Atlanta Dream's Rhyne Howard has plenty to prove as she makes her WNBA debut

Heading into last month's WNBA draft, the top pick was still being debated. Rhyne Howard, the player the Atlanta Dream traded up to select No. 1 overall, knows she faces heavy expectations as her pro career begins. Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE via Getty Images

When Rhyne Howard draws or paints, she settles, relaxes. It's just her and the canvas or paper, the pens or the paint. No distractions. No basketball. No social media or outside noise. She situates herself in the living room of her apartment, opening the blinds to let in sunlight, and focuses solely on bringing to life whatever is in front of her.

Cartoon characters, like Lola and Bugs Bunny, are her favorite subjects to illustrate. Howard doesn't like to be told what to draw, partly why art classes were never really her thing. She has never been one to be put squarely in a singular box.

"She's just Rhyne," said former Kentucky Wildcats teammate and longtime roommate Blair Green. "I don't know how to explain her. She's just so unique in her own way."

In an era when athletes have more power than ever to showcase who they are and what matters to them, Rhyne Howard -- the artist, the person -- is relatively unknown to those outside her inner circle, in part a product of her reserved personality. That reticence lies in stark contrast to her status as a women's basketball star, where well before being picked No. 1 overall by the Atlanta Dream in last month's WNBA draft she'd been in an increasingly intense spotlight ever since bursting onto the scene as national freshman of the year in 2019.

Fans, analysts and WNBA personnel have been tantalized by Howard's pro potential almost since the day she arrived in Lexington. But her stardom has also come with a level of scrutiny that, paired with her quiet demeanor, led some to question her motor and passion for the game, even her character, in a way that Howard and those close to her feel is misguided.

"[People] kind of think I'm super mean and full of myself," Howard said over Zoom from Dream training camp last week. "Which I'm not. I care about people. And I'm always trying to put other people first."

As she embarks on her rookie WNBA campaign, which officially starts Saturday with the Dream's season opener at the Dallas Wings, the Rhyne Howard who will take the floor won't just turn heads as the potential franchise player the Dream traded up two spots to draft. Howard feels she has something to prove, positioning herself to reclaim the narrative from those who misunderstand her and to show the world who she truly is on and off the court. On her own terms.

WHEN RECRUITING HOWARD out of Bradley Central High School in Cleveland, Tennessee, then-Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell and then-associate head coach Kyra Elzy knew they were getting a gifted basketball player. But for as striking as Howard was with the ball in her hands, she was subdued in just about every other way, not saying very much or showing a lot of emotion aside from flashing her trademark grin.

"It was almost like she didn't even want to project her words," said ESPN analyst Andraya Carter, who met Howard when she coached her at a high school basketball camp. "She would just kind of say her answers to herself, and if you heard them, you were lucky."

While she wouldn't talk much on recruiting visits with Elzy and Mitchell, Howard sometimes slyly recorded them on her phone, clipping moments where they made peculiar faces or hand gestures and adding funny captions: "when your friend tells you they can't go out tonight" or "when you know you're about to tell your mom a lie." When she'd later share her creations with the Wildcats staff, they found them hilarious, even endearing, a glimpse into a humorous side few expected from her.

Though she was quiet -- "I don't know that she even talked her whole freshman year," Elzy said -- Howard was fully engaged on the court, the type of player you only had to tell things once for her to get. Between Kentucky's summer trip to Italy and preseason practices, it became clear well before she kicked off her freshman campaign that Howard would make some noise during her time in Lexington.

"It went from 'we signed a very good player' to 'this is something very special and not normal,'" Mitchell said.

Combine that all with the chip on her shoulder -- Howard, the No. 32 prospect in ESPN's HoopGurlz's Class of 2018 rankings, didn't make the cut as an McDonald's All-American her senior year of high school -- and she produced a standout collegiate debut in which she led the Wildcats in scoring (16.4 PPG) and rebounding (6.6 RPG), while also being tabbed SEC Freshman of the Year and All-SEC First Team. With a career-best 23.4 points per game and the first of back-to-back SEC Player of the Year awards, Howard's sophomore season was her true coming out party. She also impressed playing for USA Basketball, winning MVP at the 2018 FIBA Americas U18 Championship and being named to the All-Star Five at the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup.

It didn't take long for Howard to catapult to legend status in Lexington, where she finished as the program's second all-time leading scorer behind Valerie Still. Her talent, athleticism and versatility as a 6-foot-2 guard who can play and defend 1 through 4 and score from all three levels suggested a limitless upside in the WNBA.

But from her sophomore season on, she became a player with a target on her back, forced to grapple with others' expectations and preconceptions.

Much of the outside noise surrounding the latter half of her college career centered on what Howard hadn't accomplished. The Wildcats failed to advance past the second round of the NCAA tournament during Howard's tenure, including this past season when the No. 6 seed fell to 11th-seeded Princeton in the first round. Multiple times she was a finalist for national player of the year honors, as well as for the Cheryl Miller Award as the country's best small forward, but won neither. Many overlooked that she mostly single-handedly carried the Wildcats her four years in the program, where she played alongside just one All-SEC first- or second-team selection.

"A lot of people are saying that I'll be a bust or that the W will humble me and stuff like that. I'm just going to keep working hard and see what happens, believe in myself." Rhyne Howard

Some fans, even some WNBA front office personnel, doubted Howard's competitive spirit. She takes plays off. She only turns it on when the game is on the line. She's disinterested on the floor. "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," a WNBA GM anonymously told The Athletic shortly before the 2022 draft. The Washington Mystics' decision to trade away the No. 1 draft pick, to some, only fed that narrative.

"I think it's all sort of rooted in her being so quiet verbally," Mitchell said.

