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Natasha Howard: The WNBA’s Lockdown Defender

ByDani Bar-Lavi|@dblfluidity| March 13, 2021
natasha-howard-wnba

Natasha Howard is one of the most dynamic, disciplined, and dangerous defenders in the WNBA. The forward/center has held down advanced defensive metrics towards the top of the league for the past few seasons. And has served as the anchor for the elite, championship level defense played by her former team, the Seattle Storm

The 2019 season brought an opportunity for Natasha Howard to show off the full extent of her ability. During which she broke out as a two-way star, while teammates Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart were sidelined with injury all summer. When Seattle needed Natasha to step up and play a bigger role that season, she exceeded all expectations. That season she averaged career highs in almost every statistical category, and led her short staffed Storm squad to a playoff berth. For her efforts, she won Defensive Player of the Year, and finished in the Top 5 in MVP voting.

Coming fresh off her second championship with the star-studded Storm this season, Natasha is once again poised to play a star role with her new team, the New York Liberty. Sent to New York in a sign-and-trade involving the first overall pick in the draft, Natasha figures to be part of the star core of a retooled Liberty squad. A squad looking to bounce back from a season where they bottomed out the league with a 2-20. 

Today, we’ll take a look at Natasha Howard’s game to see just why she’s so effective on both ends of the floor. We’ll break down Natasha’s strengths and weaknesses, analyze some film and statistics, and finally, take a look at some of the signature moves she has in her bag. 

Explore Natasha Howard’s WNBA strengths

We’ll kick off with some of her greatest skills, from defense to rebounding.

1. Natasha Howard’s defense

Perhaps Natasha’s deepest area of expertise on the basketball court is her defense. With her strength, athleticism, mobility, and high defensive IQ, Natasha has shown time and time again that she’s among the WNBA’s defensive elite. One of Howard’s defensive specialities is guarding the paint, ranking in the 78th percentile defending post-up plays per Synergy, allowing only .667 points per possession in 2020. It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t have the height advantage on most post ups: She’s gonna lock you up and keep you from scoring. 

Natasha is also a terrific defensive disruptor, great at forcing turnovers either through her positioning or just by grabbing an errant pass or stripping an offensive player. Despite reduced minutes last season, she grabbed 1.7 steals per game – good for 5th in the league. And over her career she’s averaged 1.0 blocks per game, resulting in two seasons in the top 10 for blocks. Check out some of her defensive highlights from her Defensive Player of the Year campaign.

2. Natasha’s post offense

While Natasha Howard is typically associated with her defensive play, she’s proven that she’s more than capable of being a two-way star. After all, she’s played a lynchpin role in a contender’s offense before, averaging 18.1 ppg in 2019 to buoy the injury-plagued Storm, the centerpiece of their playoff run on both ends of the floor that season.

While Natasha has a respectable outside shot for a big, hitting over 30% of her threes over the past three seasons, the real bread and butter of her offensive game comes in the paint. An undersized big, she relies on her other physical gifts (strength, speed, and nimbleness), as well as her handles and footwork in order to get it done. In 2019, Natasha was in the 63% percentile of scorers in post-up plays, scoring 121 points on 131 possessions. In fact, she made the most field goals in the entire league in the paint that year.

A great example of Natasha’s post play came in last year’s WNBA Finals. Check out the play, where she’s able to maneuver out of a defensive trap by Angel McCoughtry and A’ja Wilson to get free for the lay-up. Notice how she only takes one dribble wasting no effort, and cradles the ball to protect it, while turning in towards the basket. Had she turned the other way, the defenders would have pushed her off the court.

Natasha Howard WNBA finals

3. Natasha’s rebounding

Despite being undersized for a big at 6’2, Natasha Howard uses a combination of athleticism and high basketball IQ to be one of the most effective rebounders in the game. She averaged 7.3 rebounds per game last season, landing in the top 20 despite playing reduced minutes. The last time we saw Natasha Howard at full strength for an entire season in 2019, she was sixth in the league in rebounds, averaging 8.2 per game. 

Natasha is able to track down missed shots to pinpoint exactly where they’re going, and then use her excellent athleticism to sky for the board. Look at this play from the 2018 Finals, where Natasha skies to grab this rebound over two Washington Mystics players, in spite of being outnumbered and away from the basket when the shot goes off.

Natasha Howard WNBA highlights

It’s kind of impossible to box out someone with the rebounding IQ and sheer verticality of Natasha Howard. Natasha is one of the most effective rebounders in the game – it doesn’t matter how big the other players in the paint are. She is going to get her board.

Critically, notice how she locks in on the ball with all her strength, ensuring with her steel grip that no one is going to get it from her. And how she brings it down to her waist only because she knows no one is on that side of her.

