A few days prior to being interviewed by SLAM, Rhyne Howard was in Italy, hitting big shot after big shot as her international club, Beretta Famila Schio, grabbed the EuroLeague crown.
“To finally be able to call myself a champion after nine long months there [means a lot],” says Howard, who’s basking in a rare break between seasons, Jordan Brand promos and her other commitments. “All that hard work that we put in. Also, being a champion meant that it was time to come home. I was extra excited about that.”
The feeling of confetti on her face is something Howard would like to experience with the Dream. “We were only one game out of the playoffs,” says the silky 2-guard, who averaged 16.2 points and 4.5 boards while knocking down a rookie-record 85 three-pointers. “This year, I expect us to be a playoff team and make a good run.”
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To better its chances of seeing the postseason for the first time since 2018, Atlanta went out and got Allisha Gray from Dallas. The team also selected Stanford star Haley Jones and South Carolina forward Laeticia Amihere in the 2023 WNBA Draft. With the revamped roster, Howard sees the Dream’s future starting to take shape. “A lot of people are still questioning if we have enough [talent] or if we have that chemistry,” she says, “but I’m definitely excited about what we have in store.”
Does anybody have some gum? The images of Howard spinning a ball on her finger at the SLAM photo shoot are dope, but something’s still a little bit off. Rhyne’s mom, Rhvonja “RJ” Avery, says it’s gum that’s missing. Rhyne loves blowing bubbles when she spins. Someone finds the Dream star a few pieces of Bubblicious. The pics immediately start poppin’. Moms just know these things.
Howard smiles when she chews gum and, really, just in general. But you’d never know it based off an on-court persona that comes off stoic and standoffish to some. Yeah, she’ll give you the Griddy on TikTok, but you won’t get much else during a game. “Say less, play more” has long been her MO.
But just because Howard doesn’t flex on ’em doesn’t mean she’s without emotion. “She comes off as very shy, but the kid is not shy,” says second-year Atlanta Dream head coach Tanisha Wright. “She has a funniness and humor about her that’s pretty cool. She’s not loud and she’s not boisterous, but she has a quiet competitiveness that comes out when it needs to come out at game time.”
When Howard hears of her coach’s comments, she adds, “I am shy. It affects how [people] talk to me. They’ll be scared to come up to me. I’m very open. I will talk to you. I won’t speak first, but I’ll have a conversation with you. I’ll joke and laugh. But I am going to feel you out a little bit just to see. But I feel like a lot of people are intimidated because I always look straight-faced.”
Most parents know if their child has what it takes to be a standout in a sport. Avery certainly knew way back in the day when Howard was hooping as a child. When the other kids were frantically doing jumping jacks in front of the inbound passer, Rhyne’s mom was watching her daughter patiently scan the scene, looking to see how she could make a steal.
“When she was 7, we were living in Virginia,” says Avery. “I was watching her play in a co-ed rec league. She’s already surveyed everything, trying to be one-up on [the opponent]. You can’t teach that.”
By the time Howard was in eighth grade and living in Cleveland, TN, she was good enough to be on the high school varsity team. The squad’s first game of the season was the same night as the eighth-grade dance. Howard skipped the formal to suit up for the game. Even though she never put on a dress, she was still named queen of the dance. She didn’t have to make a choice between playing ball and going to one in high school. Different times of the year. She went to the prom. Won queen again.
Though Purdue, South Carolina and Florida (where Avery herself once played) were attractive options for Howard’s next stop, Kentucky just felt different. Like her mom said, “It was far enough away, but not too far from home. It was a great fit for her because she could go in and make her mark.” With then-UK women’s head coach Matthew Mitchell at the helm, the locker room had a familial feel, too. Howard dug that. The Wildcats went 84-37 with three NCAA Tournament appearances while she was there.
It was at Lexington where Howard also befriended Terrence Clarke, the talented shooting guard out of Massachusetts. The two hit it off instantly. “When a men’s player comes to Kentucky,” Howard explains, “most likely they’re going to be one and done. They’re not going to have a lot of time and not going to have a lot of friends to hang out with. The first time I met [Clarke] was actually in the training room. He came in singin’ and stuff. I was like, Keep going. Go ahead. He actually ended up telling me that I was one of the first people besides his teammates to actually talk to him and be his friend.”
Howard continues, “They were having a rough season at the time. We were having a rough season. We would just go to the mall and just hang out and be there for each other and just talk and figure out what’s going on. Just being that ear, being that friend that we both needed.” She was big sis. He was lil’ bro.
Clarke tragically passed away in April 2021 in a car accident only a few months before the NBA Draft. “It really hit hard when he was gone,” says Howard. “But I keep him alive when I play. I keep him alive all the time. I talk to his mom, too, just to check in on her. I’m actually going to send her this jersey and this magazine when it comes out. Just being able to have him as a part of my life, even for just a short amount of time, was a blessing. I wish everybody could find somebody like that.”
With her rookie season over and the franchise’s future in her hands, Howard knows that her voice may need to get louder in team huddles. Jones and Amihere are certainly going to lean on her for first-year guidance. Just about everybody in the Dream’s Gateway Center Arena will be depending on No. 10 when the team is down in crunch time.
“It makes your life easier as a coach because you know you have a player that’s capable of doing things that can help you win basketball games,” Wright says about Howard, who scored 20+ on 11 occasions her rookie year. “She definitely makes my life easier. But at times, you rely on her and you forget that you’re a team. That’s always an important piece that you have to keep in mind. We can’t just wait around and watch her go to work. We have to do it as a collective.”
One area where Coach Wright will be watching Howard more is on defense. An SEC All-Defensive Team member in 2020 and top five in the WNBA in steals a year ago, Howard can be a dawg on that end, too. “I’d love to see her utilize more of her tools,” says Wright. “She’s gotta expect more from herself on that side. She’s capable of doing much more than just catching and shooting.”
Howard agrees. “[Playing] overseas showed that I can be way more active than what I have been,” she says. “For the most part, I just use my length and my IQ to get a steal or get in the passing lane. But overseas, I was actually guarding the other team’s best player and doing a pretty good job, if I have to say so myself.”
Her mother takes things a step further. “She actually set her sights on doing what Candace Parker did,” says Avery, alluding to Parker’s ridiculous ’08 rookie campaign where she won almost every conceivable award, including League MVP. “I think she could be on that path to exceed Candace Parker and Breanna Stewart. She loves all of them, but she’s so competitive that she’s going to work to compete and be better.”
This whole magazine is dedicated to what’s next in the sport, right? When this generational talent gets her defensive game to match one of the most complete offensive packages in the League, mark our words: The future looks bright for the Dream and downright nightmarish for the rest of the WNBA.
“I want to continue being that dog on the court that everyone says I am,” she says. “Continue to take accountability and have that consistency that I’ve been having. It only goes up from here.”
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Portraits by Marcus Stevens.