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The quiet resilience of Kentucky superstar Rhyne Howard

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Even as a little girl, Rhyne Howard had a high basketball IQ.

So when the second-grader started getting steals in her rec league, but pulling the ball back out short of the fast-break layup, her family was confused.

Rhyne wasn’t. She knew exactly what she was doing.

The league had a policy that if a player scored a certain amount of points, they had to sit out the rest of the game. The idea was to keep the competition fair, but Howard learned quickly how to cheat the system.

Every time she approached the number, Howard would change the way she played. Instead of looking to score, she would set up her teammates. She still had a positive impact on the game, but she was also ensuring that she didn’t have to leave the court.

It was then that her mom, Rhvonja “RJ” Avery, knew Howard — a three-time All-American at Kentucky and a projected top pick in this year’s WNBA Draft — was special.

“That’s something you can’t teach,” Avery said. “That’s instinct.”

On and off the court, Howard never stops thinking. Her hobbies are all things that allow her to have quiet time and be alone with her own mind. She likes doing puzzles, and she loves to draw. It’s not uncommon, Avery says, for Howard to sneak away and take out her art supplies.

During the pandemic, Avery set up an art corner in her house so Howard’s creativity could run uninterruptedly wild. Sometimes she draws SpongeBob, her favorite cartoon character. Other times, she creates more serious artwork, like a piece entitled “Black Empowerment.” It depicts a Black woman with a flowing afro framing her face, and atop the black curls, a small yellow crown.

Off the court, it’s not uncommon for Howard to keep to herself.

“She’s a little bit quiet, a little bit shy,” Avery says. “Even if she says something funny, something witty, she usually does it in a whisper.”

When it comes to basketball, however, Howard does not whisper.

She never has. It’s the one thing that consistently brings the Kentucky guard out of her shell. Around the same time that she learned to work around her rec-league rules, Howard set the goal of playing in the WNBA.

And when people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, Howard did not waver.

“Sometimes people were like, ‘You’re going to have to find a real job,’ And I’d say, ‘That is a real job, and I’m going to be getting paid,’” Howard said with a laugh.

Howard’s name is on every WNBA mock draft board, and it’s usually at No. 1 or No. 2 — switching off with Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith, depending on the analyst.

So yeah, she’s going to be getting paid. But when she was telling off her doubters, the draft or where she would be selected wasn’t on Howard’s mind at all.

“The goal is just to make it,” she says, “But to be a top pick, like, wow. As a young kid, I never would have imagined it.”

Maybe she should have.

Howard was heavily sought after in high school, but at first, she wasn't interested in the recruiting process. (Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Skills aside, Howard has always been too competitive to finish anywhere but first. Avery remembers taking her kids to the doctor, and to help pass the time, she would give them a big word and see how many smaller words they could find within the letters. Howard’s brother is five years older than she is, but she would still cry if she didn’t get more words than he did.

In middle school, Howard was doing a project on New York City. She made an origami replica of the Statue of Liberty, but couldn’t get the tiny crown quite right.

“She was frustrated and I had to calm her down,” Avery said. “I told her, ‘Rhyne, how many other kids in sixth grade are making 3D statues?’

“But she’s a perfectionist. She likes to finish. She’s a competitor.”

When she turned in the project, Howard got an A.

If Howard did something, she was going to be the best. Especially when it came to basketball. If you think spelling words against someone five years older is hard, try going at them on the court. And all of their friends.

“Playing with my brother, no one took it easy on me,” Howard said. “And my mom would be like, ‘Well you asked to play with him, so you can’t get mad.’”

She still did.

“I used to try and fight him all the time,” Howard says, breaking out into a giggle that sounds like she’s right back in the moment. “I’d be like, ‘Please, you’re doing too much.”

Eventually, Howard figured out how to beat her brother. Once she learned how to shoot, Howard no longer had to try to out-muscle him. Instead, she would stay outside of the 3-point line.

“I would do a few moves and then shoot it,” she said. “And then everyone would keep passing me the ball asking me to shoot.”

By the time college recruiting came around, Howard had plenty of suitors. Schools like Tennessee and South Carolina were eager to sign her, but she didn’t want to go through the recruitment process. Howard was confident that she would go to Florida, where Avery went, and play for her mother’s former teammate, Amanda Butler.