See Natasha Howard’s WNBA opportunities

Up next, let’s take a look at some of Natasha’s areas of opportunity.

1. Natasha’s turnovers

While Natasha Howard is an above average ball handler for the positions she plays, turnovers have been an issue for her when she’s been called on to be a team’s primary on-ball player. When she took on that role for the Seattle Storm in 2019, Natasha averaged 2.9 turnovers per game, the third highest mark in the league. Natasha was also notably the only player in the top 5 in turnovers that season that averaged less than 5 assists per game, with Natasha only having 2.1 assists per game. 

Of course, this tendency to turn the ball over makes sense in the context that Natasha played on the ball more in 2019 than she had at any other point in her career, there’s a learning curve there. But as she looks to play that superstar two-way role again for the New York Liberty, Natasha will have to look to lock down her ball handling and keep those turnover numbers lower. 

2. Natasha Howard’s consistency

Natasha had a bit of a slow start to 2020, adjusting not only to a smaller role with the return of Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart, but also to a quarantined ‘Bubble’ environment. While Natasha rounded into form in the latter half of the season, we’ve still only seen one full season from her where she’s been consistently in true star form from the beginning of the season to the Finals.

But maybe consistency won’t be an issue this season, maybe playing a larger role from the get-go in New York will help her hit the ground running this coming season. By the same token, though, there’s a chance that there may be another slow start in store for Natasha, as she hits the learning curve of adjusting to her new teammates, her new environment, and a new offensive system. Only time will tell. 

3. Personal fouls 

The one breach in the armor that is Natasha Howard’s defensive abilities is her tendency to foul while defending. She’s spent four seasons of her career towards the top of the league in fouls, ranking first in the league in 2018 with a whopping 3.7 fouls per game.

While that number has come back down to earth a little bit in the last two years, averaging closer to three per game, Natasha still should look to commit less fouls to allow her to stay on the floor for her new team, and be every bit of the defensive anchor they need her to be to succeed. One of the key things leading to fouls for Natasha Howard is her tendency to jump attempting to block shots on certain possessions rather than forcing a miss using her footwork and arms—something she is quite capable of doing.

Discover Natasha Howard’s signature moves

1. Dazzling put backs

One of the many advantages of Natasha Howard’s elite rebounding ability is that it enables her to get easy points for her teams off of put-backs. Natasha is a particularly effective rebounder on the offensive glass, averaging 2.4 per game last season. Combine that with her footwork and effectiveness on offense in the post, it makes sense that she was 76th percentile in the WNBA on put-backs in 2019, scoring 71 points on 60 such possessions. 

Just check out this wild put back from last season’s WNBA Finals. Natasha Howard rockets up to meet teammate Mercedes Russells’ missed lay-up, and then is able to spike the ball back in despite contact from an incoming Emma Cannon.

Natasha Howard WNBA put back

2. Fancy footwork

One of Natasha Howard’s primary weapons when operating on offense is the post is her elite footwork. Because Natasha, or Flash as her fans call her, is a small big, she relies on speed and skill in order to make her money in the paint. 

In a forward-sized body with guard-like handles and footwork, Natasha’s unique game makes her an unconventional, and thus difficult, mark for a defender to keep up with and cover. Just take a look at this play from the 2018 Finals, where Natasha Howard combines her fancy footwork with a fake to shake LaToya Sanders and cut back to the now vacant paint for an easy lay-up.

This is a very clean way to throw off a defender and reduces your chance of injury. Natasha has discovered a million simple tweaks and pivots, like this one, to get the ball into the bucket in the paint, and effectively execute in a very small space.

Natasha Howard WNBA highlights in the paint

3. Using defense to create offense

One of the greatest weapons in Natasha Howard’s bag is her ability to turn a steal into two points in transition. No pass is safe from Natasha, who’s adept at jumping passing lanes and getting the ball moving in transition before either driving to the basket, or dishing it to a teammate for an easy jumper. Between her propensity for stealing the ball, and her great decision making in transition, Natasha is one of the greatest fast break starters in the WNBA.

Check out this play from a regular season game last year, where Natasha prevents a pass from Candace Parker from reaching the paint, then pushes the paint to get the offense going on the other end.

Natasha Howard WNBA defensive player of the year

What’s next for Natasha Howard?

In the 2021 season, Natasha will join the New York Liberty, acquired as part of a big off-season push by Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb to bring the team back into contention. It will be exciting to see how Natasha fits into the Liberty’s offensive system under coach Walt Hopkins. Fans should be especially eager to see Natasha in the pick and roll with young Liberty star Sabrina Ionescu, with Natasha boasting to the media at her introductory press conference that they’re going to be “like Kobe and Shaq”.

Up next, read about some of the biggest WNBA draft steals of all time.

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