Rhyne Howard is showing off her playmaking skills in Year 3

Zack Geogheganby:Zack Geoghegan12/15/20


Photo by Hannah Phillips | UK Athletics

Rhyne Howard The Scorer dominated the women’s college basketball scene a season ago. This year, Rhyne Howard The Playmaker is trying to do the same.

Against Samford this past Sunday, the 6-foot-2 guard’s ever-improving playmaking abilities were once again put on full display. Howard finished with a season-high six assists, just one shy off her personal best of seven, which she dished out during her rookie year against Vanderbilt.

Creative playmaking and generating scoring situations for her teammates is a newly established trait of hers that surely has WNBA scouts drooling. It appears effortless, at times. Howard also recorded five assists in her prior outing against Marshall. In four games this season, the reigning SEC Player of the Year has 14 assists for an average of 3.5 per contest.

That number could theoretically be a bit higher, too.

One of the few areas that the No. 9 ranked Wildcats have struggled at this season is outside shooting, a confusing flip from last season’s squad that set program records for 3-point makes and attempts. They’re sitting on a clip of 32.1 percent, not a terrible mark, but a far cry from 36.3 percent that rained down in 2019-20. Howard has consistently set up her teammates for open looks from deep, drawing defenders with penetration before dishing it to an open corner triple. Just wait until those looks start falling.

Double-teams–or even triple teams–are nothing new to Howard at this point; it’s all she knew a season ago as the nation’s second-leading scorer. Those experiences as a sophomore have translated to her junior year but in a new area of expertise, as she patiently waits for extra defenders to close in on her while her teammates allow the play to develop. Once Howard sees something she likes, the ball comes out on time and is thrown on the numbers. Looking up the court following a defensive rebound has become a staple of her transition offense–and her teammates have wisely learned to immediately sprint up the sidelines once she whips her head down the floor.

Howard has quickly settled into her role as a playmaker, too. She was forcing the action during her first two games of the season against Kansas State and Indiana, turning the ball over nine times combined compared to just three dimes. But the last two outings have seen her dish out 11 assists to just three turnovers, making better decisions when it comes to pushing a pass that isn’t there.

According to Her Hoop Stats, Howard has an assist rate of 19.4 percent, which ranks her in the 79th percentile among all Divison I players and the second-highest figure on Kentucky behind Edwards’ 20.7 percent. However, a turnover rate of 17.4 percent is far too high, especially compared to her sophomore season figure, which was an impressively low 9.6 percent. The developmental progress is coming with some minor growing pains, but they’re going to be well worth the wait.

If her shots aren’t falling–and she’s actually shooting just 38.5 percent from the floor, sixth-best among Kentucky players with at least 90 minutes played–Howard doesn’t feel added pressure to score for her team.

“Well, I know if I am having an off game, or if I am not shooting as well as I would like,” Howard said after the most recent win over Samford. “Then I’m going to try to find whoever has the hot hand, or I am going to try to create for others and make sure that they’re able to knock down the wide-open shots that they’re getting. I just like to be active in other aspects rather than just scoring because we obviously have a lot of people who can score.”

When you look across the roster, Howard is clearly right about the obvious amount of gifted scorers.

During her first year in Lexington back in 2018-19, playing alongside senior guards Maci Morris and Taylor Murray, Howard showcased a similar role to what she does now as a junior, but on a lower scale: command the ball, just play through the offense. We’ve actually known for two years now that Howard has this playmaking skillset set aside, there just weren’t nearly as many opportunities for her to show it off again as a sophomore.

Howard was the leading scorer on last year’s team more often than not, no matter the opponent. She had 30 points against Samford last December, 29 on the road against Cal a couple of weeks later, and 28 against a top 5 South Carolina team the game after that. There weren’t that many opportunities Kentucky could afford for her to take a night off.

In my opinion, the main reason we haven’t seen Howard explode for 37 or 43 points yet this season is she has those Morris and Murray type pieces nearby once again. The talent around her has received a massive bump across the board. There are five former five-star high school prospects that currently surround Howard (Chasity Patterson, Olivia Owens, Robyn Benton, Treasure Hunt, and Dre’Una Edwards) with another one–Jazmine Massengill–hopefully on the way.

Somewhere in the 14-18 points per game range might be a more realistic average for Howard this year, but she’ll still contend for National Player of the Year because of what she’ll do outside of that number. Her average of 2.4 assists last year should at least double by the time her junior year comes to a close and the turnovers hopefully sliced in half. What’s scary to consider is she hasn’t even had her “statement” scoring game just yet. A season-high 22 points in a nail-biting win over top 15 ranked Indiana was about as close as we’ve seen, but it’s nothing compared to the flamethrower of points she sprayed as a sophomore when she unloaded at least 20 points in 16 out of the 17 final games.

That game–or games–will come eventually, and it’ll be when we least suspect it. Once Howard gets on a roll where she hits two or three shots in a row, don’t take your eyes off of her. That combined with her passing capabilities makes her a future No. 1 WNBA Draft pick for a reason. But when Howard’s setting up her teammates the way she has been, your eyes should have never left her in the first place.

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