WNBA Draft Profiles: Why the Mystics should pick Howard at No. 1

Editor’s Note: The Washington Mystics have the No. 1 pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft for the second time in franchise history. This opportunity gives them a good chance to get a player who may very well be an All-Star and a major part of their team identity for years to come.

We will review several players in the weeks ahead before the draft, which will be held sometime in April. Some players are expected to be high lottery picks. Others are probably not in the mix for the top spot, but you never know. Today, our first profile is on Kentucky Wildcats guard Rhyne Howard. Take it away, Lyndie!

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Kentucky guard Rhyne Howard continues to put finishing touches on her college resume, leading Kentucky (No. 7) to an upset win of the SEC Tournament, defeating the South Carolina Gamecocks (No. 1) in the Championship game on Sunday.

Howard was named the SEC Tournament MVP (the first Wildcat to do so since 1982), adding to her lengthy list of collegiate accolades, including Wooden All-American selections (2020 and 2021), a WBCA First-Team All-America selection (2021), AP First-Team All-American selections (2020 and 2021), and SEC Coach’s Player of the Year (2020-2021). Howard has been a big time shooter and scorer throughout her four years with the Wildcats, averaging 44% from the field and 38 percent from three and scoring 20 points per game. At 6’2, she has good size for a guard in the WNBA.

It’s widely believed that the top two players in the draft are Howard and forward NaLyssa Smith from Baylor. Everything about the Mystics’ offseason suggests that they will be looking for a wing rather than a post player, making Howard look like a more obvious choice.

But on the other hand, it’s possible Mike Thibault might be drafting with an eye towards the future rather than the present. Howard’s lack of improvement throughout her collegiate career is mildly puzzling. Her usage has always been high and her shooting and scoring has been consistent since her Freshman year. Because of that, it’s possible that the Mystics may look Smith’s way instead.

For the purposes of this post, however, let’s stick to why Howard may very well be Washington’s choice at No. 1.

Despite what fans and analysts say about Howard’s drive, I’m not sure that critique is well-founded. In the Wildcats’ upset win in the SEC Championship vs. South Caroline, it was teammate Dre’Una Edwards who both led the team in points and scored the go-ahead basket in the final moments. But Edwards was able to break free because Howard was the overwhelming focus of the Gamecocks’ stifling defense. Furthermore, she contributed 18 points while playing every minute of the game.

It’s also hard to judge Howard’s lack of improvement throughout college too much when there is essentially nothing she is bad at. She shoots well, she can finish around the rim in traffic, she can pass (and playmaking is arguably one area where she has improved in college), and she’s a fantastic rebounder for a guard. She made the SEC All-Defensive team in 2020 and has averaged nearly a block and 2.3 steals in her time at Kentucky. It’s hard to find any holes in her game, and her size, strength, and shooting should allow her to contribute in the WNBA more or less immediately.

Finally, the Mystics have a strong track record developing guards (ex. Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud), so it’s possible they can push her game forward in a way her college coaches could not.

A backcourt rotation with Howard, Ariel Atkins, and Natasha Cloud would absolutely smother opponents, and her ability to space the floor gives Elizabeth Williams, Myisha Hines-Allen, and Tianna Hawkins room to breathe.

Elena Delle Donne is 32 years old with a spotty history of staying healthy, though she says that she’s healthy. If the Mystics want to quickly bounce back from last year’s disappointing season and maximize the end of Delle Donne’s prime, it’s hard to imagine a better pick than Rhyne Howard.

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