On the Atlanta Dream’s final shot of the third quarter Wednesday night, Rhyne Howard saw something she hadn’t found in quite some time: Open space.

Fellow guard Aari McDonald passed to Howard atop the key as the clock dwindled. Los Angeles Sparks defender Brittney Sykes prematurely jumped in front of the rookie, and Howard had a clean look at the basket. Her shot fell through, she smiled with a teammate while trotting backwards and sent a sold-out Gateway Center Arena into a frenzy.

“I always had the catch-and-shoot. I was never this open before,” Howard said as her teammate Cheyenne Parker laughed. “I had to let it fly. I’ve never seen this much space.”

“She needs to pull up more,” head coach Tanisha Wright said.

Howard scored a career-best (albeit through just two games) 21 points on five 3-pointers in a 77-75 win over the Sparks. Howard’s night, which coincided with the return of the former Dream star Chennedy Carter in an opposing uniform, served as a culmination of plenty of offseason work by the club to revamp the culture and begin winning ways.

The Dream is seeing it on the court immediately, despite having eight new players on the roster. Atlanta is already only five wins away from matching its total from a season ago.

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Atlanta Dream head coach Tanisha Wright talks to her players during a 77-75 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks in a WNBA basketball game on Wednesday, May 11, 2022, in College Park. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Atlanta Dream head coach Tanisha Wright talks to her players during a 77-75 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks in a WNBA basketball game on Wednesday, May 11, 2022, in College Park.    “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

caption arrowCaption
Atlanta Dream head coach Tanisha Wright talks to her players during a 77-75 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks in a WNBA basketball game on Wednesday, May 11, 2022, in College Park. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Dream (2-0) won the game with its 3-point shooting, hitting a 13-for-30 clip (41%) and had four players score in double figures. Four players hit two or more 3-pointers.

Howard had been pegged as the Dream’s choice from the moment it traded with the Washington Mystics to acquire the No. 1 selection in the WNBA draft. A few days after the draft, the Dream took Howard on a tour around Atlanta to acquaint the rookie with her new home. Not long after, the former Kentucky star is showing why the team wanted to build around such a talent.

“I take it head on. I don’t let it cause too much pressure on me,” Howard said. “At the end of the day, it’s not just about me. I take it and feed my energy into my teammates. I would run through a wall for them.”

Meanwhile, for the first time in 316 days since a tumultuous suspension and split with the Dream, Carter stepped onto Atlanta’s floor.

She entered the game for the Sparks midway through the first quarter and swatted McDonald’s shot. She appeared to add some chatter on the play too. Howard blocked a second-quarter layup attempt by Carter and answered back with words of her own.

Carter went scoreless on 0-for-7 shooting on the day the Sparks announced her rookie extension. She’d scored 12 in each of the previous two games. Her return to Georgia didn’t go as planned, and Wednesday night may have served as a changing-of-the-guard moment for the Dream.

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Atlanta Dream guard Rhyne Howard knocks Los Angeles Sparks defender Lexie Brown to the hardwood for an offensive foul during the final minute of a 77-75 victory in the home opener of a WNBA basketball game on Wednesday, May 11, 2022, in College Park. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Atlanta Dream guard Rhyne Howard knocks Los Angeles Sparks defender Lexie Brown to the hardwood for an offensive foul during the final minute of a 77-75 victory in the home opener of a WNBA basketball game on Wednesday, May 11, 2022, in College Park.    “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

caption arrowCaption
Atlanta Dream guard Rhyne Howard knocks Los Angeles Sparks defender Lexie Brown to the hardwood for an offensive foul during the final minute of a 77-75 victory in the home opener of a WNBA basketball game on Wednesday, May 11, 2022, in College Park. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Carter served a remainder-of-the-season suspension on July 4, 2021 due to “conduct detrimental to the team” after an incident at a game against the Las Vegas Aces. Carter, in the offseason, made personal changes with mentor, former Dream star and Minnesota Lynx veteran Angel McCoughtry, while also signing with Rey Jefferson for her representation. They had a collective goal of reuniting Carter with the team that drafted her, but Atlanta’s new leadership under general manager Dan Padover went in a different direction after being undecided on his decision for quite some time.

A match came with the Sparks as general manager and head coach Derek Fisher said his organization needed to make the move for salary-cap flexibility. Los Angeles took a clean slate approach when acquiring Carter, despite the issues that arose in previous seasons, and welcomed her in a rotational role.

“We try to communicate the message and follow through on the action behind those words,” Fisher told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We care about them as women, comprehensively and holistically, not the stats they produce. We didn’t treat Chennedy special, but we tried to make sure she felt welcomed and valued. We aren’t judging our decisions today on what we heard or what somebody said. We weren’t there when things happened. We’ve allowed Chennedy to show us who she is.”

For both teams, the acquisition of Carter and Howard has already reaped benefits. Atlanta’s though, showed Wednesday night.

Howard finds herself in a situation where she can be the Dream’s go-to player as a rookie, because, after all, Padover tabbed her as a “foundational piece” to the organization’s overall trajectory. She has averaged 18.5 points and 5.5 rebounds through two games.

“This is the reason why we moved up to get her. We knew this was what she’s capable of,” Wright said. “She showed that throughout her collegiate career, so it isn’t a surprise that she’s playing like this. These are the expectations that she knows for us. We’re excited that she’s doing that.

“She’s playing the right way, and that fits into the culture.”