Dream’s Rhyne Howard on early success: ‘No reason to be surprised’

Dream guard Rhyne Howard, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, has had a solid start to her WNBA career. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Dream guard Rhyne Howard, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, has had a solid start to her WNBA career. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

One-hundred-and-eighty-five miles separate the University of Kentucky, the place Rhyne Howard called home for four seasons, and Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, where the guard suited up in her new Atlanta Dream uniform with the plan of wreaking havoc on the road. A full busload of Kentucky faithful fans, coaches and players filled the arena’s lower bowl to watch their beloved star Sunday.

They weren’t disappointed.

Howard might as well have played in Memorial Coliseum again, because she dropped a stat line that put her back in the Kentucky blue. She had 33 points for the Dream in an 85-79 win against the Indiana Fever. The victory horn blared and the WNBA’s No. 1 overall pick didn’t have to wait long to feel at home yet again.

ExploreRhyne Howard scores 33 points to help Dream beat Fever 85-79

Howard walked toward her fan section, led by her former head coach Kyra Elzy. Howard held Elzy’s child in her arms and listened to echoing chants.

“RHY-NE HOW-ARD,” those in blue and white yelled.

“What time is it?” a fan asked.

“RHYNE TIME,” the large group responded in unison.

Howard felt at home in that moment. Each day, since making her WNBA debut with 16 points in a May 6 win at Dallas, has expanded her footprint and elevated her status into a rookie star. Her 33 points on an opposing floor further reiterated the reason Atlanta traded with Washington to select Howard first overall. She immediately received the keys to a lead role for the Dream and has given a glimmer of light to the franchise that saw itself in the dark shadows of a rebuild. Now, early on, the Dream (3-1) find themselves in contention where three-fourths of the league can earn a playoff spot.

Most of all, Howard has her teammates, coaches and those across the league in awe.

“She's playing the same exact way she normally plays. She is never hurried and knows where she's able to get shots. The offense we run opens up the floor a bit for her."

- Dream coach Tanisha Wright, on No. 1 pick Rhyne Howard

Howard’s point total powered Atlanta to victory Sunday, but each basket allowed the rookie to etch her name into the record books. Seventeen of her points came in the first quarter, and she had all but one of Atlanta’s points early in the contest. She’s one of six players to score 30-or-more points in their first four games, joining Candace Parker and Sabrina Ionescu. Howard became the second player to score 17 points in a quarter, behind Shoni Schimmel’s 20 points in 2014. She’s the first rookie to reach the milestone in a first quarter in the league’s 26-year history.

“I didn’t even know she had 33,” Atlanta Dream coach Tanisha Wright said, who has led the franchise to its first 3-1 start since 2017. “We knew in getting Rhyne, she’s someone who can shoot the ball.”

On Monday, Howard was named the WNBA’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week. She is the first rookie to win the award in the first week of their career since Tamika Catchings in 2002. She is also the first Dream rookie to earn the award.

Howard thrives on comfort. She’s the player who had the star role in college, and many around the league don’t see her scoring production in the WNBA as a surprise. In some ways, it might be easier with Atlanta than it was as a Wildcat to be an offensive cornerstone. After a win over Los Angeles last week, the rookie joked that she hadn’t seen as much open space before at any point.

“I'm super comfortable. (The Dream) got me for a reason. I have to come out, make an impact and help us get a team win. I'm not surprised, and I feel great. There's no reason to be surprised."

- No. 1 pick Rhyne Howard

Atlanta operates a Howard-centric offense with intricacies that force an opposing defense to get numerous looks. The offense implements pin-downs and flare screens that allow for a good look at shots for a floor general, like second-year guard Aari McDonald, to get in a rhythm of finding Howard.

From the moment training camp started, Wright said Atlanta would have a lot of open offensive sets. Through four games, on more occasions than not, that has meant getting Howard open and finding her in a sweet spot. Atlanta didn’t hesitate to see Howard as the leader of the franchise and doesn’t care about the rookie label. An organization that combined for 23 wins over the past three seasons needed an ignitor to its vision of success, after all.

“She’s playing the same exact way she normally plays,” Wright said. “She is never hurried and knows where she’s able to get shots. The offense we run opens up the floor a bit for her.”

Howard has not exhibited any semblance of fear from the first moment she displayed “Dream” across her uniform. She’s become a beloved figure in a locker room that wants to pride itself on a strong culture. She carries a quieter personality, but feels comfortable to let out a laugh or joke with her teammates.

“I’m super comfortable. (The Dream) got me for a reason,” Howard said. “I have to come out, make an impact and help us get a team win. I’m not surprised, and I feel great. There’s no reason to be surprised.”

Howard’s early run of success has come with some highlight-making shots. Her 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter in the win over the Sparks had Nia Coffey and Brittney Sykes looking at each other to say “Wow.” Indiana coach Marianne Stanley said Howard presents a “deadly combination” with her size at 6-foot-2, shooting touch and ability to manufacture free throws. She had 17 attempts in Sunday’s win over the Fever.

“She has a purpose and role on this team, and she’s fulfilling that,” Coffey said. “We can rely on her in that (scoring) aspect all of the time, and that makes for a great feeling. She’s special, and she’s stepped in to show that.”

Howard became Atlanta’s first overall selection since the addition of Angel McCoughtry in 2009, who emerged into a star for the Dream. Howard is pursuing a similar trajectory. She’s off to the strongest start for a No. 1 selection since Ionescu (2020) or would-be MVP A’ja Wilson (2018).

Howard, through four games, has averaged 20.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The scoring average is fourth best in the league, 3.2 points behind Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas.

“You clearly see the talent and skill to be good at this level. She’s shown that, so I don’t know if anybody is really surprised,” Sparks head coach and general manager Derek Fisher said. “Atlanta, in trading up to get the first pick, saw something in her. I think what Atlanta is building is good for the league.

“It’s important to have someone who can be the face of the team, and somebody they recognize when you mention the Dream. She has all of the skills.”

After visiting her horde of traveling fans, Howard walked off the court and realized something. Her 33-point performance probably won’t be a one-time occasion. She has embraced the role of WNBA stardom, and it could continue to take the league by storm.

“This is fun,” Howard said. “Let’s do it again.”