Rhyne Howard’s hot start, Las Vegas Aces new offense

This week on Above the Break, we’re digging into Rhyne Howard‘s hot start, the Las Vegas Aces new offense, Jessica Shephard’s breakout and more.

Welcome back to Above The Break. The 2022 WNBA season is a week old and while there are some trends emerging, things still feel really in flux. Not every player is back from their overseas commitments. Teams we thought would be bad look good. Teams we thought would be good look bad.

It’s too early to draw any sweeping conclusions about the league, but we do have some observations about what’s happened during the first week of the season.

Rhyne Howard already looks like a star

Rhyne Howard was the consensus No. 1 pick in the draft throughout the draft process. So far, she’s showing why.

Through two games, Howard is averaging 18.5 points per game with 5.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.5 blocks while shooting 40.9 percent from 3.

Per Synergy, Howard is scoring 1.214 points per possession on spot ups this year, good for the 85th percentile. She’s shooting 39.1 percent overall on jump shots.

A big thing that’s working in Howard’s favor right now is her confidence. Look at the shot above. She brings the ball up. She picks her spot. She crosses her defender up to create space. She fires the 3. This is one of those plays where Howard knows what she wants to do and then, because she’s an incredible talent, she does it.

The big concern from people heading into the draft was Howard’s motor. Having watched a good bit of her in college, I didn’t necessarily see that issue. I think it’s more a combination of two things: the way she looked effortless on the floor because of how easy things seem to come to her and the fact that she played with subpar talent (compared to other SEC schools) and was often asked to do too much.

Because, like…watch this play and tell me there’s an effort issue:

Howard has been a menace on both ends and is a huge reason why the Dream look much better than expected. Her defensive intensity has been especially fascinating to watch, mainly because when I think of Kentucky Howard, I think of her shouldering the offensive load for the Wildcats. Now, she has more of a chance to show out on the other end of the floor.

The limitations of the Las Vegas Aces new offense

The Aces have a new head coach. We probably don’t need to rehash the differences that were expected out of this team under Becky Hammon, because all you have to go is get on Twitter during an Aces game and see all the tweets that are like “OMG THE ACES ARE TAKING THREES” and you’ll understand how things changed.

After scoring 106 points in the opening win against the Mercury, there was universal acclaim about this new system. Vegas shot 11-for-21 from deep in that victory. Two nights later, the team shot 11-for-34 from 3 in a win over Seattle.

READ MORE: Michaela Onyenwere talks NYC basketball and getting girls in the game

And then in a loss to Washington, the team was 6-for-17 from 3. It was a decent percentage at 35.3, but the volume wasn’t there like it had been in the first two games.

This potential limitation with this Vegas team on offense is that while the new coaching staff wants them to shoot 3s, the personnel for this team is still very much the personnel from the Bill Laimbeer era. You can shoot more, but where are those shots coming from?

In the loss to Washington, the team displayed a problem that’s had in the past: it’s long-range shooting was highly concentrated within a couple of players. Kelsey Plum and Theresa Plaisance were the only players to make a 3 in the game.

That could be a problem. Jackie Young is a career 29.3 percent shooter from 3. Chelsea Gray had shot 38.5 percent from deep in her career, but even in Los Angeles, she wasn’t taking enough. In her final year as a Spark, her 3-point attempt rate of .214 was pretty far down in the rankings. In fact, of players that Basketball Reference categorizes as guards, only nine players had a lower 3-point-rate than Gray — and one of those was Jackie Young.

Dearica Hamby playing as the stretch-4 has provided some nice spacing, but Hamby’s shooting fell off a cliff in 2021, going from 47.4 percent from deep the year before down to 25.0 percent. She’s hitting just a quarter of her 3s this year too. How long will Vegas be able to make use of her spacing?

If the path to making this offense work is that Plaisance has to fire away from deep during her 20 minutes off the bench each night, then … Vegas is going to sometimes run into some issues. Getting Riquna Williams back will help, but what would help more would be if either Hamby can rediscover her shooting form or if Gray can be a little more willing to fire some 3s off.

I was already planning to write about Jessica Shepard when I sent this tweet out:

But the amount of people who responded with Shepard’s name was good confirmatiojn of that decision.

The Lynx are 0-3. The team is plagued by depth issues and at some point needs to address the fact that they don’t have a reliable point guard on the roster.

There was a been a bright spot though and that’s Shepard.

Drafted in the second round in 2019, Shepard played six games as a rookie before tearing her ACL. She didn’t play in 2020, then averaged 10.5 minutes per game last year.

But with Napheesa Collier pregant and Damiris Dantas not available, the short-handed Lynx had to elevate Shepard into a larger role this year. She’s responded in a big way.

Shepard is averaging 11.7 points per game on 43.8 percent shooting, plus is adding 11.3 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game. When you don’t have a reliable one, you have to find someone else to be the playmaker, and the Lynx are getting that from an unexpected place. It’s not that Shepard is out there running the break and initiating the offense, but she’s consistently making smart passes and has dropped her turnover rate by a wide margin from where it was last season, down from 26.1 percent to 16.8 percent.

In terms of her own scoring, Shepard has suddenly become very, very tough to defend:

This play starts as a pick-and-pop with Shepard and Rachel Banham, but Fever forward NaLyssa Smith does a good job sticking with Shepard to prevent her from getting an easy shot off.

But no worries — she just puts it on the ground. Dribbles into the paint. Spins around Smith. Gets the layup. As someone who watched a ton of NaLyssa Smith in college, seeing Shepard able to do that is a big surprise.

Will she continue to play this key role? We’ll see. Her being healthy now is a huge factor, but we’re also watching someone who is performing way above what she’s ever done in the WNBA, so I’m not quite ready to say that this current showing from Shepard is a sign of what’s to come. Her shooting has improved so much from last year that I worry it isn’t sustainable, though her rebounding rate is pretty in-line with where it was last year and her usage rate is actually lower than it was during her brief run back in 2019.

WNBA odds and ends

Some other quick observations:

  • The very young Fever team is fun! Not good, but fun.
  • The Liberty have some things to figure out. The team’s first game was a win over the Sun in which everything went right. Their second game was a blowout loss to the Sky. The team needs to figure out its backup ball-handler issues and might need to stagger Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney more. Turnovers remain an issue just like last year.
  • There were a lot of questions about how Nneka Ogwumike and Liz Cambage would fit together. There are still questions on the Cambage end, but Nneka is averaging 16.3 points on 54.3 percent shooting with 10.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 0.7 blocks per game.
  • The Mystics are 3-0. That includes a win with Elena Delle Donne sitting out, which was probably my biggest concern with this team: could they survive when EDD misses time. So far, they’re 1-0 without her. Small sample, but the rest of the talent on the team stepped up.

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