Rhyne Howard picks at the tiny holes in her purposely ripped jeans, contemplating what to say next.
She’s quiet — always has been — and today is no different. Answering questions asked by a stranger she’s seen only in passing or during postgame press conferences is not her preferred setting. She would rather be surrounded by her friends or teammates or maybe playing the piano or practicing art, but she knows that her rise to superstardom comes with the cost of talking to the media.
It doesn’t matter if she’s on the court or off of it, Kentucky’s reigning National Freshman of the Year is always reserved. It wasn’t until I asked her where she sees herself in the next 10 years that she breaks character and lets out a laugh.
“On the beach,” she chuckles, as does Evan Crane, Kentucky’s Associate Public Relations Director, who quietly listens in the back of an empty room in the basement of the Joe Craft Center.
They both know that isn’t the ultimate goal, rather something that can be obtained if Rhyne’s primary goals are met first: winning an SEC Championship, an NCAA Championship, making it to the WNBA, and – most importantly – being a great teammate.
Howard is one of the best basketball players to ever come through Lexington, Kentucky – male or female. Coming out of high school, the Cleveland, Tennessee native was a five-star recruit; however, ESPN had her ranked as the No. 32 overall recruit in the class of 2018. She was snubbed from the McDonald’s All-American Game. Those rejections molded her into what she is today.
“I think when she perceived the McDonald’s game, not being picked to that,” head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “I think I did see a bit of change in her as far as a competitive desire, a competitive fire start to burn.”
That fire manifested into one of the best seasons by any women’s basketball player to wear blue and white. Her freshman season was filled with records: eight SEC Freshman of the Week honors, a conference record; All-SEC First Team; two gold medals in back-to-back summers with Team USA – including MVP honors in 2018; averages of 16.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game as a Wildcat – both team highs; and, of course, being named the consensus National Freshman of the Year.
Howard has always been a dominant player at every level of basketball she’s participated in, but no one expected her to have such a quick learning curve. Even Coach Mitchell didn’t realize how good she was until he saw her in practice months after she committed to being a Wildcat.
“I always thought she was a good player and good scorer but I just didn’t realize how good a shooter,” Mitchell said. “She just got in our practices and starting shooting at such a high level and shooting that three at a high level and then really parlayed that into early-season success. I mean she was shooting threes like they were layups. That was probably the spot that I wasn’t as aware of just by watching her play.”
Her play on the court has defined her as far as the public knows. Rhyne’s 2,511 points at Bradley Central High School rank as the third-most by any woman in the program. She won Miss Basketball in Tennessee her senior season after being named a finalist the year before. She is the only Bradley Central Lady Bearette to be named the Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year.
In her freshman season at Kentucky, Rhyne became the only player in the Matthew Mitchell era to score at least 10 points in her first 10 games and remained a basketball enigma; an unbelievable talent who didn’t seem to want to want to talk about it and never displayed unnecessary on-court antics.
UK’s Rhyne Howard with the Game winner today at home vs Arkansas!!!
— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) February 17, 2019
It’s always been about winning and doing so with her teammates alongside her.
Howard has never been one to beat her chest after a big bucket or get in the face of the opponent after a tough foul. Even when she torches defenses for 20 points, she does so nonchalantly, which is just as impressive as it is mystifying. For a notoriously animated coach like Mitchell, he’s learned through past experiences that what’s best for Rhyne is to let her be herself on the court, as long as she puts in the work outside of it.
“She’s not gonna scream and yell and jump up and down a whole lot,” Mitchell said “So [I’m] not trying to change any of that. Just trying to get her to tap into the absolute maximum potential that she has, which is substantial. I think she can be the best player in the country, provided she believes that and works that way.”
The coaching staff has focused on letting Rhyne be Rhyne. Her teammates understand that her actions speak much louder than her words. Coach Mitchell said that everyone – himself included – needs to focus on the quality of her words, rather than the quantity.
“On the court, she can be very quiet,” said sophomore Blair Green, one of Howard’s best friends. “But you can see the poise in her, so it’s very motivating. She’s kinda more through actions than words on the court. Outside the court, she can come off a little bit shy but when she gets to know you, we could talk all day…She’s been a lot more verbal in workouts so I think she’s really stepping up.”
Even if she is beginning to communicate more in practice – which will hopefully translate over into game settings – it’s her humility that her coaches and teammates build from.
“I love Rhyne for who she is,” Mitchell said.
And while who she is is a quiet, humble, reserved basketball prodigy, Rhyne’s actual words paint a different picture. She is confident in her extraordinary abilities and sets unbelievably high expectations for herself. She wants to win an NCAA Championship this season and thinks she has the team to do it.
“Leading my team to an SEC championship, National Championship if I can,” Howard said when asked about her goals for the upcoming season. “Which I think is perfectly possible, especially this year. Just helping the team out, just doing as much as I can to help them get better and help myself get better.”
Kentucky is deeply talented this season, more so than last year despite losing Maci Morris and Taylor Murray, two ‘Cats who will go down as some of the greatest to ever suit up and play in Memorial Coliseum. Rhyne is no longer a surprising freshman; she’s going to be the focal point of every team that faces her, but she has a slew of confident and intelligent players that complement her perfectly. Key veterans from last season’s lineup like KeKe McKinney, Tatyana Wyatt, and Jaida Roper bring continuity. The chemistry between two best friends, Howard and Green, is building every day.
