Maybe Natasha Howard is right and she wasn’t ready for a starring role during her first four seasons in the WNBA.
Or maybe, WNBA All-Star guard Jewell Loyd accurately summed up Howard’s meteoric rise from a twice-traded utility player to the centerpiece of an injury-depleted Storm team when she said: “Some people just need an opportunity.”
“For whatever reasons, she didn’t play that much before she got here,” Loyd said. “But here she’s thriving. And we need that. We needed somebody to step into that role that’s she’s filling.”
The 6-foot-2, 165-pound forward, who was the No. 5 pick in the 2014 WNBA draft out of Florida State, flashed glimpses of greatness while buried on the bench during two-year stints at Indiana and Minnesota.
“Like most rookies, you’re trying to find your way, but you could see the great potential with her,” said Storm interim coach Gary Kloppenburg, who also coached Howard in Indiana as a Fever assistant during the 2015 season. “You could see that energy. She just hadn’t figured it out yet. Didn’t know how to play in the program yet.
“That came with years of experience. She got traded up to Minnesota. It’s a process with rookies. It’s such a new game. And sometimes it takes a couple of years.”
The 2016 trade to the Lynx — then the defending WNBA champion with three All-Stars in their front court — only cemented the early scouting report on Howard: a defensive specialist off the bench.
“It’s a role that I embraced because I love defense,” said Howard, who is the all-time leading rebounder at FSU and third on the school’s career list in blocks. “If you don’t play good defense, then you won’t get any playing time, so that was my way on the court.”
In effect, last year’s trade to Seattle for a second-round pick and the rights to swap 2019 first-round selections revitalized Howard’s career.
Playing with All-Stars Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and Loyd, Howard was the linchpin to a 2018 WNBA championship while posting career highs in scoring (13.2 points per game), rebounding (6.4), blocks (1.9), steals (1.2), assists (1.0) and minutes (25.6) in 33 starts.
“I’ve always had this in me, but I was just being patient and waiting for my time to come,” Howard said. “Even last year, I was just waiting for the time to come with the minutes and that starting position as well.
“Now I’m just growing and I keep building my confidence. … I’ve got some personal goals for this season, but I’ll keep them private for now.”
Last year, Howard easily won the WNBA Most Improved Player award and if Saturday’s performance in Seattle’s 77-68 season opening victory over Phoenix is any indication, then she’ll lead the Storm in scoring, rebounding, blocks and steals and likely garner her first WNBA All-Star Game selection.
“I’m ready for this moment,” Howard said after finishing with 21 points on 8-for-19 shooting, a career-high 16 rebounds, five steals and three blocks. “This is my moment. This is my time to show what everybody has been waiting for. And also for me, this is what I’ve been waiting for.”
Essentially, Howard is attempting to fill the gaping hole in the Storm rotation created when Stewart suffered an Achilles injury that will force her to miss the 2019 season.
Howard isn’t going to make any Storm fan forget about the reigning WNBA MVP, but the similarities between the two players are striking.
“Natasha is just a player that’s relentless on every play at both ends of the floor,” Kloppenburg said. “She’s flying around on defense, blocking shots, rotating and rebounding. She’ll get you running the floor. She’ll get you rolling to the basket and she’s got really good finishing moves. She’ll get you with the putback. And her shooting is improving. She’s starting to hit the open three.
“She’s one of those high-energy players that’s playing every possession hard. That’s why she’s a difficult matchup because at that spot you don’t find that many athletic, active players.”
When pressed to name a comparable player, Kloppenburg said 16-year veteran Rebekkah Brunson, a five-time All-Star and league champion who served as Howard’s mentor in Minnesota.
Howard and the Storm (1-0) play their first road game at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Target Center against a 1-0 Lynx team that returns just three players from last season.
Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles are the only players remaining from Minnesota’s 2017 WNBA championship team that included Howard.
Meanwhile, perennial All-Star Maya Moore is taking the summer off for personal reasons and Brunson is still recovering from a concussion at the end of last year and was left off the roster.
“I played with three really great players and just learned the game,” Howard said. “That’s why I say I wasn’t ready. I had to learn what they were about and in turn find out what I could do so that when I got this chance, I would be ready.”
Part of Howard’s maturation has been her offensive development, which has been stunning considering the Storm doesn’t feature her in its attack.
“Maybe we should a little more,” Kloppenburg said, smiling. “We try to isolate her at certain spots either down low to get her some space to operate. She catches up on the elbow for 1-on-1s. But she makes a lot happen herself and gets a lot of her points just by moving.”
Howard said: “I don’t need no plays. I just go with the flow. If the ball gets in my hands and I’m open, then I shoot it. I do the little things that don’t nobody really see. It’s not in the books.”
Still, perhaps the biggest difference between Howard and Stewart is their three-point prowess.
Last year, Stewart connected on 61 of 147 three-pointers while shooting a personal-best 41.5%.
Meanwhile, Howard is still developing a perimeter threat. She attempted three three-pointers during her two-year stay in Indiana that included 64 games.
By comparison, she took three threes – and made one – last Saturday.
“I always knew I had more on the offensive end,” said Howard, who shot 32.7% (17 of 52) behind the arc last year. “But for me, it starts with defense. When my defense is flowing, that’s when my offense is flowing.
“If you put those two together, then it’s unstoppable.”