WNBA draft picks can make or break a team’s success. As a result, no off-court event gets basketball fans jazzed like the draft. And no player generates buzz like the top overall pick.
That said, number one picks are generally viewed only through the lens of their own draft. In other words: we rarely look at every top pick in history viewing them in comparison to one another. Just the cream of each crop.
So today, we’re going to change that! We reveal an in-depth look at the ten greatest top picks in WNBA history. Ranked in descending order from 10 to 1. We take a look at each player’s impact, skill set, stats, and awards. And we include a few honorable mention players who just missed the list. Plus, we make some predictions about future number one draft picks! And even share a complete list of every No. 1 draft pick ever.
It only makes sense to pit the best against the best. In an attempt to determine who is the greatest number one selection in WNBA Draft history. So that’s what we’ve done here.
How did we arrive at the final version of this list? Good question. First off, it must be noted that rankings such as these are inherently subjective. No matter how many cold hard facts are taken into consideration. And in this case, quite a few!
First, we looked at counting stats. We considered per game averages for points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. As well as field goal, three-point, and free throw percentages. For guards, we gave more credence to points, assists, and steals. Whereas with bigs, we gave more credence to points, rebounds, and blocks. (By the way, all statistics and awards/honors cited in this piece are per Basketball Reference, unless otherwise specified.)
Next, we looked at awards. Has the player been named MVP? How many All-WNBA teams were they named to? Did they ever claim All-Defensive honors? After that, we considered how many championships were won in the player’s career. Team success must play a role in evaluating the best of the best.
If we were still having trouble deciding between two players, we took a gander at advanced stats. Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Positive Residual’s Estimated Contribution metric, and True Shooting Percentage were our go-tos in that regard.
Finally, we considered the intangibles. How impressive is the player when you’re watching them in action, devoid of any other context? Did they have a long career? Are they a good leader? In the case of some of the active players, we had to take educated guesses as to how their careers would continue to progress. It’s a very inexact science, but that’s what makes it fun. So here’s the list of the best No 1. draft picks of all time!
A’ja Wilson was selected as the first overall pick in the WNBA Draft by the Las Vegas Aces in 2018. Named the 2018 Rookie of the Year, A’ja came out of the gate ablaze after a fantastic college career at the University of South Carolina. The 6-foot-4 power forward was unstoppable in the paint. Averaging 20.7 points, 8 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game in 2018.
Her ability to get to the free throw line was especially noteworthy. Generally, rookies have a tough time getting calls. Eventually, as a player transitions into the veteran stages of their career, they learn how to create contact and get to the line with more regularity. A’ja, however, was an anomaly. Immediately able to draw fouls to the tune of 7.5 free throw attempts per game.
A’ja Wilson’s numbers dipped slightly in 2019. Due largely to Las Vegas’ acquisition of center Liz Cambage from the Dallas Wings. No longer the focal point of the Aces offense, A’ja continued to play stellar defense and score when needed. But wasn’t able to find the groove she maintained throughout her rookie season.
2020 wove a different tale. With Liz opting out of the “Wubble” season in Bradenton, Florida, A’ja struck. Earning the Most Valuable Player award in her third professional season. She dominated on both ends of the floor, posting career highs in blocks (2.0), steals (1.2), rebounds (8.5), and field goal percentage (48%), to go along with over 20 points per game. A’ja almost single handedly willed the Aces to the WNBA Finals. Where they fell to a much deeper Seattle Storm squad.
With only three professional seasons under her belt, some may argue that A’ja should not have been selected over some of the more accomplished “honorable mentions” (below). That’s an entirely valid viewpoint. However, what fun would this exercise be without some risk?
A’ja’s skill-level and work ethic are such that she could easily find herself among the greatest No. 1 draft picks of all time when she finally hangs up the kicks for good. So this is in essence a gamble. And gambling on A’ja generally pays off.
Tina Thompson has a distinction no one else will ever be able to claim: she was the first draft pick in WNBA history. In the league’s inaugural draft in 1997, Tina’s name was called first. It’s difficult to envision landing in a better scenario.
