On Tuesday, the Storm’s Natasha Howard was named the WNBA’s Most Improved Player by the Associated Press. She’s also certainly a top contender — if not the presumptive favorite — for the league honor as well.
The title, however, may be a misnomer for the fifth-year forward out of Florida State.
And that’s no knock on her performance.
Because rather than sheer improvement, the player that Howard has proven to be in 2018 may have been inside her all along. But only now is she getting the chance to prove it.
A super-sub for a title-contending Minnesota Lynx team the past two seasons, Howard has started all but one game (the season opener) for the Storm, and has made the most of her expanded role after an offseason sign-and-trade with the Lynx brought her to Seattle.
“I knew she was in a position on a really good team behind a really good player,” said Storm head coach Dan Hughes, “and so she just hadn’t really had a chance to play extended minutes.”
In 26 minutes per game (more than double what she got off the bench in Minnesota last year), she’s posted career-bests across the board in points, rebounds, blocks, and even three-point percentage.
“I think that within our offense, her ability to cut and move is rewarded because we’re a good passing team,” Hughes said.
Her scoring touch, in particular has been bolstered by a rediscovered weapon: A three-point shot.
After taking all of 22 shots from beyond the arc in her first four years in the league, Howard went 17-for-52 (33 percent) from three in this regular season. That’s a pace reminiscent of her freshman year at Florida State, which was the last time she attempted at least 21 shots from long range.
And while certainly in part because of her increased minutes, Howard has also gotten to the free-throw line more frequently in 2018, but has also taken advantages of those extra chances. She’s shooting a career-high 80 percent from the charity stripe (83-for-104).
Both elements have helped propel her to just over 13 points per game – nearly double her previous career-high from her rookie campaign in Indiana.
Harder to quantify by the numbers, but just as important for a Seattle team that was in the top third of points allowed in the regular season, has been Howard’s presence on defense. That’s in part because of what her skill set and size means for the rest of the lineup.
“She’s been able to match up with some of the centers in the league, and allow us some flexibility with [Breanna Stewart],” Hughes said.
Though she doesn’t garner the headlines of her teammates, one of her former college coaches says that’s just not the type of player Howard is.
“The thing I love about her is her humility and willingness to be completely sold out to what the team needs,” said ex-Florida State assistant Cori Close, now head coach at UCLA.
That mindset has meant being a complementary piece on the court.
“She’s not a Batman, she’s a Robin,“ Close said. “She’s a facilitator and doesn’t need to be the focal point.”
That facilitator label is backed up by her work on the offensive glass, her 80 rebounds good enough for the fourth in the WNBA, putting her behind former teammate Sylvia Fowles, Indiana’s Natalie Achonwa, and Connecticut’s Chiney Ogwumike. Not bad company.
Howard has also used her length to force 44 steals – another career-high – which is second-best on the team to Stewart, and is in the league’s top-10.
While Hughes acknowledges that his 6-foot-2, 165-pound post player doesn’t necessarily look the part, he said, “she’s brought a physicality,” on the defensive end.
That, coupled with her quickness, has made her an effective if not overpowering presence near the rim.
“Not only is she quick from the standpoint from left to right, she’s quick off the floor,” Hughes said.
But, there was one element to her game that even her coach wasn’t necessarily expecting. With 67 blocks, Howard finished the regular season second only to Phoenix’s Brittney Griner. It took her only 14 games to match her career-high from 2016 (27).
“That one even caught me off guard,” he said.
Close suggested that her new coach may deserve some of the credit for her breakout campaign as well.
“She responds to a gentle spirit as a coach,” she said. “(Seminole coach) Sue Semrau is that way, and Natasha thrives in that environment. Dan Hughes has a gentleness about him.”
Hughes, meanwhile, said it was helpful to have Howard in the fold from the start of training camp to get her adjusted to her new team, and new role. Had she been late from competing overseas, he said, the transition may not have been as smooth.
“You could almost see week to week her getting comfortable with things,” he said, “and it meant a big difference to her ability to impact us early in the season.”
The hope now for Seattle is that Howard can provide that impact in six more wins, and stand alone in one more way. A title would make her the league’s lone player to boast back-to-back championships in 2017 and 2018.
Before the season, Howard was asked whether she saw any similarities between her former team and her new one.
“They put their shoes on the same way we put our shoes on,” she said.
Only she, however, could put on another ring the same way.