Bradley Central grad Rhyne Howard hopes to help WNBA grow

A historic moment in women's sports occurred in May 2011, when Minnesota Lynx rookie Maya Moore became the first female athlete to sign an endorsement deal with Nike's Jordan Brand.

Eleven years later, there are now 14 WNBA players signed by the famous shoe brand inspired by NBA legend Michael Jordan. One of those is Rhyne Howard, the former Bradley Central High School star from Cleveland, Tennessee, who became the first player from the University of Kentucky to be taken No. 1 overall in the WNBA draft when she was picked by the Atlanta Dream on April 11.

It was 11 years to the day that Moore, a former Georgia high school and University of Connecticut star, was the league's top pick.

"I love being a part of the Jordan Brand family, especially as a rookie," Howard said. "I have really worked hard for this. There are a lot of deserving players out there, and I just thank God that was me."

The 6-foot-2 Howard, an All-American at Kentucky who helped the Wildcats win the Southeastern Conference tournament this spring, has not waited to take on a big role for the Dream.

Atlanta went 23-65 over the past three seasons, but Howard's play has helped provide hope for a turnaround. Although the Dream fell below .500 with Friday night's overtime road loss to the Chicago Sky, their four-game losing streak follows a surprising 7-4 start.

From blocking four shots in her WNBA debut against the Dallas Wings to crossing over five-time All-Star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith of the Phoenix Mercury to drain a 3-pointer, Howard has found her way into the spotlight. The Seattle Storm's Jewell Loyd told Howard after a recent game that "the league is in good hands."

"The experience has been great so far," said Howard, whose 33 points in a May 15 win over the Indiana Fever is her season high through 15 games. "This is everything I have dreamed of. Most of our home games have sold out so far, and people are really getting behind us.

"I want to help the Dream win championships. I am always going to stay true to my game and work to get better on the things that got me here. Winning is all that matters to me. If we take care of that, then the personal accolades will take care of themselves."

Howard leads the team in scoring at 16.3 points per game, and her per-game averages rank second in blocks (0.9) and steals (1.6) and fourth in rebounds (4.1) and assists (2.6). She was among the league's top 15 in scoring average after Friday night's games and her 2.8 3-pointers made per game were tied for second, but her impact on the Dream and the league could go beyond the court.

If Howard and other young players bring more interest to the WNBA, which last year celebrated its 25th anniversary, women's basketball will only continue to grow.

In 2016, the max income a WNBA player could make in a season was $109,000. Now the super maximum yearly salary in the league is $228,094, with the maximum $196,267 and the minimum $60,471.

It's still far off from the figures associated with the NBA, which last year celebrated its 75th anniversary.

The Sky have the largest team payroll in the WNBA at $1,072,350. The average NBA player salary is $7.3 million.

The 10 highest NBA player salaries are above $39 million. Meanwhile, the 12 teams in the WNBA this season account for $16,481,467 in total salary.

The Golden State Warriors, who this past week won their fourth NBA title in eight years, had the league's highest payroll for the 2021-22 season at $178,980,766; the Oklahoma City Thunder were last at just above $82 million.

The NBA's No. 1 draft pick in 2021 was Cade Cunningham, whose rookie deal with the Detroit Pistons is worth $45.5 million for four years. By comparison, Howard signed a three-year contract with the Dream worth $226,668 with a fourth-year team option for $91,981.

For WNBA stars, endorsement deals can provide a major bonus. When Moore signed with Jordan Brand in 2011, her deal was worth between $3 million and $4 million.

"Rhyne makes it extremely easy to be marketable with how she performs on the court," said Rheann Engelke, Howard's marketing agent. "A lot of major brands have already come directly to her. She has worked with quite a few big ones and has even more coming."

Still, Howard plans to follow in the tradition of WNBA players who spend the offseason competing in foreign leagues - at least in part because countries such as China and Russia pay much more than those top players can earn on the court in the United States. Brittney Griner made $1.5 million a season playing in Russia, while Moore made more than $600,000 a season playing in China.

The average 2022 WNBA salary is $128,369. Progress has been made as the WNBA has agreed with the players' union to raise the average salary to $130,000 and the pay for top players to more than $500,000 by 2027.

"There are endless possibilities for how much the WNBA can grow and women's basketball in general," Howard said. "The game is growing a lot, and more and more fans are coming to games and taking notice. I think a lot of things will change in the near future. Women athletes are going to be seen a lot more in the national spotlight."

In recent years, the faces of Atlanta's professional sports teams have suddenly grown younger, with Braves right fielder Ronald Acuña Jr. and Hawks point guard Trae Young known nationally and appealing to the next generation with not only what they can do in the athletic arena but how they play.

Howard could be part of that trend, with the benefits extending beyond the Dream to the WNBA and women's sports as a whole.

"Having an impact in the WNBA right away has been really fun," Howard said. "I am just trying to capitalize on every moment and not take anything for granted. I want to make an impact on this league and help it grow to all-new heights."

Contact Patrick MacCoon at Follow him on Twitter @PMacCoon.