Tina was taken by the Houston Comets. She won four WNBA titles in her first four professional seasons. How do you follow that up? Tina was immediately one of the best players in the association. And was named to the All-WNBA First Team in 1997 and 1998, and the Second Team from 1999-2002. She earned another First Team selection in 2004 and another Second Team selection in 2007.
Tina Thompson added value in a number of ways, but her bread and butter was scoring the basketball. With Cynthia Cooper slicing and dicing defenders on the perimeter, Tina took advantage of openings in the paint. Averaging 13.2 points as a rookie to go along with 6.5 rebounds, and a block per game.
Tina’s scoring peaked in 2004 when she averaged 20 points per contest, hitting 41 percent of her three-point attempts. Indeed, Tina was a formidable threat from deep as well as in the paint. Shooting over 37 percent from behind the arc for her career on 4.1 attempts per game.
Tina is sixth on the all-time rebounding list and second in minutes played, trailing only Sue Bird. She spent her last five seasons splitting time between Los Angeles and Seattle, retiring after the 2013 season. She ended her WNBA career four games shy of 500, good for third in league history.
It’s hard to live up to the near-stratospheric hype of being the first number one draft pick in WNBA history. But we challenge you to find a single soul who says Tina Thompson was a disappointment.
Tina Charles entered the league a truly dominant force in the paint. She was drafted No. 1 by the Sun and played her first four professional seasons in Connecticut – perhaps the best stretch of her career. Tina had attended the University of Connecticut, so the locals knew what to expect when she went first overall in the 2010 WNBA Draft.
As a rookie, Tina Charles swiped 11.7 rebounds per game, still her career high to this day. 129 of those boards came on the offensive glass. Which currently stands as the 8th best offensive rebounding season in WNBA history. Tina would log the 9th best offensive rebounding season of all time a year later, and the 10th best in 2012.
Of course, Tina makes her mark on the defensive glass as well. She is fifth all time in total rebounds, and owns the 3rd and 4th greatest single season rebounding campaigns. When did those come? You guessed it: 2010 and 2011.
Grabbing boards however was far from her only skill. Tina sped to the 2010 Rookie of the Year award. Adding to her prolific rebounding totals by scoring 15.5 points per game and swatting 1.7 blocks. As her rebounding numbers declined slightly over time, her point totals grew.
Tina Charles has mastered a litany of post moves and loves to roast defenders from the elbows or the low blocks. A member of the New York Liberty from 2014 to 2019, Tina was a scoring machine in 2016. Racking up 21.5 points per game to go along with 9.9 rebounds, and a career high 3.8 assists. That year was one of five in which she was named to the All-WNBA First Team. She was selected to the second-team three times.
Tina Charles has never been able to nab that elusive WNBA Championship. But she did reach the individual mountaintop in 2012, named the league’s Most Valuable Player. That was the most efficient season of her career. Scoring 18 points per game (to go along with 10.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks) on 50 percent shooting.
Tina changed teams yet again months before the “Wubble,” being traded to Washington before sitting out the 2020 season. If the Mystics decide to bring her back for their 2021 run, perhaps Tina will finally be able to pocket the ring she’s been chasing for a decade.
Known as “Stewie” by the majority of the basketball-watching population, this University of Connecticut graduate entered the WNBA in 2016 with rings already filling her fingers. Breanna Stewart won four NCAA championships in four seasons at UConn, each time named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. She claimed three Naismith Player of the Year trophies along the way, making her one of the most obvious number one overall picks in WNBA history. There was no way the Storm weren’t selecting Stewie.
For someone who set the bar sky-high in college, Breanna hasn’t disappointed as a pro. As a rookie, Breanna earned a smattering of accolades. She was named to the All-Defensive team, the All-Rookie team, and All-WNBA team in addition to claiming Rookie of the Year honors. Breanna averaged over three blocks and steals per game to go along with 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds.
