May 13, 2022
How Rhyne Howard, one week into her WNBA career, injected the Atlanta Dream with hope
Pre-draft questions about her game have been answered early during the Atlanta Dream's 2-0 start
In the minutes following the Atlanta Dream’s 77-75 win over the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, one reporter was flummoxed by rookie Rhyne Howard‘s catch-and-shoot specialization, asking where that part of her skill set came from.
Their question was appropriate: Howard was a scoring savant in college and was at the nucleus of most shot creation at Kentucky. Through the first two games of her professional career, the playbook has flipped. Her 18.5 points per game — a figure that would eclipse every player from Atlanta’s 2021 roster — are arriving on the shots that she hardly got to take in college. Howard had a laundry list of skills that made the Dream jump at the opportunity to trade up and select her first overall in the WNBA Draft.
“Sharpshooting off-ball threat” was probably not at the top of that list. Her 4.5 3-pointers per game (and the way she generated them), even among the sunniest projections, are worth a slight drop of the jaw.
“I mean, I always had the catch-and-shoot, I was just never this open before,” Howard said, unable to stifle a laugh (Cheyenne Parker and head coach Tanisha Wright, who sat to her left and are pictured below, were even less subtle in their amusement).
“So I had to [have] a pull-up, get-to-the-basket,” Howard said of her time in college. “But now that I’m open, I just let it fly.”
“She needs to pull up more,” Wright said.
“I ain’t never seen this much space, so I’ve got to take it when I see it,” Howard added.
In college, most of Howard’s offense came with her as a supernova shot-creator in the pick-and-roll. Though her efficiency was in the 99th percentile on spot-up opportunities in college, Howard’s teammates lacked the WNBA skills that could, kindly, generate those open looks. Through two games with Atlanta, she’s taking seven spot-up possessions per game, per Synergy. During her senior year, that number was at 2.3.
Questions about Howard’s motor were discussed ad nauseum in the weeks leading up to the draft, but the Dream traded up for the 6’2 wing because they believed she was on a star trajectory and could inject some instant excitement into the roster. That basis came from her on-ball ability. What confounds the public, then, is how seamlessly she fits into a roster that’s supposed to finish at the bottom of the league. But Wright and Parker — the two individuals laughing above — embody the attributes that should help her succeed for the years ahead.
Wright’s play design has been terrific through two games, and Atlanta’s kinetic energy during the league’s opening week has allowed players like Howard to open up on offense. Movement away from the ball dwindled (and then crumbled) as the losses built up last season, with a lack of effort and spacing driving the issue. That is no longer the case.
Both the Los Angeles and Dallas defenses struggled to find the skeleton key that would stop Howard, constantly collapsing on the ball while the real magic and positioning happened off of the ball. Some miscommunication can be attributed to the infancy of this season, but any success that comes from an Atlanta offense is cause for early celebration (if not some caution). Howard is smart, confident and talented enough to continue to succeed in this role. She just needs teammates that a defense respects.
Ultimately, that might not be a lot to ask.
Take a play like this below, which speaks to Atlanta’s personnel and philosophy more than any sort of genius play design. The movement is simple, but this three-player action is exactly how you ignite an offense. Parker, Howard and Erica Wheeler are three players who are capable of drawing attention and making quick decisions. That’s all that’s needed for an open, off-ball bucket.
Howard is playing with the best teammates of her life, but the Dream aren’t necessarily an All-Star team. Tiffany Hayes isn’t even back. All Howard needs to succeed is a little gravity elsewhere.
There’s a bigger takeaway at stake, here. Rebuilding teams are supposed to build rosters that complement the skillset of their young core players, but that usually takes at least a year to come into effect. The Dream, miraculously, seem to have already built that roster by the time Howard arrived. That’s even more impressive considering the 11th and 12th-place projections that saturated the offseason expectations.
Oh right, and Tiffany Hayes is coming back.
When Hayes and Howard share the floor, Atlanta can construct creative rotations aplenty. Players without significant gaps in their game — like Nia Coffey, Wheeler, Kristy Wallace and Cheyenne Parker — can fit around Howard as needed. Coffey, Parker and Naz Hillmon can continue setting the off-ball screens that have helped the team thrive early. Then, if the Dream want to go uber-fast, Aari McDonald and Monique Billings hop in. In late-game situations, Wheeler, Howard and Hayes give the team a trifecta of shot creators, presumably aided by the space of Coffey and Parker for an uber-modern offense.
Howard did the boring stuff well, setting screens and floating around in the right spots on the perimeter. But in college, her game had some spice on it. That has not changed.
Part of that excitement, too, comes from her speed. The Dream can push the pace with Howard on the floor. Almost 25 percent of the Dream’s offense has come in the fast break thus far. For as impressive as that number is, history tells us it will come down (last year’s league-leading Storm were at 14 percent). The Dream could still lead the league in fast-break offense. That’s how they’re constructed. But more emphasis will come in the half-court.
Before we wrap up, let’s discuss Howard’s defense, which was oft-praised as WNBA-ready. We’re two games in. That praise was apt. Her discipline has shown up in the stat sheet, as she’s averaged 1.5 steals and 2.5 blocks while committing just two fouls per game, and even that doesn’t do true justice to her skillset.
It’s hard to say that Howard exactly has eyes on the back of her head, but she was like a viper on the court. When the ball entered her general vicinity, she knew exactly when to strike. Her blocks? These aren’t just any blocks. Take this defensive onslaught on Chennedy Carter, who was held to the worst offensive performance of her career (0-7, 0 points).
Where can the phenom still grow, then? Mostly, on the interior.
Larger players were able to stop or scare Howard away from the hoop, usually making her go into her comfort-zone mid-range shot. That’s fine for a team that wants Howard to take her most effective shots, but for long-term success, Wright & Co. should have her step out of her comfort zone, and get her to attack the basket. Only one of her shots has come in the restricted area (which Liz Cambage promptly blocked).
Getting to the rim was never her bread-and-butter at Kentucky, though she’s always been plenty efficient once she’s arrived there because of her lengthy frame and velvet-soft touch. Will Atlanta want her to get to the rim in the year ahead? This is, after all, likely a year of experimentation no matter how pretty the 2-0 record looks early.
More than anything else, the team is empowering Howard, and treating her like the star that they wanted to build around. Through two games, she’s already seeing superstar time, appearing in 70 of the team’s first 80 minutes (that 70-minute mark took McDonald, the team’s 2021 lottery pick, seven games to reach last season).
“Her IQ, her confidence, just coming in knowing that we need her and she’s a big part of this team,” Parker said. “She’s just embracing that and taking it fully on.”
Yes, the way Rhyne Howard plays basketball is the way basketball was meant to be played: in a wildly entertaining fashion. But the Dream already knew that. It’s the way she’s tapped into the secondary parts of her game which will generate confidence.
I wrote previously that neither Los Angeles nor Dallas had a skeleton key to stop Rhyne Howard. But based on what we’ve seen from her college days, her first week and the league and her incessant motor that some believed was non-existent? That key might not exist when Howard reaches the peak of her powers.