Growing up, Howard spent plenty of days on campus, painting her nails with Butler and dreaming of the day she’d play at her mom’s alma mater.

But Avery wasn’t having it. She’d been through college basketball herself, and knew how fickle it could be. If something happened, and Butler was no longer the coach, she asked Howard, would you still want to go to Florida?

Howard said yes, but Avery was not convinced. So she persuaded her daughter to go through recruitment.

“I said, ‘In the end, if you chose Florida, that’s a great choice,” Avery said. “It will be a great choice because it’s your choice. But don’t go just because you know it.”

Avery had Howard make pros and cons lists of every school she was considering. From the obvious: coaches, campus, style of play, to the not so obvious, like what kind of shoes the team wears. Howard, for the record, is a Nike girl. And Kentucky, for the record, is a Nike school. It didn’t come down to the shoes, though.

“I could visually see what they had going on,” Howard said. “They were going through kind of a tough time when I was getting recruited and I was like, ‘Yeah, I have to go here. I have to make a name for myself and for Kentucky. I have to be able to change the program.’”

Since she committed, Howard has been making a name for herself. She’s set essentially every record you can think of, and even some you can’t. On her senior day, Howard set a program mark for the most 3-pointers in a half with six, and the most in a game with eight.

She’s second all-time on Kentucky’s scoring list, and the guard helped propel her team to an SEC Tournament title with 10-straight wins to end the season and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats earned a 6-seed and will take on Princeton on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET.

Howard’s legacy as a Kentucky great is already cemented, regardless of what happens in the tournament.

“I didn’t envision that I’d have this much of an impact,” she said. “But I’m really proud of myself, and I’m grateful to have brought some more attention to Kentucky. It’s a really good place, and there are people around me who deserve to be noticed.”

For Avery, it’s hard to envision what’s next for her daughter. Her career at Kentucky has been historic, and the WNBA is in sight. She knows Howard wants to end her time in a Wildcat uniform with a deep tournament run. But whatever happens, one thing is for sure: The basketball community knows Rhyne Howard, and it always will.

“It’s so surreal,” Avery said. “My daughter is a household name.”

Eden Laase is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She previously ran her own high school sports website in Michigan after covering college hockey and interning at Sports Illustrated. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

“You have to understand that there’s something about you that makes you special” Haley Jones on her WNBA journey.

COLLEGE PARK, GEORGIA - JUNE 23: Haley Jones #13 of the Atlanta Dream dribbles against the New York Liberty during the first half at Gateway Center Arena on June 23, 2023 in College Park, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

No one understands what Caitlin Clark and the 2024 WNBA draft class has ahead of them better than Atlanta Dream guard Haley Jones.

Jones is a product of her own vaunted draft class, selected sixth overall in 2023 upon finishing a college career at Stanford that produced a 2021 national championship. Since joining the WNBA, Jones had steady output as a rookie, playing in all 40 of the team's games in her first season.

The transition wasn't always easy. Jones had to balance finishing her Stanford degree with the early months of her first professional season, competing against seasoned veterans while closing a chapter of her life as a student.

"In college, it's a job-ish. But now it's really your life, right? And not only are you competing for yourself, but the women that you're going against, this is their lives. They have kids to provide for, families, so it's a different mindset when you come in," she tells Just Women's Sports at the 2024 Final Four in Cleveland. "They're so smart, they're so efficient. And so you'd be doing the same things, but they get there quicker."

Only one year removed from her own college career, watching the upcoming 2024 draft class maneuver the same schedule has been somewhat surreal for Jones. She says she remains close with many of the players still competing for Stanford, including incoming WNBA rookie Cameron Brink, and with the NCAA tournament now behind them she knows just how quickly their lives are going to change.

"The whirlwind that it is when your season ends, you get like three days if you're going to declare for the draft or not," she says. "Then you figure it out, boom, the draft is next Monday. So no time, it's quick. And then they're gonna [have the] draft on the 15th, training camp starts the 26th or 27th, so you have 11 days to move your life to wherever you're going, figure out the new city, get your car there, do all these different little things that come along with it."

Once players arrive in training camp, their spots in the league are anything but guaranteed. With expansion still on future horizons, this year's draft class will be competing with established veterans (including, now, Jones) for limited roster spots. It's not unheard of for even WNBA lottery picks to struggle in establishing a foothold in one of the most competitive leagues in the world.