Just like A’ja Wilson, Breanna broke through in her third professional season. She was named Most Valuable Player and WNBA Finals MVP in 2018, as Seattle rolled through the playoffs to reign supreme. Breanna Stewart’s totals – 21.8 points, 8.4 rebounds. 1.4 blocks, 1.4 steals – were buttressed by career high efficiency marks. As the 6-foot-4 forward shot 53 percent from the field and 41.5 percent from behind the arc.
Breanna’s game is unique because she can play anywhere on the floor. Obviously comfortable chucking from deep, Breanna also excels in the post despite her slender frame. She more than holds her own defending stronger front court players, and can hang on the perimeter as well. All of this was on display during the 2020 WNBA Finals, Breanna snagging her second Finals MVP trophy as Seattle swept Las Vegas.
An impressive feat on its own, Breanna’s performance in the “Wubble” is even more notable considering she missed the entirety of the 2019 season recovering from a torn Achilles. Now back at full health, it appears Breanna is just getting started on the path to becoming one of the all-time greats.
Sue Bird was drafted by the Storm first overall in the 2002 WNBA draft. Sue Bird is one of the few players on this list who has never won the Most Valuable Player award. What Sue brings to the table is longevity, consistency, and four WNBA Finals rings.
The 5-foot-9 point guard out of the University of Connecticut is the all-time WNBA leader in minutes played. Having logged 16,430 of them, all in a Seattle uniform. Her 2,888 assists are also a WNBA record. She is 4th on the all-time steals list.
There’s a reason point guards have earned the nickname, “floor general.” They run the show. Few, if any, have run the show better than Sue. She is decisive in her decision-making, constantly assessing where best to distribute the ball and how to maximize the skill-sets of her teammates.
Sue Bird has accumulated much knowledge over the course of her 17 seasons with the Storm. In 2018 – her third championship season – Sue posted the best assist-to-turnover ratio of her career. Dishing out a career-high 7.1 assists per game to just 1.9 turnovers.
Sue has never been a prolific scorer. But 2020 was the first time she dipped under 10 points per game. She will shoot when needed, and maintains a 39 percent mark from three over her 17 seasons.
The scary part? Sue Bird may have a few more seasons left in the tank. As part of a loaded Storm roster, the 40-year old is able to pick and choose her spots, staying fresh for the games that matter most. Sue was extremely effective on offense in the 2020 WNBA Finals, an indicator she still has more to offer as a professional hooper.
The Los Angeles Sparks had high hopes for Stanford University standout Nneka Ogwumike, and she’s delivered in a major way. Take a gander at Nneka’s career statistics, and what jumps off the page is her staggering consistency.
Like the majority of the players on this list, Nneka came onto the professional scene with purpose. Claiming Rookie of the Year honors after posting 14 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per game in 2012.
As Nneka has gotten older, her defense has continued to improve. Now the hallmark of her game, Nneka has been named to five All-Defensive teams to go along with four All-WNBA selections.
Her leadership on (and off) the floor is unmatched. She’s able to direct her teammates to the right spots on the floor and anticipate offensive actions before they occur. Though her 6-foot-2 frame hardly makes her the tallest center in the league, it’s nearly impossible to score over her in the post.
Nneka Ogwumike’s 2016 season deserves a closer inspection, for it’s about as close to perfection as you can get on a basketball court. Named the Most Valuable Player, Nneka not only excelled on defense, but also was the most efficient and effective offensive player in the league.
Her 19.7 points per game came on an astronomical 67 percent mark from the field. Though she attempted just under one three-point attempt per game, she knocked down 62 percent of them. She shot 87 percent from the foul line, snared over 9 rebounds per game and added 1.3 steals and 1.2 blocks for good measure.
Somehow, Nneka even managed to reach new heights in the playoffs. In perhaps the greatest WNBA Finals of all time, she helped propel the Sparks past Minnesota in a riveting five game series. In the decisive contest, Nneka played the hero, snatching an offensive rebound and hoisting the game-winning shot with 3.1 seconds remaining for a 77-76 win.
