Inside the W with Michelle Smith: A Star is Born – Rhyne Howard

Maybe it’s her natural tendencies toward introversion. Maybe it’s the busted lip that’s still healing after taking two impacts to her mouth in the last few days. But Rhyne Howard, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft just a few weeks ago, is letting her game do most of the talking.

On Sunday, she put up 33 points against the Indiana Fever in an 85-74 win, a single-game high for the league in the early days of this WNBA season, in front of a busload of friends, coaches, and former teammates from Kentucky, who made the 185-mile trip from Lexington to root her on. Howard became one of just six players in league history – including Candace Parker, Yolanda Griffith, Sabrina Ionescu, Danielle Adams, Cappie Pondexter, and Kia Nurse – who have scored at least 30 points within the first four games of their WNBA careers. And her 17-point first quarter was the most by a rookie in league history.

And now here come the accolades for the 6-foot-2 guard from Cleveland, Tennessee.

On Monday, Howard was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week, the first rookie to win the award in the first week of their WNBA career since Tamika Catchings did it in 2002. And she is the first Atlanta player to win Player of the Week honors.

“I’m just super comfortable and my team has confidence in me,” Howard said following the Indiana win on Sunday. “The coaches have told me to go play. They drafted me for a reason and I have to come out, make an impact and help the team win.”

Howard is averaging 20.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.3 assists in her first four games. She has led the team in scoring in their three wins. Atlanta, which won eight games a season ago, is 3-1 to start this year, the franchise’s best start since 2017.

“She is coming in and taking advantage of the things she does well,” said Dream coach Tanisha Wright. “She’s not overdoing it; she’s not underdoing it. She is playing exactly the same way she’s always played.”

It’s a style of play that translates very well to the professional game. Wright has seen a player who is “never rushed, or hurried,” and Howard fits nicely into Atlanta’s offense and thrives in the right moments.

“The offense we run opens up the floor a bit for her,” Wright said. Howard is not surprised that she is settling in so nicely. “There’s no reason to be surprised,” she said.

She feels good about the team chemistry. And her teammates are excited to have her there and play the role of go-to scorer.

“To know that she’s here, her purpose, and her role on this team and to know that we can rely on her, it’s a great feeling,” said Dream veteran Nia Coffey.

Coffey said that Howard’s 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter against the Sparks earlier last week, a shot caused Coffey to make eye contact with assistant coach Christie Sides and say, “Wow.”

“It’s a blessing to see her and be on her team to see it,” Coffey said. “She’s special and I’m so glad she feels comfortable stepping into that and she shows that day after day.”

Wright said she isn’t looking for Howard to put up big numbers every day. “I didn’t know she had 33 (on Sunday), but she was just doing what I know she is capable of doing,” Wright said. “Tonight it’s 33, but tomorrow it could be 15, as long as she’s providing what we need to be successful. Whether that’s a 30-point game or a 15-point game, we will be happy with that.”

Howard isn’t feeling like her team is depending too heavily on her. “It’s not just ‘Rhyne is going to do this,” Howard said. “Even in the little amount of time that we’ve had together, I’m super proud of how we’ve been playing.”

Howard said her basketball dreams have never included the big scoring days. She said she is simplifying “finding her shot and knocking it down.” But considering how few WNBA games she has under her belt, her poise and her ability to adjust and excel so quickly are impressive.

Howard’s big game Sunday came against an Indiana team that is also full of fellow rookies and high draft picks that she knows well and knows how quickly they’ve all landed in the deep end of the WNBA pool, playing significant roles for their rebuilding teams.

“It’s fun going against NaLyssa (Smith), Destanni (Henderson), and Lexie (Hull), but it’s just another game,” Howard said. “There have been adjustments in playing a different way, but I am working on being adaptable and coachable, and to make a statement on the defensive end.

“It’s never about scoring first. I’ve only dreamt about playing in the WNBA, which has come true,” Howard said.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.