Wiedmer: Bradley Central grad Rhyne Howard just might become the face of the WNBA

AP photo by James Crisp / Former Bradley Central High School standout Rhyne Howard is introduced during the University of Kentucky's season tipoff event, Big Blue Madness, on Oct. 15 in Lexington. Howard is projected to be one of the first players selected in Monday night's WNBA draft in New York.

It would be hard to find a greater collection of accomplishments from which to become the overall No. 1 pick in Monday night's Women's National Basketball Association draft than those achieved by former Bradley Central High School and University of Kentucky star Rhyne Howard.

A three-time All-American and 2,000-point scorer at UK, Howard was also the MVP of the 18-under USA squad that won gold before she ever played a college game. She was the unanimous national freshman of the year. She was a Wooden Award finalist, as well as the Gatorade girls' basketball player of the year in Tennessee her senior year of high school.

But while most experts predict the Atlanta Dream will make her the overall No. 1 pick when the draft gets underway in New York City at 7 p.m. on ESPN, the one honor she didn't get during high school - a spot in the girls' McDonald's All-American Game in 2018 - might be the biggest reason she's accomplished all she has.

"They definitely messed that one up," said Matthew Mitchell, the former UK coach who signed Howard and coached her for two years before retiring for medical reasons. "I know it upset her at the time, but it ended up being a net positive. Rhyne really used that for motivation to get better."

Added her uncle, Mark Smith, the former Brainerd High standout: "Being snubbed for the McDonald's game lit a fire under her. She was determined to prove they were wrong."

That fire was hard to find in the recruiting process, Mitchell said.

"Rhyne was so quiet," he recalled Sunday. "She just didn't say much. I kept telling people, 'There's no way we're getting this kid.'"

However, her mother, Rhvonja "RJ" Avery, saw something special in Mitchell and what he could do for her daughter.

"There was a family atmosphere at Kentucky," said RJ, who played collegiately at Florida. "He opened up his house to his players. There was a transparency to the program. I could feel his love for the Lord."

photo AP photo by Wade Payne / Kentucky's Rhyne Howard works for a shot while guarded by Tennessee's Brooklynn Miles on Jan. 16 in Knoxville. Howard was a three-time AP All-America first-team selection for the Wildcats.

Almost immediately, Howard blossomed at UK. The Wildcats instantly improved. Howard's profile grew, even if she remained a quiet leader under both Mitchell and former Tennessee star Kyra Elzy, the UK assistant who succeeded Mitchell as head coach.

How much does Elzy believe Howard deserves to be taken first in the draft by the Dream?

At the end of Howard's career after an NCAA tournament first-round loss to Princeton, Elzy said this about her star player: "Whoever is smart enough to draft her, they are going to have a talent and she is going to make people better. She's competitive. Her basketball IQ is unbelievable. But it's her versatility at the next level. She's a 6-2 guard with a great frame. She can play multiple positions, and I think in time she will be the face of the WNBA."

Before that early exit from the NCAA tourney, the Just Women's Sports website ran a story showing just how early that basketball IQ was on display.

According to the article, Howard's rec league in Cleveland, Tennessee, had a policy that if a player scored a certain number of points, that player had to sit for the rest of the game. Always aware of how many she'd scored in a certain game, when she got within one or two of the mark, she'd start getting her teammates more involved so she could keep playing.

"That's something you can't teach," Avery told the writer. "That's instinct."

But Howard's instincts and talents go far beyond the basketball court. An accomplished artist whose favorite subject is SpongeBob SquarePants, "Rhyne sometimes takes art supplies with her on road trips," Avery said of her daughter.

She's also made a quilt that features many of her UK teammates, coaches and friends, and she's learned to play the keyboard without lessons.

"She's always been a loner type," Avery said. "She'll draw, paint, sew, listen to music. That's one reason why I think I might rather Rhyne go to some place like Washington (in the draft) than Atlanta, because they have veterans in Washington to mentor her. She'll be expected to provide leadership right away in Atlanta."

Then again, there's also the sentiment sure to run wild in both Cleveland and Chattanooga: What better place could Howard play than nearby Atlanta?

"For me," Smith said, "having Rhyne play for the Dream would be a dream come true."

Not that Howard wasn't a dream come true in Lexington, Kentucky, for those beyond the fans of the women's team.

"Whenever the women's team was playing and the men's team was in town, Coach (John) Calipari and the men would come watch the women play," said Evan Crane, a member of UK's media relations staff. "Whenever somebody asked Cal who's the best player on campus, he'd always say 'Rhyne Howard.'"

As Mitchell was showing his children around Disney World on Sunday, he remembered the time Howard flew to Venice, Italy, prior to her freshman year at UK after winning the 18U gold medal in Mexico.

"She's dead tired," he said. "Been on a plane all night. We told her just to go back to Cleveland and get some rest before school started. But she wanted to play. And what she did that day on no sleep was mind-blowing. I knew then that we had something special, and every day after that she got a little more special than I thought she could be."

On the occasion of her saying goodbye to the Big Blue Nation through a social media post, Howard wrote, in part: "Thank you, BBN, for helping this somewhat reserved kid from Cleveland, Tennessee, turn into the face of Kentucky basketball."

And quite possibly, beginning with Monday's draft, the future face of the WNBA.

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.