Need some proof that Nneka is one of the most efficient players of all time? She trails only Sylvia Fowles in career true shooting percentage, a statistic that takes into account two-point field goals, three-point field goals, and free throws, adjusting for the value of each attempt.
Oh, and if all that weren’t enough, Nneka is the President of the Players Union, an extremely important role which – you guessed it – she excels in.
Yet another University of Connecticut standout, Diana Taurasi is one of the most prolific scorers of all time. She was selected first overall by the Phoenix Mercury in the 2004 WNBA draft.
She’s scored more total points than anyone else in WNBA history, nearly 1,500 clear of Tina Thompson in second place. Diana owns the two highest seasons in points per game of all-time, pouring in 25.3 in 2006 and 24.1 in 2008. She has won the scoring title five times.
Fans have grown to love Diana for the unadulterated confidence she displays on the court. Diana is the type of player who will continue to shoot even if she’s missed a few shots in a row. Her range extends to the parking lot, and her passing aptitude makes it impossible to slow her down.
Send a second defender Diana Taurasi’s way and she’ll whip a cross-court pass to the open shooter. Try to guard her one-on-one and say your prayers, for Diana will get by you or shoot over you.
The 6-foot shooting guard has collected three WNBA Finals trophies in her career, winning Finals MVP in 2009 and 2014. Her game-clinching jumper against the Chicago Sky in 2014 is one of the more famous shots of the WNBA’s first 24 seasons. She took home Most Valuable Player honors in 2009, the only season of her career in which she exceeded a 40 percent mark from the three-point line.
Diana is showing no signs of slowing down, even at 38-years old. In the “Wubble,” she led the Phoenix Mercury to a postseason berth, continuing her run as one of the premier scorers in the WNBA.
Diana gets extra points in this exercise for playing her entire career for the same ballclub. It’s difficult to conjure a more valuable number one pick than a player who is marching towards two decades of service time in the same jersey, and who has rings on her fingers.
Lauren Jackson was picked No 1. by the Seattle Storm in the 2001 WNBA Draft. She may not have had the longest career of the players on this stacked list, but she surely made her 12 WNBA seasons – all with the Seattle Storm – count.
Lauren Jackson is one of three players in WNBA history, along with Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie, to sport three MVP trophies on her mantle. No player has ever been named the Most Valuable Player four times. She won the award in 2003, 2007, and 2010.
Yet another two-way standout, Lauren was exceptional in the paint on both ends. Offensively, she paired with Sue Bird to form perhaps the most lethal pick-and-roll tandem of all time. Their chemistry proved unstoppable, leading to two WNBA championships, in 2004 and 2010.
Defensively, Lauren may as well have been a brick wall, deterring just about anything that came her way. She made five All-Defensive teams, and is fifth all-time in career blocks. It’s rather rare for rookies to be adept on defense. But Lauren entered the league a stopper, averaging 2.2 blocks and 1.9 steals per game her rookie season.
Offensively, Lauren peaked in 2007, averaging 23.8 points and 9.7 rebounds per game while hitting 52 percent of her field goal attempts. In some ways, Lauren was before her time.
A center (or, on occasion, a power forward), Lauren stretched the floor, able to run pick-and-pops with Sue in which she backpedaled behind the three-point line, hosting accurate jumpers. The Australian sensation attempted 3.9 treys that season and knocked them down at a 40 percent clip.
2007 may have marked her offensive peak, but 2010 was the best all-around year of Lauren’s career. Just about the only honor she had yet to claim, Lauren was named WNBA Finals MVP in 2010 for her exceptional dominance over the Atlanta Dream. Seattle swept Atlanta, with Lauren racking up 26 points in each of the first two contests. Her defense stymied the Dream front court, and she dominated the glass.
Lauren played just 22 games over her final two WNBA seasons, calling it quits in the fall of 2012. Yet the mark she left on the league is still felt today.
