November 1, 2023 

Rhyne Howard ‘comes home’ to Florida

'She's where a lot of my teammates want to be'

In most places, when you hear the name Rhyne Howard, you may think several things — 2022 WNBA Rookie of the Year, star of the Atlanta Dream, or Kentucky Wildcats legend. But not in Gainesville, Florida.

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“Around here, I’m known as RJ’s daughter, so that’s good to be somewhere where it’s not all about me,” Howard told The Next about joining Florida as an assistant coach and the Director of Player Personnel. “It was time to come home.”

Florida Head Coach Kelly Rae Finley described Howard’s mother, Rhvonja Avery, in a word: “tremendous.” Avery, then Smith, was core to Florida’s program from 1987-91, serving as team captain and the driving factor in many last-minute wins. When Howard embarked on her college search, she considered Florida but ended up across the SEC as a Kentucky Wildcat.

And although Howard is joining an opposing SEC staff, she considered returning to Lexington.

“I bleed blue always, but sometimes you just have to switch out the scenery,” Howard said. Kentucky head coach Kyra Elzy emphasized there are no hard feelings and is extremely proud of Howard.

But it came down to Florida largely because of Avery. In July, the Gators approached Howard; first reaching out to Howard’s agent, Ticha Penicheiro, who directed Florida to Avery. And with her mom’s blessing, negotiations began.

“[My mom] mentioned that Coach Kelly wanted to chat with me. And she sounded really excited about it,” Howard said.

In Gainesville, Howard joins practices, lifts, and works one-on-one with players. Howard described a special relationship with freshman Laila Reynolds, ranked No. 21 in her class.

“[Reynolds] always wants to learn, and I’ve challenged her a couple of days in practice, and she never backs down,” Howard said. “I feel like as we go along these four years, we can just continue to work and just be able to see her grow from year to year. That would be very exciting for me.”

Howard described the perks of the role as a “two-way street.” She gains leadership skills while her collegiate players experience a real-time WNBA player, on and off the court.

“It’s really nice to just have her and that wisdom … She’s where a lot of my teammates want to be. She’s someone we look up to,” senior guard Aliyah Matharu said. “We have Coach Kelly, somebody who’s going to support you, and she’s been doing this for a long time. But then you have somebody who’s actually done it. Like she’s playing right now.”

Ultimately, she illustrates what’s possible.

“I mean, she’s living right now what many of our student-athletes’ dreams are,” Rae Finley said.

Howard has emphasized to players that she’s at their disposal off the court, and they can ask her whatever questions they might have, and says that if she had a current WNBA player on her college coaching staff, it would’ve better prepared her for what to expect.

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In the last year, there has been increased conversation about the disconnect between college and league play, on and off the court, especially in the face of brutal training camp cuts. And WNBA players spending their offseason at college programs has become increasingly popular, illustrated by Howard’s own Atlanta teammate Aari McDonald last season.

In January, the NCAA permitted women’s basketball staffs to go from four to six coaches, only increasing the likelihood of WNBA players joining college staffs. And for WNBA players, it allows them to stay stateside and play with high-level resources in the offseason.

Howard spent her first offseason in Italy but told The Next in May she would not return this season, citing how different playing abroad was. But for Howard, the real draw of joining UF is to develop her leadership skills.

“I’m really look forward to being able to adjust to everybody’s different personalities better and being able to lead how people want to be led,” Howard said.

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This season, Howard led the Dream to its first playoff game since 2018, but in her upcoming third season will need to draw on leadership and experience for a longer run.

But for now, Howard is focused on bringing everything she can to Florida, especially after last season’s tough regular season and losing many key players to the portal. The Gators will have their work cut out for them in a daunting SEC, but Howard and Avery seem up for the challenge.

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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