Howard Unfazed as Accolades, Praise Come
The praise doesn’t come much higher than it did for Rhyne Howard Thursday night.
“She’s one of those players who is Candice Parker-like in her skillset and I think she’s just going to continue to get better and continue to grow,” Vanderbilt head coach Stephanie White said. “… She’s got a chance to be one of the best that’s ever played, not only at Kentucky but in the SEC.”
In case Thursday’s game between UK and Vandy in Memorial Coliseum was the first women’s basketball you’ve watched, Parker is an all-time great. So to be compared to the two-time WNBA MVP and national player of the year at Tennessee is heady stuff for the 6-foot-2 Howard, who just played her first SEC game ever.
That doesn’t mean Howard isn’t going to let that kind of thing change anything about her.
“I just say thank you,” Howard said after she scored 16 points in UK’s 77-55 victory over the Commodores. “I don’t really let things go to my head because anything could happen.”
Matthew Mitchell, her head coach, says that levelheaded approach was imparted to Howard by her mother, RJ Avery. Even as she makes basketball look a lot easier than it’s supposed to be and she emerges as one of the best freshmen in the game, Howard continues to put her head down and go to work.
“You have to have some depth to you and some support as a young person, wisdom being passed on to you,” said Mitchell, who won his 300th game as UK head coach Thursday. “Just a real strong family and real strong mom who has done a great job raising her and she’s got a great way about her, great personality, Rhyne does. Her teammates love her, coaches love her, great to be around.”
As great as she is to be around, Howard is equally challenging for opponents to try to guard. Early in the season, she probably snuck up on some people, but no longer.
“They’ve kind of hinted at guarding me a little harder as we go on and go into conference play,” Howard said. “I just wait for screens and let my teammates set me up.”
The thing is, Howard is just as likely to set her teammates up as they are to do the same for her. Take the Vandy win for example, when Howard dished out a career-high seven assists as No. 16/15 UK moved to 14-1 on the season.
“It’s definitely made our team better to add another scorer, but…her passing is something that when you do try to devote some resources to her – maybe double-team her – she’s just so big and strong and she’s just got great passing ability, great vision,” Mitchell said. “She made some nice plays that I think set us into a good rhythm tonight that we were able to get some layups early on when it was still a tight ballgame.”
Howard – now averaging 17.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.1 steals – has a game log to behold. One game she’ll go for 29 points and make seven 3-pointers. Another she’ll pull down 15 rebounds on a night when her shots aren’t falling. Heck, she’ll even throw in a seven-steal performance for fun.
Whatever it takes for her team to win is her attitude, which is what makes her so well suited to deal with the hype her production is starting to stir up.
“Great person, great family and great talent,” Mitchell said. “We’ll just keep trying to help her develop to become the player she can become.”