Candace Parker was selected No. 1 by the Los Angeles Sparks in the 2008 WNBA Draft. It’s hard to stand out on a list as stacked as this one. Yet Candace Parker manages to do so. Being the only player in WNBA history to have won the Rookie of the Year award and the Most Valuable Player award in the same season.
Indeed, no one burst onto the professional scene with more purpose than this University of Tennessee alum. Candace averaged 18.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.3 blocks, and 1.3 steals to go along with a 52 percent mark from the field. Whew. Settle down, Candace!
Candace claimed her second MVP award in 2013. Leading another all-around stellar campaign in which she averaged 17.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.8 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game.
What makes Candace so unique is her ability to play both big and “small.” Of course, at 6-foot-4, Candace has never appeared small on a basketball court. Yet she often assumes the role of “point forward.” Showcasing an extremely advanced passing repertoire to go along with her more traditional frontcourt skills.
Candace’s assist numbers have grown over the course of her career, too. Peaking in 2015 when she dished out 6.3 dimes per contest to go along with 19.4 points and 10.1 rebounds. Her performance that season is one of, if not the greatest season ever to not result in an MVP award.
Folks focus on the offense, and for good reason. Candace Parker has long been the focal point of the Sparks offensive attack, but she’s just as formidable on the other side of the ball. Candace’s career averages of 1.6 blocks and 1.3 steals per game were finally rewarded in 2020 when she was named Defensive Player of the Year. The soon-to-be 35-year old ranks 8th all-time in career blocks and 9th in career rebounds.
In 2016, Candace Parker’s hard work finally paid off in the form of a WNBA Finals ring and a WNBA Finals MVP trophy. In Game 5, she poured in a game-high 28 points, bagged a game-high 12 rebounds, and swiped a game-high 3 steals.
Like a few of the other older but still active players on this list, Candace is showing no signs of slowing down. To go along with her aforementioned Defensive Player of the Year award, Candace finished third in MVP voting this past season. A 2021 unrestricted free agent, whoever secures Candace’s talents will assuredly be thrilled with the results.
The WNBA “GOAT” discussion is a popular one. Folks love diving into the weeds in an attempt to determine who is the best of the best when it comes to two decades of storied WNBA basketball.
Though there are a handful of valid answers to this controversial question, we tend to land on two names in identifying the WNBA GOAT: Cynthia Cooper and Maya Moore. Since Cythia Cooper was already in her 30s when the WNBA was formed, she never found herself in the WNBA draft. Thus, Maya Moore takes home our oh-so esteemed honor – the greatest number one draft pick of all time. As the first-overall selection of the Minnesota Lynx in the 2011 WNBA Draft.
Consider this: Maya has played just eight seasons in the WNBA, all for the Minnesota Lynx. What she has accomplished in that time borders on absurdity.
What’s interesting is that Maya didn’t set the WNBA on fire in her rookie season like many of the other names on this list. Though she was named the 2011 Rookie of the Year, Maya averaged “only” 13.2 points per game to go along with 4.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals.
Defensively, it was clear that Maya was special from day one. Her strength and length allowed her to excel on the perimeter and in the post, locking up capable offensive players with regularity. But the best was yet to come.
Maya Moore made the All-WNBA team every year from 2012 to 2018. She has collected four WNBA titles, in 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017. Maya was named Most Valuable Player in 2014. The star forward has been selected to the All-Defensive team twice. And she won the scoring title in 2014, racking up 23.9 points per game.
Advanced stats view Maya more kindly than any other player in WNBA history. Part of that has to do with her stellar defense. Another part of it has to do with her sterling efficiency. Maya Moore is an incredibly versatile offensive player, always able to create her own shot, whether by driving to the hoop or pulling-up from deep.
For someone who isn’t thought of as a three-point specialist, Maya sports a better percentage from deep than many who are. She shoots over 38 percent from behind the arc for her career, including three seasons in which she cracked 40 percent.