Lin Dunn, the Indiana Fever's interim general manager who previously coached Howard while serving in an advisory role at Kentucky, isn't concerned about Howard's motor, even as the Dream face fairly low expectations for what is widely expected to be a rebuilding year.

"She had to conserve her motor in order to play 40 minutes every game and carry a team," Dunn said prior to the draft. "She has a motor. She uses it when it's needed. She is exceptional when she's playing with better players around her. I think Rhyne is going to have a huge impact on the league."

The noise and pressure got to the point, Elzy said, that Howard felt nothing she did was good enough. Entering her senior year with a pro career around the corner, Howard played with a heaviness she'd never before exhibited.

"It was a lot of external that I was allowing to become internal, allowing it to affect me," Howard said. "I was caring about what other people thought more than putting myself first."

Elzy and Howard met after Kentucky's mid-December loss to Louisville, when Howard scored nine points on 3-for-13 shooting. Elzy -- who took over the program when Mitchell retired in 2020 -- wanted Howard to focus on having fun and playing free, and advised her staff that there'd be no more talk within the program about Howard's "end game."

"'If we don't win another game, if you don't win another award, if you don't do another thing for Kentucky women's basketball, you have done enough,'" Elzy told a crying Howard at the time. "I knew she had more, and I knew we would win and I knew she would be successful. But at that moment, she needed to be freed."

The new approach worked. Howard started smiling more again and enjoying her time on the court. "All of a sudden," Elzy said, "she went on a tear and was the Rhyne Howard that we had always known."

Howard also stepped up her leadership, wanting to assure her teammates she was all-in at Kentucky even as her WNBA days neared. Down at times to just six or seven players due to injury or disciplinary reasons, the Wildcats had lost 10 of 13 games entering mid-February, starting 2-8 in SEC play, and were projected to miss the NCAA tournament.

During a closed-door team meeting following a stretch of heartbreaking losses, Green recalled Howard asking what more she could do for the team. When the group identified that part of their issue was that they weren't having fun, Howard helped organize team-building activities, including group painting sessions, to bring them together outside of basketball. Other times, Howard was the one holding her teammates accountable if that's what was needed in that moment, Elzy said.

"That's when everything started changing for our season," Green said. "Not everyone wants to step up and be that leader when we're losing. It's no fun. But I was like, 'You have to step up, you're the person that everyone looks to, you're the person that everyone's going to listen to.' And she really did that."

The Wildcats won 10 straight games to close the regular season and win their first SEC tournament crown since 1982, upsetting the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds -- including eventual 2022 NCAA champion South Carolina -- to secure their spot in the NCAA tournament. A free-as-ever Howard took home her first championship across high school and college, as well as tournament MVP.

MITCHELL USED TO tell Howard that while she can't control what others say or think, the best way to make sure she's not misunderstood is to make sure everybody knows where she stands through her actions and how she carries herself.

"She wanted this image portrayed of herself," Elzy said. "But we were trying to tell her that you need to show people who you are; no one's going to sell you better than you."

The Rhyne Howard she's increasingly letting the outside world in on is someone who's multidimensional, who wants to be defined by much more than her basketball skill. "I feel like I'm a jack of all trades," she said after rattling off various hobbies and skill sets: Aside from painting, she makes graphics, crochets, knits, plays the piano. She frequents craft stores with Green and enjoys scrolling through Pinterest to get inspiration for new creations, including her capstone project at Kentucky: She asked people who made an impact on her in Lexington to write her short letters, which she transferred onto fabric and sewed together into a blanket.

"There's so much depth to her," Carter said. "You talk to her and the more she gives, the more you want."

Just a few weeks into her time in Atlanta, Howard has already stocked up on art supplies and has had teammates commission drawings from her. Fellow rookie Naz Hillmon, a friend before they were both drafted by the Dream, requested one of the main characters from Nickelodeon's The Fairly OddParents.

"I think it's great for kids to be like, 'Oh wait, I can be a great basketball player and be artistic,' or 'I can express myself in different ways,'" Carter said, "Rhyne, I think, is such an incredible example of that."

Howard has also taken initiative in showing her new teammates who she is. She has been "way more engaging than a lot of rookies are," Dream assistant coach Christie Sides said. When the team forms a circle during each practice, Howard runs around and is sure to dap up everyone from seasoned vet Kia Vaughn to fellow rookie Maya Caldwell not once, but twice.

"She makes a point to reach and talk to everybody on the team, all the coaching staff. She is not that person who just sticks to herself," Sides said. "That was a shocker to me, because I've watched her for a while, and that's kind of what you would maybe think. But in the setting with the team, she is touching everybody, getting to know everybody, building relationships with everybody."

On the court, her quiet confidence has shone through, too, Sides said, including in the Dream's preseason game against the Washington Mystics last week when Howard's 15 points on eight shots were second-most on the team. Sides said Howard was a little gassed after her pre-game 10-minute individual workout that day -- she's still adjusting to the demands of being a pro. But Sides knows she'll come back ready for more.

"I definitely think I will have something to prove," Howard said. "A lot of people are saying that I'll be a bust or that the W will humble me and stuff like that. I'm just going to keep working hard and see what happens, believe in myself."

She also knows better now how to not let others have control over her, to use that noise as fuel instead of the entire determination of her self-worth. Because there is so much more to Rhyne Howard -- the leader and connector, the artist and creator, the jokester and admirer of SpongeBob and other cartoons -- than could ever be encapsulated on a 50-foot by 94-foot court or in a two-hour game. Even as Howard was measured in showcasing those sides of herself to the world. Even as the world wasn't fully patient in letting her do that on her own time.

"I find that when you just let Rhyne open up and just be herself and might not push her to communicate with you, then she'll open up with you," Green said. "I just let Rhyne be Rhyne. I didn't want her to be anyone else."