball. At 6'5", she's a big with an above-average basketball IQ. She knows how to make the appropriate read from the high post. She's almost unstoppable when defenses don't do their early work on her.
For opponents, there's just not a lot of hope to stop Boston when she catches the ball deep in the paint. And if she does miss, expect her to be ready to rebound and put it back.
In addition to her complete game offensively, which includes stretching the floor when necessary, Boston's defense stifles opponents just as much. Last season, the Gamecocks star finished in the 71st percentile in points given up per possession with 0.698, according to Synergy Sports. She's one of the best post defenders in the country, and the WNBA's Layshia Clarendon tweeted Tuesday night that her "shot block timing is a thing of beauty."
But in South Carolina's first game of the season against NC State, the team's anchor and best player didn't fill up the box score in ways you'd expect from a top player. Remember, though: Boston does so much on the floor. Her screening, ability to draw defenses and shot altering and rim deterrence can't be seen on a basic stat sheet.
This could work in or against her favor. If the Gamecocks prove that with their depth they are by far the best team in the country all season, the natural progression would be for the team's best player to receive the Naismith.
Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark: Lead Guards Who Are Top Contenders
Bueckers, who plays for a much deeper UConn team than the one that fell to Arizona in the Final Four last April, is in a similar situation. The Huskies added a sharpshooter and close friend of Bueckers in Azzi Fudd along with 6'2" first-year guard Caroline Ducharme and 6'5" stretch big Dorka Juhász, who transferred in from Ohio State.
Bueckers and superstar Iowa point guard Caitlin Clark, who both impressed last season as first-year players, have similar styles of play as lead guards. Both are exceptional offensively. Bueckers shot 46.4 percent from beyond the arc last season, and Clark, who is becoming known for taking shots from the logo, shot 40.6 percent. Bueckers finished the season with 5.7 assists per game to Clark's 7.1.
But differentiating between these two also comes down to examining their respective ball control. Bueckers had a 2.27 assist-to-turnover ratio to Clark's 1.47. Bueckers averaged around 2.3 fewer turnovers than Clark. That is a result of personnel. Just like last season, Clark's Iowa doesn't have a secondary ball-handler. Bueckers' UConn has two others in Nika Muhl and Evina Westbrook.
In the 2021 NCAA tournament, UConn was able to knock out Iowa on account of its underwhelming team defense and weaker individual defense from Clark.
On a recent episode of Locked on Women's Basketball, Clark spoke about how improving her defensive game has been a high priority in the offseason. "We don't expect us to be the absolute best defensive team in the nation," she said. "But we certainly can't be what we were last year because that's not going to get us much further than where we were."
NaLyssa Smith: On a Mission
Unlike Clark, who returns to Iowa as the focal point of her offense, Baylor's NaLyssa Smith is new to that role as she attempts to prove she is the best player in the country. With DiDi Richards and DiJonai Carrington about to be WNBA sophomores, it's the 6'4" forward's time to shine. Her coach, former Atlanta Dream head coach Nicki Collen, expressed her utmost confidence in Smith on Monday.
"Yo, I'm going to go on record," Collen told reporters. "She's not one of the best players in the country, she is the best player in the country. So I am going to go on record saying that. You could put that on Twitter. I don't care. I just think that's where her game is at right now. And I think when the lights come on, she just gets better and better."
In her first three years as a Bear, Smith flashed her athletic abilities by using her quickness to finish in transition and slash through the lane. In a Kim Mulkey offense that was reliant on scoring mostly in the paint, Smith's game remained limited. But Collen wants to change that and has been working with Smith on her perimeter shooting and guard handles. According to The Athletic's Charlotte Carroll, Collen has had Smith watch film of Natasha Howard and Breanna Stewart, two of the W's most versatile forwards.
WNBA talent evaluators have expressed that they expect Smith to improve not only on the perimeter but also in the pick-and-roll. One noted that Collen will get Smith prepared "for the pro level [in a way] that not many college coaches will."
But like Clark, Smith has just enough talent around her to play to her individual strengths. For Clark, she has Monika Czinano to feed in the post. Last season, she was one of the most efficient players in the country, finishing with the best field-goal percentage in the nation at 66.8. For Smith, she has returning talent in All-Big 12 player Queen Egbo and Alabama transfer guard Jordan Lewis. And that's credit to Collen and Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder.
Who Takes Home the Hardware?
Clark will continue to work on her defense in pursuit of being a more complete player. But Smith will take a leap and a bound toward her potential on the perimeter.
While UConn, South Carolina and Stanford will all probably be ranked higher than the Baylor Bears by the time March rolls around, the best player will be Smith, who will play in a system that allows her to shine among enough surrounding talent to keep the Bears fighting toward another Elite Eight. Buckers, Boston and Jones won't have unsuccessful seasons, but rather success might look different. Instead of shooting at a high volume, they will be facilitating and anchoring stacked rosters around them.
Collen told The Athletic's Chantel Jennings in September that her job isn't necessarily just to develop Smith as a top WNBA prospect. She's focused on the end goal for the team, which is making sure Baylor continues as one of the country's most successful programs.
The modern style the Bears are set to play won't revolve around Smith like how Kentucky and Michigan are structured with Howard and Hillmon, but rather it will feature her in ways that showcase the holistic two-way player Collen and WNBA talent evaluators know she can be.
Barring any unexpected injuries on Baylor's 10-player roster, Smith will take home the Naismith trophy and will become a lottery selection in the spring.