LEXINGTON, Ky. — It's easy to see Rhyne Howard now, when she is one of the — if not the — most singularly talented college basketball players in the country and think that the confident nature, the swagger she carries herself with is natural.
And you could be right.
But there was a time when Kentucky's standout sophomore guard would barely speak. The on-court confidence she has always seemed to play with hasn't always translated off the court. After spending her eighth-grade year on the varsity for East Hamilton's high school team, Howard transferred to Bradley Central. That freshman season, she was so quiet that she would answer questions during radio interviews with head nods. While sitting at the dinner table with the family of classmate and teammate Halle Hughes, Howard would speak so softly that her words would have to be repeated at times.
"We inherited a young lady that was painfully quiet," Richie Hughes, Halle's father, recalled last week.
They also inherited a young lady who needed to learn. About friendships. About family.
Rhyne's mom, Rhvonja "RJ" Avery, was working multiple jobs to help provide for her daughter, so there were a lot of times after practice when Howard would go to the Hughes's home after practice. Sometimes she would stay the night and sometimes not, but what those visits helped Rhyne do was grow in an environment unfamiliar to her.
She lovingly referred to them as "her white family," quickly developing a bond with Richie and wife Stephanie. Halle was a year older than Howard and Halle's younger sister Kaleigh a year younger, and the three would refer to themselves as the "Hughard sisters." Howard still has a wristband with that combined name scribbled on it, along with the numbers 1, 11 and 23 (Halle, a junior on the Lee University women's basketball team this season, wore 1 and Kaleigh 11 at Bradley).
"They taught me about friendships and growing as a family," Howard said. "I learned about other people and how nice people can be when they don't have to be."
If Bradley Central was the straw that stirred Howard's drink, the Hughes family was the ice inside the glass, helping give it the right temperature for consumption. As for the shell she needed help coming out of, it was the Hughes and the Bearettes' coaching staff, led by Jason Reuter, who helped in that process.
"Relationships change with kids over time, and I definitely think that she grew up right in front of our eyes slowly, day by day, year by year, and that's why I think you're seeing such success at this level," Reuter, who still compares Howard to Magic Johnson and communicates with her often, said last week.
It's not in Howard's nature to take over games. At 6-foot-2, she doesn't have a designated position on the basketball court and would rather defer to her teammates than take 20 shots per game. That comfort level developed through those four years in high school allowed her to showcase that part of her game, as she had 23.4 points per game as a sophomore for the Wildcats in 2019-20, her best average in varsity competition.
She currently ranks 27th all-time in Kentucky women's basketball history in scoring with 1,152 points — it took her only 53 games to reach 1,000, the second-fastest player to reach that level in Wildcats history — and eighth in 3-pointers made with 152, doing so in only 59 games. Her career scoring average of 19.6 points per game ranks second only to Valerie Still's 23.2.
It wasn't until late in her high school career — after she felt she was snubbed for the McDonald's All American Game — that she developed a desire to dominate games as opposed to picking her spots. In the nine games after the announcement of All Americans that didn't include her, Howard averaged 29.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 6.4 steals and 4.6 assists while making 64% of her shots. She scored 41, 38 and 39 points in the first three games after the snub.
"I was really upset about that," Howard said. "I feel like I had got overlooked and passed by, so I just showed that I can do these things that the athletes they chose can do. I can go score if I need to, but to not be chosen kind of hurt because I always wanted to be a part of that game growing up, so I just went out there and was like, 'You don't think I can play with them, so I'll show you I can.'"
That doesn't bother her anymore.
"Those games are mainly politics," said Howard, the Southeastern Conference and national freshman of the year in 2019 and the SEC player of the year this season. "When you get to college, nobody cares if you're a McDonald's All American. Nobody is looking at you and saying, 'Oh, did you play in the McDonald's All American Game?' When I got to college, I realized that it was a much bigger stage and that I can just come in, work and play hard."
Bigger things are still to come for Howard, who has also succeeded on the international level while representing the United States. She still has two seasons of college basketball remaining, and the latest one — which was halted prematurely due to the coronavirus pandemic — ended with a 22-8 record for the Wildcats, who were ranked 16th in the last Associated Press poll of this season and advanced to the SEC tournament semifinals as the league's No. 3 seed.
This season is over, unfortunately, without the chance to play in the NCAA tournament and try to improve on last year's run to the second round. But when the 2020-21 schedule begins, Howard can count on support — on and off the court.
The Hughes family occasionally attends Kentucky games. So does the Reuter family. Rhyne, her mom RJ and the Hughes sometimes celebrate holidays together.
Collectively, the small village brought Howard out of her shell and helped develop her into the player she's becoming.
"We are family. We talk constantly," Hughes said. "We talk with the (Kentucky) coaches, we talk with RJ, and we just want Rhyne to be everything that God has called her to be, and that is a great woman of God who excels on the court but has an opportunity to have an impact off the court.
"We're proud of her development as a person more than we are as an athlete."