First-overall picks seldom play revenge games. But just three weeks into her rookie season with the Atlanta Dream, do-it-all wing Rhyne Howard had already found herself in two. In the first one, against the Washington Mystics, Howard shot a perfect 4-for-4 from three in the first quarter, putting up 15 points in that frame alone. Watching it, it was hard not to wonder the same thing I had wondered in the Dream’s five games before: What were the Mystics thinking when they won the draft lottery but traded down with Atlanta the week before the draft?
It’s not quite a rhetorical question. This was the old “need vs. best player available” quandary, and the Mystics made their choice. “At the end of the day we felt we needed a post player more for the long term,” Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said in the postgame. “But she’s an excellent shooter.” The Mystics wouldn’t make the mistake of underestimating Howard again. The second time they played, the league’s best defense keyed all the way in and held Howard scoreless in what has been her only bad game of the season so far. Last night, though, Howard celebrated a Rookie of the Month award with a 22-point, three-steal performance against the Minnesota Lynx. It was another night at the office for the rookie who’s found her way in this league remarkably fast.
We were probably due for a highly drafted rookie to come into the league and blow the doors off. Sabrina Ionescu entered the WNBA with impossible expectations, but injuries and her limited athleticism have kept her obvious skill from translating to team success just yet. Last year’s first-overall pick, Charli Collier—well, I couldn’t actually tell you anything about her. According to her Basketball-Reference page she is 6-foot-5, went to Barbers Hill High School in Mont Belvieu, Texas, and averages fewer than two points and five minutes a game with the Dallas Wings this year. There’s plenty of season left—don’t call the race now—but this year’s rookie class seems certain to make Rookie of the Year a more interesting discussion than it was last year, when the award went pretty much by default to the only rookie who cracked a starting lineup. Shakira Austin, the post player the Mystics traded down to pick at No. 3, made the transition to the pros so impressively that Thibault can’t rue the trade too much. Howard, meanwhile, might be building not just a Rookie of the Year résumé but a decent MVP case. She’s taken the Dream from clown show to punchy and respectable. By Kevin Pelton’s WAR metric, she’s second in the league, behind Breanna Stewart and just ahead of Elena Delle Donne. Always nice spreadsheet company to have.
Before the season started, there was some online chatter about whether Thibault really made the Mystics trade for positional need reasons or whether the trade could be read as a judgment of the draft’s top prospect. In a pre-draft survey conducted by The Athletic, one WNBA general manager called Howard “the overwhelming best prospect this year. I don’t think there’s anybody close to her,” and then added, “I think the question on her is her motor and her passion and her fight—that’s going to be everyone’s question mark around her.” Receiving remote psychoanalysis from anonymous GMs and Twitter scouts is the price that longtime presumptive first-overall picks must pay, really for no other reason than long-time presumptions are boring and contrarianism is fun.
In college, Howard was the big fish in a small pond; of her Kentucky teammates, maybe one stood a chance of playing in the WNBA. The questions about “passion” and “fight” clear up if you consider how tiring it can be to play on a team like that. Howard’s game, as her coach Tanisha Wright has devised it, doesn’t draw much attention to itself either. (Well, maybe on the defensive end, where Howard is already a prolific shot-blocker.) Her production comes mostly from excellent three-point shooting on high volume—she’s shooting almost 43 percent from three on about seven attempts per game. What makes the shooting so excellent is that Howard already has a quiet, intelligent way of getting good looks. It’s not just that few rookies have that sort of sense, although that is true. Very few players ever develop anything like it.
Maya Moore, if she had a much deeper bag than Howard does to this point, could dominate a game in similar ways. She thrived curling off screens, and then striking with a quick release. For all that Moore’s teammates in Minnesota had going for them, I remember feeling like a fun way to watch a Lynx game was to keep an eye only on Moore, to watch her kind of lurking around off the ball, slipping away from defenders, and always ending up in the right place at the right time. To be the type of threat that Moore was, Howard will have to diversify and expand her game inside a bit. (The three-point shooting might dip as she’s scouted better, and right now, she’s less efficient from two.) She’s shown more interest in creating her own shot in her last couple games, which is encouraging. But those “motor” concerns seem especially funny now. Rhyne Howard just never stops moving. That’s what makes her a star.