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Howard Makes Rookie Splash

Howard Makes Rookie Splash

By Tom Rietmann | May 21, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS -- Natasha Howard's mother, fearful of airplane travel, saw her daughter play only one game in four years at Florida State. Latasha Howard made it to Tallahassee for Natasha's Senior Day performance against Virginia, a 33-point and 11-rebound outing.

Now, the situation is different. The daughter displays her impressive skills much closer to home.

With Natasha blossoming as a rookie with the Indiana Fever, her mom, who lives in Toledo, Ohio, has already been on hand for a preseason game against Washington and the Fever's season opener at Chicago. Toledo to Indianapolis is less than a four-hour drive. Latasha and the family figure to see a lot of Natasha this season.

And if Indiana's first two games are any indication, the family is likely to get an eyeful.

PHOTO GALLERY: Natasha Howard's First Week »

Howard, a 6-foot-3 forward, is making an early and striking impression as a WNBA newcomer. She ranks 11th in the league with an 18.5 scoring average and 11th with an 8.0 rebounding mean. She blocked six shots in the opener, tying the league record for a rookie debut, and ranks second in the WNBA with an average of 4.0 swats per game. She is shooting .552 from the field.

Perhaps most impressive about Howard, who was the Fever's top draft pick at No. 5 overall, is the ease with which she maneuvers on the floor. She can fake and drive. She has an awesome sweeping hook shot. The slender athlete also owns a 7-foot wingspan that helps her in protecting the rim.

Sylvia Crawley, Indiana's assistant coach who works with the post players, says simply that Howard possesses innate skills.

She does some things in practice where, I know, no one taught her that, said Crawley, a former WNBA standout and college head coach. Like today, for example, she made a move and she switched hands in mid-air and shot it with her off-hand. Nobody taught her how to do that. She just has a natural feel for the game. She reads and reacts.

Crawley was head coach at Boston College during Howard's first two years at Florida State. With both schools playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Crawley's team faced a young player who was already developing a strong sense of what she could accomplish on the court. Now the coach gets a close-up look.

I've seen her, every single day, grow as a player, Crawley said. But it's more about her feeling comfortable  feeling comfortable around her teammates. It's just been interesting watching her maturation as a pro.

Howard graduated from Toledo Waite High School shortly after she was named Ohio's Ms. Basketball. One of the nation's top recruits, she chose Florida State over Xavier and Auburn. She showed up in Tallahassee as an introverted and reserved freshman but developed into a finished product both on and off the floor.

My freshman year in college, I had to get to know people before I'd start talking to anybody, Howard said. I was shy. But as the years went on, that's when I started speaking up a little more.

At Florida State, she produced a school-record 41 double-doubles. She left as the school's all-time leading rebounder and second-best scorer. She set Florida State's single-game scoring mark with 40 points as a senior in a victory over Syracuse.

However, one of the most memorable experiences for Howard was a trip that she and her teammates took to west Africa. Howard, a social science major, already suspected she would want to work with kids as a counselor or social worker after basketball. The trip to Africa, where she saw overwhelming poverty, solidified that plan.

That really opened my eyes, she said. When I went down there, it was like, 'wow.' They really had nothing. When I was down there, I decided that's what I wanted to do, give back to the community and help kids.

Fever star Tamika Catchings is a mentor for Howard both on and off the court. Giving back to the community is something Catchings has done since her arrival in Indianapolis. Howard wants to learn as much as possible about Catchings' Catch the Stars Foundation and all the good works it does.

Catchings is currently out with a back injury, which opened the door to more minutes for Howard. When the Indiana veteran returns, fans shouldn't be surprised to see a lot of her and Howard playing in the same lineup. It's an intriguing thought.

Howard already has shown she can operate in the Fever offense with center Erlana Larkins. The two combined for 38 points, 19 rebounds and four blocks in Indiana's home-opening loss in double overtime to Atlanta. Both were cutting, slashing and driving for important buckets.

I think I can play with any post player or anybody on the floor with me, Howard said. Larkins is a good reader. She knows where to find me, and I know where to pass the ball to her.

The Indiana team (0-2), which will play Washington on Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, hopes to see more of that when all of its players return to good health. Meantime, Howard said she will continue to work every day on just making myself better so I can make my team better.

Fever Coach Lin Dunn told reporters after the home opener that Howard deserves consideration as an early contender for WNBA Rookie of the Year. Few would argue that. Anybody who has witnessed Howard's considerable skill set walks away impressed.

Howard's finest skill?

Taking somebody off the dribble, she said, and using my quickness. I'm still working on my 15 (foot) jump shot, but driving is my bread and butter.

Howard admits that her sudden WNBA success, especially as a point producer, has somewhat surprised her. But she's moving forward, making all the right moves to assure it continues.

Certain people really don't expect rookies to come out and put up points like that, Howard said. Coach Dunn, she had faith in me, trusted me to do anything. So I'm going to do what I have to do for my team.

And now Howard's mother can easily make the trip to see it happen.

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