April 11, 2022 

2022 WNBA Draft: How the Atlanta Dream’s selections, headlined by Rhyne Howard, change the franchise’s future

'The ceiling is absolutely there for her to be one of those foundational pieces on a championship-level team,' GM Padover says of Howard

The front office brass of the Atlanta Dream spent the offseason talking extensively about building a foundation in Atlanta. During Monday night’s WNBA Draft, the team made its most important step toward that foundation, following last week’s trade for the number one overall pick: the team’s blueprint is going to start with Rhyne Howard.

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“We’re really excited about Rhyne — we think the sky is the limit for her,” first-year head coach Tanisha Wright said after the draft. “We think she has tons of potential that hasn’t even really been tapped into yet.”

Forget the future for just a second: Howard will make the Atlanta Dream better the moment she steps into the facility. Coming out of the University of Kentucky, Howard has a better floor than most prospects — the tantalizing and coveted ability to make Atlanta interesting in the first year of her career — and a ceiling that suggests that she, years down the line, can be a central figure in changing the direction of a plummeting franchise.

“She can provide scoring, she can provide defense, and I think she can be one of two-to-three key pieces that can be on a contending team,” new Atlanta Dream general manager Dan Padover said. “She’s going to have to grow and get better, but the ceiling is absolutely there for her to be one of those foundational pieces on a championship-level team.”

As a versatile, two-way wing, the two-time SEC Player of the Year fits the outline of a player primed for long-term WNBA success. But how does she fit into the franchise’s short- and long-term future, with a young core comprised of herself, Aari McDonald and second-round selection Naz Hillmon?

Where Howard helps the Dream

Everywhere. Howard helps them everywhere. Immediately.

“You’re talking about a 6’2 guard who can handle the ball, stroke it from the outside, who gets to the midrange and shoots it well and can bang inside a little bit as well,” Wright said of Howard’s skillset.

Better yet, she’s enthusiastic about the prospect of playing in Atlanta.

“For [Atlanta] to be so close is huge,” Howard said. “To go first? I don’t even have words for it right now … it’s super exciting and I’m proud of what I’ve done, proud of myself and thankful for everyone that’s been on this journey with me.”

In her senior year, Howard plowed through the gauntlet that is the SEC, with year-long averages of 20.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists on efficient, high-volume shooting (44.1 FG%, 38.3 3PT%, 80.8 FT%). It’s hard to find better preparation for the WNBA level than that. The minutia of her game is possibly even more exciting. She is careful with the ball. She likes to draw contact. And she stood out in a conference of standouts.

Of course, when the discussion involves Howard, it also has to involve defense. 

Atlanta struggled mightily on the defensive end in 2021, and its new coaching staff has not avoided that: in 2022, they envision a defensive scheme that prioritizes defenders who make smart decisions and, crucially, are well-conditioned. 

Despite carrying a significant load of the offense at Kentucky, Howard remained aware and engaged on defense, routinely making smart decisions as an on-and off-ball defender. Her offensive role on the Dream should be more restricted in Year 1, leaving energy for her to shine on defense.

Here’s Em Adler’s analysis of Howard’s defensive chops:

The wing is a truly transformational help defender, providing legitimate secondary rim protection from the weakside corner, nail help, and perfect rotations, 2.9s, and digs. She’s nearly as stout on-ball, excellent at navigating screens and the rare player who’s a natural at fighting over while rarely fouling.

Em Adler; The Next’s WNBA Draft Board v2.0

As for her fit in the locker room?

“High-character” players have been a sticking point for Atlanta this offseason, and the team identified Howard as a player who fit that mold, with Padover noting that Howard didn’t seem too concerned with the status of being the top overall pick and that she had an apparent appreciation for a lot of the league’s top players. Wright added that the team “did their homework” on both of its selections pertaining to their character.

How might Howard fit with last year’s draftee, Aari McDonald? It’s reasonable to be concerned that Howard and McDonald create a crowded backcourt and will have to compete for minutes. In all likelihood, they should complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses.

