Ever since Rhyne Howard suited up in a basketball uniform as a second grader, Keisha Hunt saw a special quality in a young guard from eastern Tennessee.
She saw a combination of talent, drive and personality that wasn’t matched by most teammates and competitors. Many years later, those values stand true and carried her through a star-studded career at Kentucky and have led Howard to a career-defining opportunity once Monday’s WNBA draft begins.
Howard has the makings of a No. 1 draft selection, which the Atlanta Dream hold after a Wednesday trade with the Washington Mystics. That has been her goal each time the 6-foot-2 scoring machine picked up a basketball.
“This has been a dream for Rhyne for quite some time,” Hunt told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “She’s tremendously talented but has a lot of drive in her. She’s a good kid who is really funny and will make you laugh.”
Ahead of the draft, a rebuilding Dream organization has had its eyes set on Howard. Dream general manager Dan Padover assumed his role in October and has deeply scouted Howard and other prospects who are expected to be among the first five or six selections in Monday’s draft.
The process is rigorous and brings an enjoyable challenge for the Dream brain trust, led by Padover, head coach Tanisha Wright and other creative basketball minds inside the organization’s war room. Atlanta looked at Howard’s play, which the film speaks for itself, and did a dive into the guard’s character by conducting a series of interviews with the player and those who know her best.
“She's an elite, unpredictable scorer. She has so many different ways to score, and you can never relax."
When Atlanta made its blockbuster, trajectory-defining trade, it already knew whom it would select. The Dream will have a bit of a boring start to Monday’s festivities because the franchise sees its No. 1 selection as a “foundational piece” for the future.
The Dream traded the No. 3 and No. 14 picks to Washington, along with the rights to swap the 2023 selection (acquired in the blockbuster trade involving Chennedy Carter and Erica Wheeler) with the Los Angeles Sparks.
Atlanta also has a top selection at No. 15.
A person with knowledge of the situation told the AJC the Dream have a list of top targets, and Howard sits atop. Atlanta also has interest in Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith (who played under former Dream coach Nicki Collen in college), the person said.
Howard, should she hear her name called first, will be chosen under the bright New York lights. She’s one of 12 prospects scheduled to attend Monday’s draft.
“Our hope is this person comes in with fresh energy and sparks something underneath our franchise,” Padover said. “We need that right now and also (someone who) embraces the city of Atlanta.”
Atlanta will make the No. 1 selection for the first time since the 2009 draft, when it selected longtime franchise star Angel McCoughtry from Louisville.
“We took a long, hard look at this draft and future drafts. We wanted to make sure we put ourselves in a good position for right now and also the future,” Padover said. “No. 1 gives us the best chance of obtaining one of those key pieces. We had an opportunity to do so, and we went ahead and went for it.”
Howard starred through four seasons at Kentucky. She became a scoring threat who forced her SEC foes to focus a lot of attention on Howard’s scoring ability and how she could easily distribute to her teammates. In her senior season, Howard averaged 20.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. She led the Wildcats to an SEC Tournament championship over South Carolina, the top-ranked team and eventual national champion.
She scored 30 or more points twice in SEC play, with a 30-point showing against Georgia on Jan. 6 and 32 points against Auburn on Feb. 27.
“She’s an elite, unpredictable scorer,” said Georgia center Jenna Staiti, a fellow first-team All-SEC selection who is expected to be chosen in the later rounds Monday. “She has so many different ways to score, and you can never relax.”
Padover sees a high ceiling with Howard. He observed that she had a lot of offensive responsibility at Kentucky and answered that call with a lot of strong statistical showings. He’s interested and intrigued to see how Howard plays with other professional-level talent around her.
Atlanta has the weapons to surround Howard, including second-year guard Aari McDonald, veteran Tiffany Hayes and forward Monique Billings.
For those inside Howard’s circle, including Hunt, the potential of Howard heading to Atlanta with the No. 1 selection wouldn’t surprise them. They’ve seen this type of player since Howard played as a kid.
“The best is yet to come for her. She really is the total package,” Hunt said. “She will be a special one.”
Local talents ready for draft
Along with the Dream’s strategy on Monday night, local college talents hope to hear their names called Monday night. They await selection and will report to a team’s training camp in hopes of making a final 12-deep roster.
Georgia Tech’s Lorela Cubaj has been long-regarded as a late first-round pick, largely due to her standout performance in the Yellow Jackets’ 2021 NCAA Tournament run to the Sweet 16. Staiti is expected to receive a call in the second or third round. Teammate Que Morrison should either be a third-round pick or signed in free agency.
Staiti told the AJC that she signed with agent Boris Lelchitski of Sports International Group. Morrison’s mother, Tonja Morrison, said her daughter signed with Eric Wiesel of Wiesel Sports.
“This is where your hard work and sacrifices show up,” Staiti said. “I spent six years in college basketball to get to this point. I’m forever grateful for whoever gives me the opportunity to let me come and show my talent.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com