W.N.B.A. Draft: Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard Goes No. 1 to Dream

The Atlanta Dream, looking for a versatile player to help rebuild their roster, selected guard Rhyne Howard from the University of Kentucky as the No. 1 pick in the W.N.B.A. draft on Monday at Spring Studios in New York.

Ahead of the draft, Dream General Manager Dan Padover said the team was looking for a player who brought “fresh energy and sparks something underneath our franchise.”

There is very little Howard can’t do. She is in the top 10 of almost every statistical category at Kentucky, and has scored the second-most points in program history for women and men. Last month, Howard led Kentucky to its first Southeastern Conference tournament title since 1982 when the team handed South Carolina, the 2022 national champion, its second and final loss of the season. Howard, who is from Chattanooga, Tenn., finished her senior year averaging 20.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.

Kentucky, a No. 6 seed in the N.C.A.A. Division I women’s basketball tournament this year, lost to No. 11 Princeton in the round of 64. But Howard’s career at Kentucky has helped draw attention to the women’s basketball program at a school best known for its powerhouse men’s team.

To be able to select her, the Dream shook up the draft last week by acquiring the No. 1 pick in a trade with the Washington Mystics. In return, the Mystics will get the Dream’s No. 3 and No. 14 overall picks. The Mystics also have the right to swap first-round picks in the 2023 draft, which is expected to draw deep talent from around the country.

Atlanta finished last season 8-24, the second-worst record in the W.N.B.A., and has missed the playoffs for the past three seasons. Adding Howard to the Dream’s roster immediately bolsters their perimeter game, which should help after the team traded guard Chennedy Carter to the Los Angeles Sparks in the off-season.

“Some drafts are top-heavy; some are deep,” Padover said. “This one is probably the most deep more than anything.” He added that this year’s draft offered the best talent since 2018 or 2019.

This year, 108 college players renounced their remaining N.C.A.A. eligibility to be considered for the draft, more than double than in 2021. International players and those who are no longer eligible to play in the N.C.A.A. will also be considered. But the chances of getting a spot on a roster are slim: There 36 draft slots for the W.N.B.A.’s 12 teams, which have just 12 roster spots each. With only 144 roster spots in all, many players and fans are calling for bigger rosters and more teams, wishes the W.N.B.A. has resisted.

One reason for the increase in college-eligible draft prospects may be the pandemic. College athletes are normally eligible to play four seasons over the course of five years. After the pandemic disrupted schedules, the N.C.A.A. added a special bonus year of eligibility for any athlete who lost playing time during the 2019-20 season.

Should they not make it to the W.N.B.A. this year and still have a season of eligibility, athletes can return to their college (assuming there is still a place for them on the roster).

Julie Roe Lach, the commissioner of the Horizon League, said this year’s draft class mimics the parity seen in the 2022 N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament, which saw six double-digit-seeded teams make it to the round of 16.

“You’ve got some of the names you would expect to see, but we’re seeing more schools with players that look like strong draft prospects,” she said. “That speaks to the increase of talent we’re seeing across the country of these great women basketball players.”

The W.N.B.A. season starts May 6 with eight teams, including the reigning champion Chicago Sky, in action.

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