Where McDonald struggled in the midrange and general shot creation, Howard projects to have a league-ready shot (helpful, additionally, in the absence of Chennedy Carter and Courtney Williams). Where Howard may need time to adjust to a fast-paced defensive scheme and half-court playmaking, McDonald is prepared to take on distribution duties following a pass-happy 2021 season and, at times, was the sole Dream player to inject life on the defensive end.

Projected Lineup

PG: Erica Wheeler // Aari McDonald

SG: Tiffany Hayes // Kristy Wallace

SF: Rhyne Howard // Megan Walker

PF: Cheyenne Parker // Nia Coffey // Naz Hillmon

C: Monique Billings // Kia Vaughn

Also competing for the final roster spots: Khaalia Hillsman, Maya Caldwell, Jaylyn Agnew, N’dea Jones

Padover, who called this one of the deeper drafts in recent memory, also snagged Naz Hillmon with the team’s 15th overall selection. During her senior season, Hillmon averaged 21 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists in her final season at the University of Michigan, helping lead the Wolverines to a 25-7 record and advance to the Elite 8 in the NCAA Tournament.

As for her role in Atlanta? Though many second-round picks struggle to make WNBA rosters due to the breadth of talent available in the league, Hillmon will likely have good odds to make Atlanta’s roster. As one of the Big Ten’s best scorers, she excelled as a tenacious rebounder and premiere post presence, where she establishes herself early into possessions. Both of those skills should translate immediately to her minutes in the WNBA.

“We think Naz is the steal of this draft,” Wright said. “[During] her four years at Michigan, she has gotten better and better … her energy, her attitude to never be denied, Naz is a worker. She’s somebody who can purely outwork you.”

To stick around in the league in the years to come, she’ll likely have to expand her shot beyond the paint (she attempted just five 3-pointers last season) and work on her lateral quickness — she’s the same height as Howard, at 6’2 — to earn consistent minutes at the WNBA level.

The rest of the big picture

There are fresh starts; then there’s what Atlanta is doing.

Just four players remain from last year’s roster, and only two (Billings and Hayes) were around for Atlanta’s last playoff appearance in 2018. So in all likelihood, the team’s playoff drought will extend to a fourth-straight season. But the prospect of Howard in 2023 and beyond should bring optimism to a franchise that desperately needs it.

Though much of the roster is on a one-year deal, there is a sense of stability that can be found after the draft night dust has settled. If Tanisha Wright keeps her job past the All-Star Break, she will have out-performed all three of Atlanta’s coaches last season; if Howard avoids suspension for most of the season, she will have more time in the spotlight as a foundational piece than Chennedy did last year.

The selection of Howard means that the franchise can finally, for the most part, leave the past in the past. They also have a player who is talented enough to make the upcoming year interesting. Fit matters in the WNBA, but Rhyne Howard is talented enough to crack effectively every rotation in the league. 

To be clear, the odds that Howard helps the Dream win enough games to miss the 2023 lottery are pretty close to zero. But she’ll make basketball a bit more fun in Atlanta this season, and in all likelihood, that’s the perfect balance that the Dream were hoping to strike in the upcoming year.

“The ceiling is absolutely there for her to be one of those foundational pieces on a championship-level team.”

Atlanta dream general manager dan padover, on rhyne howard

Atlanta has plenty of work ahead. It lacks a foundational piece in the post. Almost the entirety of its roster is on a one-year deal and has never played alongside one another before. And after an offseason of touting cultural improvements, they are several weeks away from training camp when they can officially begin establishing one.

After years of turmoil, the Dream get to reignite the flame of optimism that comes with selecting the No. 1 pick. In short, for a team that’s “starting fresh,” Rhyne Howard is an incredible first step to take.

“We’re in a position right now where we’re rebuilding, but that does not mean that we’re not trying to go out and win basketball games,” Wright said. “We are trying our best to go out and put a product out there that the city can be proud of.”

“The most important thing now is for people to go play basketball,” Padover added.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

Atlanta Dream and Big 12 reporter, breaking news and other things.

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