Say, is anyone feeling a draft? The window hasn’t quite closed on the prospects for a WNBA season this year. The new-look Atlanta Dream will try to turn 2019’s season-long frown upside down with the 4th pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft tonight (7 PM Eastern, ESPN).
The Dream’s long half-baked history is tied to the many snakebites they have suffered in seeking out a transcendent basketball talent and surefire fan draw through the Draft. 2014’s gamble for Shoni Schimmel, much like the player herself, eventually blew up. The opportunity to nab a future star, like ATL-native and 2019 All-Star Diamond DeShields, through the 2018 Draft was squandered away via trade by Michael Cooper, in a failed ploy for a late 2017 playoff run.
Ron Terwilliger, the Atlanta-based real estate mogul and inaugural franchise owner, wanted in on the WNBA game, but only under the assumption that the league was going to hand his new team first dibs in the draft, clearing the way for Tennessee superstar and NCAA champ Candace Parker to head south. This was not to be, as the league rewarded a Los Angeles Sparks team that was absent Lisa Leslie (pregnancy) the top pick in 2008.
Atlanta, instead, wound up 4th, and traded down to pick #8. The Dream’s comically bad opening season was attached with a top pick the following year, but Terwilliger, miffed by the lost opportunity to showcase Parker, was seeking out the exits already by then.
For reasons both good and bad, Atlanta did obtain a franchise-defining player in Angel McCoughtry. But Angel never quite reached Parker’s lofty tier, and the organization failed to find the teammate chemistry and reliable coaching to help the 3-time WNBA Finalist achieve championship glories during her peak athletic years in A-Town.
If there is to be a 2020 season, McCoughtry will spend it with the Las Vegas Aces, as the decade-long franchise face was permitted to lickety-split in free agency.
Atlanta checked out of 2019 with an 8-26 mark, the worst record in The W. But a rule instituted by former Atlanta councilperson and ex-league commissioner Lisa Borders combined the prior two seasons for each team to calculate lottery odds, precisely to avoid the gains made by teams like L.A., who won Parker due to Leslie’s absence, and Phoenix, who nabbed top-pick Brittney Griner after Diana Taurasi took a year-long sabbatical from WNBA play.
Once Angel and her team made it clear she was unlikely to play last season, it would have been sweet to just play like mowed-down fescue for Sabrina Ionescu, the record-shattering Oregon guard who is all but certain to be a star in the pros. Alas, 2018’s campaign that had the Dream nearly reaching the WNBA Finals came with the penalty of the 4th-worst lottery odds for 2020. Sabrina is instead bound for New York, the Liberty this week rolling out the red carpet for her while shipping their hometown star Tina Charles to Washington.
There remains ample potential for a bounce-back season by the Dream, even with Angel gone for good. An active offseason by Dream GM Chris Sienko brought former Brittney bride Glory Johnson (coincidentally, Angel arranged her fateful “surprise” 2014 engagement party with Griner here in Atlanta), still a steady rebounder and post scorer, into the fold. Further addressing the team’s historic wayward-shooting droughts, swing player and 2019 3-Point Contest winner Shekinna Stricklen also arrived as a free agent.
The biggest offseason coup came when Atlanta pried the face of the 2019 WNBA Playoffs (if you maybe discount her superfan dad), South Georgia native Courtney Williams, away from Connecticut via trade. The energetic mid-range scorer hit enough big shots in the playoffs to nearly carry the Sun to a surprise 2019 WNBA title. Taking Williams together with her former Sun teammate, Stricklen, and Johnson, and that’s enough versatility, energy and experience to offset the departures of McCoughtry and Brittney Sykes, who was dealt to the Sparks in a deal for young pivot Kalani Brown.
Johnson, with Dream holdovers Tiffany Hayes, Renee Montgomery and Elizabeth Williams, ought to bring enough leadership for Atlanta, behind head coach Nicki Collen, to hop back into low-level playoff contention in the near-term. But the challenge for this draft is to find, without Ionescu available, a player who can mesh well with the current roster but also be molded into a franchise-carrying star in the seasons to come. If that player is a guard, then a couple SEC stars come immediately to mind.
Texas A&M’s Chennedy Carter is a certified bucket. A 5-foot-7 supernova scorer, she will have time to round out her game as a floor leader while granting fans plenty of highlight plays along the way. Scoring over 20 PPG every season with the Aggies, Carter’s perimeter accuracy regressed in 2019-20, but prior seasons suggest she could shine in this area with an adequate supporting cast to pry defenders away.
2020 Dawn Staley Award winner Tyasha Harris spent her collegiate career under Dawn Staley’s watch at South Carolina, feeding eventual WNBA Rookies of the Year Allisha Gray and A’ja Wilson with the rock before their successful springboards to the next level. That was all before going 32-1 with the SEC Tournament champion Gamecocks in her senior season. Harris is the ultimate pass-first point guard prototype as a steady ball-handler and play-caller, but her quality jump-shooting and dogged defense give off the air of a slightly taller Briann January.
Oregon’s Satou Sabally and Baylor’s Lauren Cox are expected to follow Ionescu’s name being called with the next two picks in this Draft, by Indiana and Dallas, respectively. In the event either forward falls to #4 due to Carter going higher, and given Glory’s reported one-year deal with Atlanta, Sabally or Cox would be painfully hard to pass up.
An early-entry candidate like Carter, the 6-foot-4 Sabally has great size for the small forward position, and the Cheryl Miller Award winner has quality shooting range to boot. A 2019 NCAA champion, Cox is a solid shot-blocker, as well as passer, in the post. Type-1 since her childhood and playing with a blood sugar monitor, she is the ultimate answer to the question about the last time you’ve seen a funky diabetic.
The biggest name out of 2017’s five-star high school crop, Megan Walker struggled under the glare of Geno Auriemma at UConn, particularly outside of weak-conference play, but she won’t be the last to do so along the way becoming a steeled star talent at the pro level. For a team that can afford to wait a year or two for her emergence, Walker carries a strong “Star Potential” banner with her athletic upside as a forward.
At the moment, the Dream have the fifth pick of the second round (17th overall), and the first and third picks of the third and final round (picks #25 and 27). Those selections rarely make it onto the slim WNBA rosters maxed out at 12 players. But there are plenty of prospects that could give the back end of Atlanta’s depth chart a literal run for their money.
Texas Tech’s Brittany Brewer may drop into the second round despite being the top prototypical center on most draft boards. Do-it-all Oregon State guard Mikayla Pivec, a consistent triple-double threat in the collegiate ranks, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, the SEC tourney MVP at small forward for the Gamecocks, or Tynice Martin, an Atlanta native and SACA graduate who starred at West Virginia, are among the many options that could fall to Atlanta’s picks in the second or even top-of-third rounds.
Even before the current health crisis hit, nearly everything around the Atlanta Dream seemed to be in flux, from the focus of team ownership, to Angel’s playing status, to where the team would even play (they relocate to College Park’s Skyhawks venue with the next WNBA tipoff). Even without making an instant splash, a great first-round draft selection tonight could eventually, and finally, help the Dream work their way toward a steady footing as a competitive franchise in this league. After so many years of being snakebit, it is time for Atlanta to begin snapping back.
Let’s Go Dream!