Per Positive Residual’s “Estimated Contribution Metric,” which measures overall impact on the game, Maya has logged six of the best 21 seasons in WNBA history and three of the top ten. Her 2013 season, in which she shot over 45 percent from three on nearly five attempts per game, places second in the gauntlet of WNBA single-season greatness.
Of course, you may be wondering why, if Moore was so dominant from 2012 through 2018, we haven’t mentioned the past two WNBA seasons yet. That’s because the University of Connecticut graduate has been focusing on far more important matters!
In the prime of her career, with the chance to establish herself as the undisputed GOAT, Maya instead devoted her time to freeing a wrongfully convicted man from prison. It’s fitting that the greatness of the best number one draft pick in WNBA history isn’t limited to the basketball court.
Of course, we’d be remiss not to give a brief nod to those who just missed the cut. Here are a few WNBA players just on the cusp.
Chamique Holdsclaw – Drafted by the Washington Mystics in 1999, Chamique Holdsclaw averaged 16.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per game over her 11 year career. She was named Rookie of the Year and ended up being selected to three All-WNBA teams, in 1999, 2001, and 2002.
Seimone Augustus – One of the great pure scorers in league history, Seimone Augustus was drafted by the Minnesota Lynx in 2006, for whom she helped win four WNBA titles. The Louisiana State alum was named Finals MVP in 2011 and was named to six All-WNBA teams.
Angel McCoughtry – Selected by the Atlanta Dream in 2009, Angel McCoughtry played ten seasons in Georgia before signing with Las Vegas in 2020. Still going strong, the Louisville graduate is a two-way star, averaging 18.8 points per game over her career and having been named to seven All-Defensive teams.
Brittney Griner – One of the most prolific blocked shot artists and dunkers in WNBA history, Brittney Griner was selected by the Phoenix Mercury in 2013 out of Baylor University. Griner’s 129 blocked shots in 2014 are a league record, the same year she helped Phoenix secure the WNBA Championship.
Jewell Loyd – In many ways, this shooting guard out of Notre Dame is just getting going. Drafted by Seattle in 2015, Jewell Loyd has already won two WNBA titles in 2018 and 2020. She is one of the best shot-makers in the league and has developed into a stout defender. The best is likely yet to come for the gold mamba.
Oh, you thought we were done? Not just yet. This comprehensive chronicle of the top number one picks in WNBA history wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the prognostication station. Who will be the next first overall selection?
The New York Liberty have the honor of picking first for the second consecutive year. Most mock drafts currently have Texas’s Charli Collier going to the Big Apple. Charli Collier is a stretch-big, able to shoot threes while also dominating the paint.
However, unlike last year when Sabrina Ionescu was a lock at number one, 2021 brings much uncertainty. While Charli has been exceptional in some games, she’s looked rather pedestrian against tougher opponents. Perhaps this is simply a fault of the Longhorns system. But this is no sure thing.
While we do believe Charli will go first and we’re big fans of her game, our favorite players in this upcoming draft are Awak Kuier of Finland, Rennia Davis of Tennessee, Arella Guirantes of Rutgers, and Dana Evans of Louisville. Anyone from that bunch could play themselves towards the top of the 2021 WNBA Draft with a strong NCAA Tournament showing.
While 2021 is shrouded in mystery, 2022 already has a clear favorite for the first overall pick: Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard. Already the best college basketball player in the nation, Rhyne can do it all and figures to be a star in the pro ranks. If we were to revisit this list ten years from now, we wouldn’t be surprised if Rhyne had pried her way onto it.
For a little more WNBA history, check out every No 1. draft pick the WNBA has ever had.
Now you know more about the greatest No 1. WNBA draft picks of all time. And the crazy, inspiring things they’ve accomplished. Tune in this season to watch them play in the WNBA, and overseas. Up next, learn everything you need to know about WNBA MVPs.
Written by Owen Pence, a freelance journalist who’s work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Houston Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News, and Star Tribune. You can find more of his women’s basketball writing over at Winsidr, or follow him on Twitter @OwenPence.
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