By Erik Beck
I remember the moment when I first figured out that Natasha Howard was going to be a great player.
The moment occurred during the second home game of the year for the Minnesota Lynx in 2016, playing against the Indiana Fever, their Finals opponents from the prior season. The Lynx had traded mainstay backup forward Devereaux Peters to the Fever in exchange for Howard in the offseason and, at the time, I wasn’t sure exactly what kind of a player Howard was going to be for the Lynx.
That quickly changed on a fastbreak opportunity for the Fever. An open layup was almost assured when Howard, in what has become one of her trademarks, sped out of nowhere and blocked both the ball and the very idea of a basket being scored on the play out of this plane of existence.
“Oh,” I thought. “The Lynx have a really special player here.”
I don’t know what it was about that play that convinced me of this. After all, there are plenty of players that block shots on a regular basis. The moment could have been a one-off, a spectacular play that was relevant only for that instant. However, watching the play unfold in person, something about how she moved, how she effortlessly leaped into the air and hung suspended there for a moment before rejecting the shot made me a believer.
Howard would make similar remarkable displays of athleticism and skill routine as she played a key role off the bench in the Lynx’s run to the 2016 Finals and the team’s 2017 championship. She had several memorable performances during this time, including an impressive playoff series against the Phoenix Mercury and a game in 2016 during the Olympic break when she led the U.S. Select Team in scoring, nearly upsetting the U.S. Women’s Olympic team in their scrimmage (Howard scored 24 points on 8 of 13 shooting in just over 18 minutes of play including 18 points in the fourth quarter alone).
The qualities that made Howard great with the Lynx have made her a perfect fit with the Seattle Storm. Her addition to their starting lineup transformed both Seattle’s offense and defense this season, allowing both to rise to the league’s elite.
On offense, Howard is an ultra-efficient scorer. Her speed in the open floor is almost unmatched in the league, making her a fantastic target in transition (Remarkably, for as fast as she makes it down the floor, there always seems to be an extra gear that she never quite gets to because she is constantly keeping her head up and measuring her pace to make sure she catches the pass and finishes the play).
Howard is also a very good post-up player. She is very strong for her size, has a variety of moves and counters, and can finish through contact, bullying smaller players while using her quickness against larger players.
What might be most impressive about Howard’s offensive game, however, is her uncanny ability to make herself wide-open in pick and rolls. Howard is so good at slipping screens in pick and rolls that it almost seems like she makes opposing defenses forget that she exists for a crucial moment—one second she’s setting a screen, the next she’s catching the ball under the basket with no defender anywhere near her. This season (per Synergy), Howard scored 1.367 points per possession as the roller on pick and roll plays, the third best mark in the league (her teammate and league MVP Breanna Stewart had the highest mark at 1.419 points per possession).
On defense, Howard is adept both at guarding post players and switching out onto guards. She is an impressive shot blocker (especially for her size at 6-foot, 2-inches) and is very good at helping and recovering in defensive rotations.
Howard had a remarkable season for the Storm, averaging 13.2 points per game (24th in the league), 6.4 rebounds per game (16th in the league), 1.2 steals per game (13th in the league), and 2.0 blocks per game (2nd in the league). She shot 54.7 percent from the field (7th in the league) and set career highs in 3-point percentage (32.7 percent) and from the free throw line (79.8 percent). Howard was 9th in the league in both Win Shares and Win Shares per 48 minutes (both career highs). She also posted her lowest turnover percentage of her career at 14.9 percent. Her elite pick and roll skills and improved 3-point percentage allowed Seattle to spread the floor and pick-and-roll teams to death. At the same time, her ability to switch on defense as well as to help and recover gave the Storm great defensive versatility.
All of Howard’s skills were on full display in the Storm’s closeout game against the Washington Mystics to win the Storm’s third WNBA title. In what was easily the best performance of her WNBA career, Natasha Howard scored the first seven points for the Storm, and finished the game with 29 points on 11 of 14 shooting (2 of 2 from three-point range, 5 of 6 on free throws), 14 rebounds (including 6 offensive rebounds), 3 assists, and 2 blocks. She played absolutely stifling defense on Elena Delle Donne and was very active and made quick rotations in help defense. She made winning play after winning play on her way to clinching her second championship.
Ultimately, that is the story of Howard’s career. No matter what role she has played for the teams she has played on, she has always contributed to winning. Howard has now been to the WNBA Finals for the last four years on three different teams with her rookie season being the only year that she did not make it to the Finals in her career thus far. She is just the 3rd player in WNBA history to win a WNBA championship in consecutive years with two different teams after Kelly Schumacher (2007 Mercury, 2008 Shock) and Le’coe Willingham (2009 Mercury, 2010 Storm). She is also the first WNBA player in 8 years to win back-to-back championships.
Natasha Howard is a winner, pure and simple. I found out two years ago that Howard was going to be a great player. Now the rest of the world knows too.