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Rhyne Howard leading talented group of WNBA rookies 2 weeks into season

·8 min read
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A bus full of Kentucky Wildcat fans made the three-hour trip to Indianapolis to watch the most decorated player in program history last weekend. No. 1 overall pick Rhyne Howard delivered with a 33-point showing, the latest entry in a blistering start for the Atlanta Dream rookie.

This year's rookie class, filled with both recent college stars and more veteran talents finally breaking into the U.S. domestic league, is a stark contrast to that of 2021. Howard's 102 points through five games is already more than the 30-game totals for all but Michaela Onyenwere and Aari McDonald last year. She and No. 2 pick NaLyssa Smith, who had a showing that afternoon for the Indiana Fever, are averaging double-digit points and 30-plus minutes two weeks into the campaign. No rookie hit those mark throughout the entire '21 season. Only one rookie even played more than 17 minutes a game.

There are 12 rookies averaging at least five points per game, whereas all of last year there were two. Six are averaging at least 3.7 rebounds per game, the high of last year's class. And another six are dishing out at least two assists per game, the watermark for 2021. It's a small sample size that will likely regress as the season moves on and as players continue to return from their overseas playoff campaigns. Already the depth is there and that's a good thing for a league about to lose its biggest, most marketed stars in the coming years.

Atlanta Dream rookie guard Rhyne Howard moves the ball up the court against the Los Angeles Sparks on May 11, 2022. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Atlanta Dream rookie guard Rhyne Howard moves the ball up the court against the Los Angeles Sparks on May 11, 2022. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sylvia Fowles is on one more ride. All signs point toward Sue Bird exiting this fall. Allie Quigley could be out. Courtney Vandersloot could be soon, too? Candace Parker seems to be heading that way. Angel McCoughtry might already be done following her buyout. And then there's Diana Taurasi, who at this rate might not retire until after these rookies do. But that point aside.

While team expansion talk trudges on and roster expansion heats up, the 15-year veteran Parker was asked what she would rather see.

“I would prefer having more roster spots than expansion,” Parker said last week, via the Chicago Sun-Times. “In terms of a league, especially in the next three years, we’re going to lose some stars. My question is, will we have enough stars to carry those other two franchises?”

Part of the answer to that is how this rookie class and ones around it continue to progress. Howard is already well on her way. She is the first rookie to be named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for her first seven days as a pro since Tamika Catchings in 2002.

Catchings went on to win Rookie of the Year while sitting atop many of the league's statistical leaderboards. She quickly became the face of the franchise (and her spot there has yet to be filled) with five Defensive player of the Year awards, a WNBA championship, Finals MVP and Hall of Fame induction. That's a high bar for Howard, but just lifting the Atlanta franchise up the way she has already is enough. Her college fans have transferred to the W, and that's exactly what the league needs.

So it matters then where these rookies are coming from and it's not just the powerhouse programs anymore. Amy Atwell (Hawaii), Jasmine Dickey (Delaware), Kierstan Bell (FGCU) and Hannah Sjerven have all played minutes. Sjerven is the fourth Summit League player to ever be in the league, and when you're a student at a small school, you root for anyone in your conference to go big time.

Then there are the more established rookies. Seven aged 26 or older have debuted already this season, second to the eight in 2001, per Across the Timeline. Rebekah Gardner, 31, has been a force for the Sky 10 years after going undrafted out of UCLA (and shoutout to undrafted Maryland star Katie Benzan, who will hopefully land somewhere after her hardship contract with the Mystics ran out). Rui Machida, 29, is a daily highlight reel and brings fans from Japan, as well as those who watched her against Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics' gold-medal game.

It's important to build the name now while it's been top of mind because this group is showing its potential to be the next group of stars to say "remember when" about, both on the court and in marketing campaigns.

Highlight of the week

No disrespect to Gabby Williams here, but listen, nothing can beat this gem. Welcome back stateside, Katie Lou Samuelson. Liz Cambage has been waiting for you.

Drama to watch

First-time WNBA head coach Vanessa Nygaard may pass it off as "people play sports with a lot of passion," "we're not the first team to have any kind of arguments or disagreements on the bench" and, finally, "there's a lot going on." But two star teammates in Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi having to be separated mid-game isn't going to slip away quietly.

If you had Sophie Cunningham standing in to break up a fight on your bingo card, kudos. Tina Charles grabbing a water bottle and side-eyeing down the bench is meme gold. Charles is still just out here looking to secure her first ring and can't seem to catch a break to do it.

There had to be something building up for Diggins-Smith to be leg-shaking mad. And that issue may or may not have been handled by the time the Mercury took the court against the Dallas Wings on Thursday. Diggins-Smith missed the game with a non-COVID illness. They travel to face the Aces again on Saturday in a prime afternoon national TV slot.

Nygaard noted that players and teams in the NBA also had the same thing happen this season, seeming to allude that it's a nonstory. Again, that may be the case. The Mercury unfortunately have to deal most intimately with the fact Brittney Griner has remained in Russian detainment for more than 90 days and counting. Also the case is that every NBA beef is covered, scrutinized, asked about and discussed. So all eyes will be on Taurasi and Diggins-Smith the same way when they take the court again and potentially talk to reporters. This is the same group that declined to talk to the media after losing Game 4 of the WNBA Finals in Chicago.

Fantasy notes of the week

Fantasy players with Kayla McBride on their team are breathing a sigh of relief with the Minnesota Lynx guard back in town. She notched 38 fantasy points (using the standard ESPN-set format) in her first game back, the highest average output of the past seven days (through Wednesday's games).

If they haven't already been scooped up in your league, Queen Egbo (Fever) and Ezi Magbegor (Storm) are trending up with more roster adds as are Isabelle Harrison (Wings) and Jessica Shepard (Lynx). Magbegor has back-to-back 35-point fantasy games and ranks second in the league in blocks (two fantasy points each) while Egbo is fourth. Harrison (25.3 FPPG) is starting while Satou Sabally works through return to play protocol after winning the Turkish League title. Shepard (25.4 FPPG) is taking advantage of extra playing time while the Lynx deal with roster changes.

In case you missed it

Game of the week

There are a few intriguing ones this weekend — like if the Atlanta Dream (4-1) can keep up with the Washington Mystics (4-1) — but circle Sunday's afternoon feature on ABC of the Sky vs. Mystics at Entertainment and Sports Arena in the District.

Chicago (2-2) came into mid-week with a second-best net rating (+12.7) that dropped to fourth (+8.7) following a rough outing against the Seattle Storm (2-3). The Sky are a well-balanced scoring team with an average of 11-13 points each from Candace Parker, Azurá Stevens, Emma Meesseman and Courtney Vandersloot. Dana Evans is coming off the bench to average 12 ppg and a 42.9% clip from beyond the arc. Meesseman will make her first trip back to Washington since winning the 2019 title and Finals MVP.

The Mystics have Elena Delle Donne back in prime form (18.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.8 apg) and Shakira Austin able to come and fill in when she's out. Not to mention, Natasha Cloud is a shooter.

Full weekend schedule

The full schedule and results can be found here.

Friday: Fever at Sun (7 p.m. ET Fever Facebook/League Pass), Mystics at Dream (7:30 p.m. ET, Twitter/LP), Sparks at Storm (10 p.m. ET, LP)

Saturday: Mercury at Aces (3 p.m. ET, ABC), Lynx at Wings (8 p.m. ET LP)

Sunday: Sun at Fever (2 p.m. ET, ESPN3/Fever Facebook), Sky at Mystics (3 p.m., ABC)