“When we play together and make a play with each other, I can just feel that connection,” Green said. “Looking at each other, pointing at each other and we always have a big smile on our face. I just love making plays with Rhyne. I think she feels the same. She just loves getting everyone else involved. It’s not really about herself all the time and she just shows that through how she plays. She’s very unselfish but she can also go out and do anything she wants. So yeah, I love Rhyne.”
Three transfers – Chasity Patterson, Sabrina Haines, and Nae Nae Cole – all have a year of practice under their elastic waistbands and cover several different areas on the court. Freshman Emma King can shoot with the best of them. The bench offers big bodies and agile penetrators. This may be the most complete team coach Mitchell has ever had during his 12 seasons in Lexington, but none of it happens without Rhyne as the engine pushing everything forward.
Rhyne said she sometimes hears comparisons of her game to 10-time NBA All-Star Kevin Durant “’cause I’m long and can dribble and can shoot.” Without a trace of hyperbole, Vanderbilt head coach Stephanie White said Rhyne reminded her of former Tennessee superstar Candace Parker following Rhyne’s 16-point, 4-rebound, 7-assist performance in a win over the ‘Dores.
Rhyne has always been a special player, going back to her childhood in Virginia when her mom, RJ Avery, taught her everything she possibly could. A successful college basketball player herself for the Florida Gators, Avery knew her daughter was unique. Playing in co-ed recreational leagues, Rhyne possessed natural instincts that were ahead of her time by several years.
“I just noticed a lot of things that she would do as far as like not crowding around a passer out of bounds,” Avery said. “But she’s waiting to see where the pass is going so she can steal it.”
But it was Howard’s desire to play basketball at all costs that caught her mother’s attention.
“In that league, if a player scored a certain amount of points, I think maybe 12, then they would have to sit for the rest of the game,” Avery said. “And after she sat, you know, two games, she would never score on a fastbreak. She got a steal and had open shots. She wouldn’t shoot and her brother and I were like why didn’t you shoot and she was like look I just wanted to play. If I keep scoring I have to sit down…At seven years old you don’t think kids like that have that mentality of just wanting to play, they want to score and win, but she wants to win and play.”
Up until high school, Rhyne always played a grade ahead of her age group. Her mother coached her through the AAU circuit and into middle school, teaching her everything she learned in her four-year run in Gainesville during the late-1980s into the early-1990s.
“When I came through basketball, because I was tall, I was automatically the center or just a post player,” Avery said. “And once I got into college, at 6-foot-1 all I knew was post players and I was an undersized post [player] so I had to transition into a swing player or stretch four – face the basket – and it was kind of a struggle. And I knew at that point that once I had kids and they got into sports, that they were going to be developed at an early age. I knew that they would be tall, so I didn’t want them to have to play just this one position or these two positions. So now [Rhyne] is able to play five different positions.”
During Kentucky’s media day earlier in October, Rhyne even mentioned her ability to play all five positions and how she could see herself spending some time as the small-ball center in certain situations this season. She and Green have already had some runs in practice with the two of them playing the four and five, despite being 6-foot guards.
Rhyne’s mother always had an influence on her basketball career but Avery made it a point to let her daughter make her own decisions, including her college choice.
“She had always wanted to go to Florida,” Avery said. “She was like, that’s where I’m going, and so everybody was like, you’re gonna make her go to Florida, and I was like, no I’m not going to make her go anywhere, I want her to go through the recruiting process.”
And that’s exactly what Howard did. A coaching change late in the recruiting process at Florida turned things upside down. A list that once included the highly-favored Gators was now trimmed down to Purdue, South Carolina, NC State, and Kentucky. Avery initially thought Rhyne was going to choose Purdue because of its Engineering program, but something about Kentucky caught Rhyne’s eye.
“Looking at the roster [Rhyne] knew she would have a chance to earn a lot of playing time as a freshman,” Avery said. “And those were her words. Not that she would go in and start, she said she just felt like [she] would earn a lot of playing time as a freshman, still get better learning the system and the coaching staff. She just loves them. She says it’s close to home and it’s in the SEC.”
Heading into her sophomore season, the coaches love her, too. Coach Mitchell couldn’t help but brag about her personality.
“So fun-loving and funny and humorous and just makes me laugh all the time and has ever since we recruited her,” Mitchell said about his star player. “Just an incredible person to be around, cares so much for her teammates. Does not want to be the center of attention, does not want to be like hey look at me. Very, very team-oriented.”
Rhyne’s unique and unintentional take on being a superstar that is truly humbled has come with all the national recognition any high-level player would crave: Preseason All-SEC teams, Player of the Year watch lists, a top-15 ranking as the leader of this Wildcats squad. There is an impressive level of optimism surrounding the UK Hoops team that many didn’t expect this quickly given the lopsided state of the program just a few short years ago. This collection of ladies can’t be mentioned without Rhyne’s name at the center; whether she likes it or not, that’s how things are in the social media age.
Rhyne will always remain a quiet individual — that’s just how she’s wired — but when she’s finally on the beach, basking in the view of an ocean more wide-open than her step-back jumper, with a stocked trophy case of awards and honors, she’ll know she did things the right way – her way.