"A lot of us get to the point of being in the W, you get there because you're hypercritical," Jones says. "That's why you've been able to be so good, your work ethic is insane. So you're watching everything that you do, you're correcting yourself, you're watching film, you're doing all these things."

"I think my biggest advice is really just like the present and understand that you're there for a reason. I think that there's impostor syndrome sometimes when you get to the league. But you have to understand that there's something about you that makes you special, to be where you are."

The rookie wall is real, Jones says, and her own hypercritical nature got the best of her at times during her first year in the WNBA. But she also feels that a player can find the balance beyond imposter syndrome and a busy schedule to get into a sense of rhythm, there's a simplicity to the life of a professional athlete that allows players to further expand their horizons.

Misconceptions about NIL opportunities continuing beyond women's college basketball careers have abounded in recent months, with current WNBA players having to correct the record. Jones is a product of the NIL era, and has only seen her professional opportunities expand since leaving Stanford. "Most of the deals I had in NIL I'm still with now," she says. "because those contracts [extended] or they just renewed now that you're in the W."

"Then you take what you were making [in college] and then you add in your W salary, so — thank you. Now I have my 401k system. I have health care, all these different things — so you kind of honestly add on when you get to the W, on top of better competition, all these different things."

Removing schoolwork from her daily schedule has also given Jones more time to pursue other projects, like her podcast "Sometimes I Hoop", in partnership with The Players' Tribune. As the WNBA continues to build its own ability to market and promote its players, Jones has relished the opportunity to not only meet players she admires through the podcast, but add to an increasingly vibrant media landscape following women's sports.

"There's a lot of men's basketball podcasts out there, a lot of player led ones," she says. "There's not a lot of women's basketball. There's some women's basketball focused pods, but not a lot of player-led ones."

"I think it's great for me to be able to give back to women’s basketball in my own way."

Jones's experience with the podcast has also given her a unique perspective on what possibly comes next for the WNBA, as the league looks to capitalize on a wave of popular young talent while still serving the players already on team rosters.

"Everybody in the league, they were All-Americans at one point in time. They were national champions, like we all have that resume," she says. "I think it's just the W expanding on their storytelling. I think doing a better job with that will do a lot, also like buying into what the players are doing." She notes the impressive personal brands that players like Clark, Brink, and Angel Reese have built on their own.

"The W has a fan base, but then each individual player has a fan base," she continues. "So by locking into those and making them not only Angel Reese fans, Caitlin Clark fans, Cam Brink fans, making them W fans as well will be big."

As Jones grows into her second year as a professional, her perspective of her own college career has also shifted with time. Winning a national championship is difficult, and Stanford's ability to come out on top in 2021 is an achievement she's appreciated even more in the years since winning the title.

"You don't really realize it until later on," she says. "As I look at it now, I realize how big of an accomplishment that that was."

"Talking to my parents, they're like hey, how many people can actually say they won one?" she continues. "How many people become college athletes? DI athletes? Win a natty? One team a year."

The ambitions for Jones in 2024 are even bigger, with the Dream looking to improve upon their fifth-place finish last season. But she also believes the key to growing the game of basketball can be found in connecting with the community, following in the footsteps of college titans like Dawn Staley at South Carolina.

"People buying into these programs because you see them in the community is huge. I feel like for the W to be continuing to do that, continue with community initiatives, all these different things that we're doing. I think that you'll get a lot bigger fan bases."

Chelsea reaches deal with Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor to succeed Emma Hayes

Sonia Bompastor. (Photo by Christian Hofer – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

Chelsea is closing in on Emma Hayes’ replacement, reportedly having reached an agreement with Sonia Bompastor to succeed their longtime coach.

According to the Telegraph, Chelsea and Olympique Lyonnais have agreed on a deal for Bompastor, who will take over Chelsea upon the conclusion of the season.

Personal terms with Bompastor had already been agreed to, but compensation between the two teams still had to be figured out in order to release the coach from her contract a year early. 

Following Bompastor will be assistant coach Camille Abily. Bompastor takes over having won two Champions League titles as a player at Lyon, and one as coach during the 2021-22 campaign. The club also has won two straight league titles under Bompastor. 

