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Rhyne Howard and the Art of Off-Ball Movement

One of my favorite parts of the repetition of the regular season is the transparency of skill. Each game provides an opportunity for a player’s skill set to shine through. The lens changes based on opposition personnel, coverages, and the human error that makes basketball so variable (and endearing). No matter the lens, you look at things under a microscope for each player; What pops? Why? Is it replicable against another team?

In Wednesday night’s 91-81 win over the Indiana Fever, we saw Rhyne Howard put on one of her best all-around performances of the season, finishing with 20 points, five rebounds, four assists, five steals, and two blocks on her stat line. Yeah, it was absurd! 

She made her way to the rim more than usual, a development in recent weeks, accruing eight free throw attempts. She continues to have impressive flashes as a playmaker off the dribble. The flashes of shot creation and creation for others are budding, and Howard’s ever-improving ability to get into the paint makes that development all the more viable.

Again though, it’s the why. Rhyne Howard was the number one pick and is one of the best prospects in the league because of that upside and potential as a shot creator on the wing. But what sets her up to be that player?

Look no further than Howard’s highlight of the game and one of the premier two-way sequences of the season.

I would be lying if I said it was easy to contain myself on press row; what a freakin’ play.

While the block and the pull-up stand out, how she gets to each hits for me. Howard takes some of the best angles I’ve frankly seen on a basketball court. She doesn’t waste energy. Every corner she can cut to improve efficiency is cut without having to think it through; she gets there faster, not because she’s faster, but because she has an innate sense of where she needs/wants to be and the quickest paths to get there.

Watch how she moves off the ball here to open herself up for an open three.

Howard never stops moving, and it’s an art. She’s constantly probing for gaps, recognizing where they are, and slipping into open space. 

Howard could not take a more perfect angle here. Victoria Vivians chases her. She drags her into the paint and immediately cuts back to the slot. But, instead of a higher angle in the slot, Howard cheats back and slips more to her left. Vivians chases around the pin-down, but to the opposite side where you’d expect most shooters to arrive in the pocket. In essence, Howard uses the pin-down from Cheyenne Parker… by not using it.

It’s not likely even a decision. She just sees the court, processes it, and goes to the path of least resistance/most openness. That in and of itself is a legit skill and one that I’d consider her most essential skill.

Howard’s movement and ability to navigate screens on either end at her size are incredibly uncommon. Watch how she comes off these staggered screens, hugging them tightly, turning on the jets on the direction change when she goes upcourt.

She frees up that much more space for herself with her movement and the paths she crafts for herself.

Off-ball players with size who are trying to get the most out of their shooting gravity to get into the paint and unlock higher avenues of creation benefit significantly from not wasting movements and energy; Howard is an off-ball movement savant.

That carries over on the defensive side of the ball, where Howard has put herself in consideration for an All-Defense nod at the end of the season. Again, that overwhelming court awareness and mapping of the court (knowing who is where, when, and how that impacts the court) lends credence to high-level play and productivity.

Howard shoulder dips the first screen, a hard one from Queen Egbo that was unavoidable, then slithers around the NaLyssa Smith screen before leaping and closing out from the side. Vivians had the shot erased after making two of her first four shots and would finish 3/13 from the field (no free throws) with Howard as her primary defender.

Howard’s lateral quickness and ranginess aren’t what’s typically thought of when assessing elite athleticism, but it’s what I’d consider her outlier athletic trait. Coupled with her length and recovery speed, already one of the best closeout defenders in the league, her versatility as a defender is top-notch.

Howard and Hillmon ice the empty corner ball screen, denying middle penetration and forcing a kick out to NaLyssa Smith. Smith had caught Howard flat-footed in transition earlier this quarter and gotten to the line; not this time. Howard expertly closes to Smith’s left hand, forcing her to drive right, and Howard flips her hips before riding out the drive, forcing Smith into an awkward off-balance look, and stifling the shot altogether. Impressive stuff!

Few possess that kind of lateral fluidity, length, size, and awareness, but Howard has it all. Whether allowing her to stuff possessions as a defender or set herself off a screen, the movement Rhyne Howard displays sets her apart and opens the door for even more intriguing pathways as she burgeons as a prospect in the WNBA. Watching her development already in-season has been a joy, and I can’t wait to see what she starts bringing to the table next.

WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.