CHICAGO — When Rhyne Howard was in middle school, she won her junior high cross country championships. It’s a fact that her mom, Rhvonja “RJ” Avery, loves to tell anyone who will listen.
It makes Howard cringe, albeit lovingly, with a combination of embarrassment and annoyance that only a mom can evoke. So, Avery keeps it up. It’s fun to get a bit of a rise out of her low-key daughter, but Avery also tells people about the victory because it’s a good way to explain Howard.
You see, she didn’t like cross country. But she still pushed herself to be the best because Rhyne Howard doesn’t know how to be anything else.
“She hated cross country,” Avery said. “Hated it. I said, ‘You don’t have to win. Just do it for conditioning and endurance.’ But she’s a competitor and she would always come out first.”
With that same kind of determination, Howard has also made an instant impact in her first WNBA season.
In March, Howard was preparing for the NCAA Tournament, but the looming WNBA Draft was never far from the Kentucky star’s mind. Making it in the league had always been her goal. She wanted it even before she was a middle-school cross country star.
That was five months ago.
Since then, Howard has been drafted No. 1 overall, made a statement with 33 points in her fourth WNBA game, and become the first rookie with 17 points in the first quarter of a game, all while averaging 15.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.5 steals for the sixth-place Atlanta Dream.
On Sunday, she added WNBA All-Star to her ever-growing list of accomplishments. Howard finished with 13 points, five rebounds and four assists for Team Wilson in a 134-112 victory at Wintrust Arena.
And though the All-Star Game was light-hearted, Howard’s performance was indicative of her rookie season thus far.
The Dream star lined up a corner 3-pointer to start the second quarter, which received a bow-and-arrow celebration from Candace Parker on the bench. She followed it up with a one-footed runner in the lane.
Perhaps Howard’s most impressive play came with a minute left in the third quarter. She caught the ball a few steps inside the 3-point line, dribbled beyond the arc and locked eyes with her defender before rising up for a quick-release 3.
“Rhyne is a beast,” Parker said after the game. “Becky (Hammon) and I were talking about Rhyne Howard and how she’s just different. Like the way she moves, the way she pulls up. I know there’s little things maybe the fans don’t see, but us players see, like the spin she puts on the ball when she’s laying it up. She’s different.”
Howard has long been a natural and dynamic scorer. Her abilities were apparent during her four years at Kentucky, where she was a two-time All-American and SEC Player of the Year while leading the Wildcats to their first SEC championship in 40 years as a senior.
Howard’s game isn’t the only thing that made a seamless transition to the WNBA. Avery was in the stands on Sunday, just like she was at nearly every Kentucky game. She’s already made it to most of Howard’s contests with the Dream as well, despite saying in March that she would likely be cutting back once Howard was a pro.
“She’s capping,” Howard said, with a youthful smile spreading across her face. “She comes to every game. I don’t understand why she would say that.”
Howard’s WNBA success hasn’t changed much about her lifestyle. Those who followed her at Kentucky know the guard is generally shy and media appearances and interviews have never been her thing. But on Friday, as Howard walked the Orange Carpet and spoke with countless reporters, she appeared comfortable.
WNBA stardom means she can’t avoid press, so Howard is trying to embrace it.
“It’s going to have to happen so I’m just making it easier on myself,” she said.
The way Howard is playing just two months into her WNBA season — infusing life into the Dream after three straight losing seasons and holding her own alongside legends on WNBA All-Star weekend — the spotlight is only going to grow brighter.
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.