The French coach has reportedly been Chelsea’s number one target when looking to replace Hayes. Hayes will depart Chelsea at the end of the season to take the helm of the U.S. women’s national team (USWNT). 

Hayes leaves big shoes to fill. Since taking charge in 2012, she’s led the team to six WSL titles and five FA Cups. The only trophy that eludes Hayes is the Champions League – which she still has hopes to win this year. 

They face Barcelona in the semifinals of the Champions League beginning on April 20. Should they advance, they could face Bompastor and Lyon in the final. 

Christen Press’ soccer comeback ‘is coming along’

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 15: Christen Press #23 of Angel City FC waves to fans following a game between the Portland Thorns and Angel City FC at BMO Stadium on October 15, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

Angel City's Christen Press has given an update on her continued rehabilitation from an ACL tear. 

On Wednesday, Press posted pictures of her training alongside the caption, “The comeback is coming along. The only promise I'll make to you is that I'll try. And what a beautiful, giving thing it is to try.”

Earlier this week, Angel City coach Becki Tweed gave an update on Press, noting that “rehab is going well.”

“She’s progressing along,” she said in an update given on Press as well as M.A. Vignola and Gisele Thompson. “No real timelines on any of them, but they’re all progressing with their rehab and getting what they need right now.”

Press has not played since June of 2022, when she tore her ACL in a match with Angel City. Since then, she’s had four separate surgeries to repair the tear, setting back her recovery. 

A couple of weeks ago, Tweed said that Press is back training with the team “full time” while continuing to work at her rehab. 

“I have a bit of relentless optimism,” she told The Athletic in February. “I never, ever doubted that I would make it back on any of the timelines I’ve been on."

Indiana Fever to be most-televised team in WNBA this season

(Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)

The Indiana Fever will be the most-televised team in the WNBA this season, which comes as the team is expected to draft Iowa star Caitlin Clark with the No. 1 pick during the 2024 WNBA Draft.

A total of 36 of the team’s 40 games will be featured nationally – up from just one last year.

The reigning WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces will be on national television 35 times, while the runner-up New York Liberty will be featured 31 times. 

With Clark entering the league, it’s expected that a large portion of her following will join her. The NCAA tournament championship between Iowa and South Carolina was the most-watched women’s basketball game ever with 18.9 million average viewers, and it outdrew the men’s championship for the first time. 

In total, Iowa had a hand in a number of record-breaking viewerships across the NCAA tournament, including the two most-watched games prior to the championship.

The announcement comes as teams around the league have been preemptively using Clark as a way to market to fans. The Phoenix Mercury advertised their June 30 matchup against Indiana as "The GOAT vs. The Rook," while the Minnesota Lynx are set to retire Maya Moore's jersey the same night they face Indiana in August. 

Resale tickets for some Fever home games are already 50x their original price, while other teams are seeing a bump for their games when Clark comes to town.

On Wednesday, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert spoke about Clark's impact on the league as it continues to grow. She also shouted out Cameron Brink and Kamilla Cardoso in what she described as a "really strong rookie class."

"I just think [Clark's] style of play resonates with the big basketball fan, the big game fan," she said. "Because with sports you need household names, rivalries and games of consequence. Obviously March Madness had all of that, and we're hoping to replicate it."

In Indiana, Clark will team up with Aliyah Boston, with the duo hoping to help the Fever to the playoffs for the first time since 2016. In Christie Sides’ first year coaching the team last season, they finished 13-27. 

In the past, the WNBA has notoriously struggled to capitalize on the star power of big-time college players. It's often been said that the best college players "disappear" when they first get to the league.

“The WNBA, I don't think, has done a great enough job of marketing their individual stars,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said during March Madness. 

South Carolina’s Dawn Staley has echoed his sentiments, saying, "We have to bridge the gap between college and the WNBA."

There is hope that this year’s rookie class – headlined by Clark – can begin to do so. 

"With the energy and excitement already generated by what we anticipate will be a star-studded rookie class, and on the heels of a 2023 season that featured one of the greatest MVP races in WNBA history and our most-watched regular season in over two decades," commissioner Cathy Engelbert said, "the WNBA's broadcast and streaming partners are offering a huge national platform that will showcase the league's superstars, rising stars, and rivalries."

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