Inside Rhyne Howard’s non-stop rookie year: From NCAA to WNBA to international play

In No Offseason, The Athletic follows the paths of women’s basketball players after their WNBA seasons end and their travels begin. From Turkey, Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic, Mexico and even here in the U.S., our reporters tell the stories of these players as they chase their dreams and try to shape the future of the WNBA.

SCHIO, Italy — In the summer of 2018, the Kentucky women’s basketball program embarked on a 10-day trip to Italy. The team visited Rome, Florence and Venice, ending up at Lake Como and Milan. Rhyne Howard, then an incoming freshman, joined the Wildcats toward the end of the team’s travels. Before arriving in Europe, she had led Team USA to a gold medal at the FIBA Americas U18 championship in Mexico City.

Like the rest of her new teammates, Howard took an Italian language class in the weeks leading up to the trip. She completed reading and writing assignments and learned some basic phrases: Buongiorno (Good morning). Buona notte (Good night). Come stai (How are you)?

Four years later, Howard returned to Italy, this time for her debut season as a professional athlete. The Atlanta Dream star has spent the WNBA offseason playing for Famila Wuber Schio, the top team in the country’s domestic league and one of the best clubs in the EuroLeague. She has picked up a little more of the language — mainly translations for “I’m tired” and “I’m hungry.” But, Howard says, “That’s pretty much all I say (in Italian).”

On a sunny early afternoon in mid-December, Howard sits at a wine bar and cafe in Schio, watching film with two of her coaches. This particular day, players technically had the morning off, but she still wants to prepare. Schio usually practices twice daily — a first workout often consists of weight training and shooting, and a second is for watching film and learning the next game’s scout. In between, she tries to nap.

A year ago, Howard was a senior guard, helping the Wildcats win an SEC tournament title as the Most Outstanding Player. As a result of her team’s conference success, Kentucky was a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

A little more than three weeks after her college season ended, she was in New York to hear the Dream select her with their No. 1 draft pick. Then on to WNBA training camp and a full season, where after averaging 16.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, she was named the Rookie of the Year. In September, she traveled to Las Vegas to participate in Team USA’s training camp as it prepared for the World Cup. Later that month, she was off to Italy to start her professional overseas career.

The life of a top women’s basketball player transitioning from college can change a lot — and in a hurry. Many stars competing in this season’s March Madness will soon see their lives similarly follow Howard’s whirlwind path. Former Ole Miss star Shakira Austin went from the tournament to the Washington Mystics and then off to Israel for her debut professional overseas season. Former Baylor center Queen Egbo spent her rookie WNBA season with the Indiana Fever, and then flew to join a team in Turkey. The best this season will go from the NCAA Tournament to the WNBA Draft to training camps over the course of just a few weeks. In the fall, some might then board planes to countries like Italy, Turkey, and Israel, jetting off to places familiar and unfamiliar to join an international pro team.

The grind of the women’s basketball calendar is often unrelenting. Howard says she was prepared for what this schedule would feel like physically. Though she hadn’t played two consecutive professional seasons before, she had played in two consecutive seasons (at Kentucky and then with the Dream) with little break. “It’s not something that’s new to me,” she says.

Suiting up abroad has provided her another example of how she can “adjust to whoever I’m playing with.” Entering Wednesday, she’s averaging 13.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game in EuroLeague competition and helped Schio advance to the semifinals. She’s having a generally positive experience in Italy. And yet, Howard says that she doesn’t expect to return to overseas play again.

She wants time to rest and figures she can improve her game stateside while avoiding burnout. She wants to prioritize being ready for the WNBA. Plus, Howard hopes to again have the freedom to visit Lexington whenever she wants to watch her college team in action. Maybe in future years, she’ll even get back to watching the NCAA Tournament in-person.

In Italy, Howard plays with WNBA veterans Astou Ndour-Fall, Marina Mabrey and Amanda Zahui B., who are all also veterans of playing overseas in their WNBA offseasons. Zahui B., who was traded twice this offseason and is set to debut with the Mystics this summer, routinely checks in on Howard to help her navigate the overseas experience. “Whatever my vets told me, and what some of them didn’t say, that’s what I’m trying to give to (Howard),” says Zahui B., who grew up in Sweden and was selected in the 2015 WNBA Draft.

Playing seasons without a break can cause fatigue, Zahui B. acknowledges, but “in reality, we are living our dream, and we are so blessed and fortunate to actually be saying we play in the WNBA and we play in EuroLeague. We get to do what we love year-round. Some days suck, but you create bonds you’re gonna have with people for the rest of your life.”

A lot has changed for Howard since competing in the NCAA Tournament. Her mindset, though, remains the same: She wants to win, no matter if she’s in Lexington, Atlanta or Schio.

The “No Offseason” series is part of a partnership with Google Pixel. The Athletic maintains full editorial independence. Partners have no control over or input into the reporting or editing process and do not review stories before publication.

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photo of Rhyne Howard: Adam Hagy / Getty Images)

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