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Extreme Makeover: WNBA Edition! The twists and turns of WNBA life are unyielding, even as the league enters its 24th season of existence, and as the Dream lurches into its 13th season in The ATL… oh, wait… in Bradenton, Florida? No, this team hasn’t been poached out of town, not just yet. After toiling for a couple years in Midtown Atlanta, the Dream were granted just a year back in downtown’s renovated State Farm Arena, only to find out via Hawks management that they’ve overstayed their welcome. The intention was to get the Dream to sell seats down at the Hawks’ new G-League home, the tinier venue in College Park. But the players and staff headed down to South Fulton only to grab tickets at Hartsfield-Jackson for a hopefully round trip to the west coast of Florida. They’re joined there by the eleven other WNBA clubs, as part of their league’s hastened efforts to seek secure shelter, now commonly called the “Wubble” for obvious reasons, from the ravages of The Rona, at Bradenton’s sprawling IMG Academy sports campus. First, before players tip off the reconstructed season that begins on July 25, let’s run down the list of Atlanta’s players down on the Gulf Coast that will actually be returning from last season. Because that list is way smaller. 2017 WNBA All-Star Elizabeth Williams. Third-year pro forward Monique Billings. That’s it. That’s the whole list. The face of this franchise, who missed all but a token moment of the 2019 season to rehab from her 2018 injury, Angel McCoughtry has moved on in free agency. She’ll be suiting up for the Las Vegas Aces, who need her return to all-league form as swiftly as possible to assure themselves of a worthy championship run. Without an untimely injured McCoughtry, then-new head coach Nicki Collen’s Dream made a daring late run into the 2018 Playoffs, missing the Finals by a hair. Sadly, the instability from Angel’s extended absence took its toll on a club that finished with a basement-dwelling 8-26 record last summer. Last year’s leading scorer, Tiffany Hayes, and the team’s leading dime-dropper and saving grace in the three-point-shooting department, Renee Montgomery, are both veterans that elected to opt out of playing in the Wubble this season. Last year’s leading rebounder? That was Jessica Breland. She and Nia Coffey were sent packing to Phoenix in February, as part of a deal that we’ll mention later. Similarly, Dream President and GM Chris Sienko dealt Atlanta’s second-leading scorer, Brittney Sykes, and Marie Gulich to Los Angeles. No Alex Bentley, the inefficient guard who the team permitted to walk in free agency. No Maite Cazorla, who wisely estimated that, amid a raging pandemic, she’d be safer back home in Spain. That’s at least nine spots the Dream have had to fill, and that’s not even counting Star, the Dream’s inaugural mascot that was ushered to the Mothball Retirement Home, coincidental to a logo and uniform makeover. What did Sienko and company do with all that roster space? There are some intriguing additions. Courtney Williams was the breakout star of the 2019 Playoffs, the guard averaging about 18 PPG and shooting over 40 percent on threes for the Connecticut Sun while leading all WNBA guards with 5.8 RPG despite weighing in at 135 pounds. Her assertive play and infectious fan-dad on the sidelines were frequent draws on SportsCenter highlight reels. The Sun, who charged to the #2 seed and swept the L.A. Sparks to reach The Finals, desperately wanted her back for a shot to return to the title series. But the free agent, a South Georgian from Charlton County, found the opportunity to play closer to home too good to pass up. In February, Sienko swung a three-team deal with the Sun and the Mercury, with Breland and Coffey headed to Phoenix. C-Will likely won’t have her father in tow for this season’s games, but the former University of South Florida star may be the one competitor in Bradenton that’s even closer to home than she would be in Atlanta. Six summers ago, Angel was instrumental in arranging a surprise engagement party, at a nightclub here in The ATL, in which Glory Johnson fatefully said yes to Brittney Griner. McCoughtry is no longer around town, but GloJo, now with twins in tow, returned to Atlanta during this past offseason, acquiescing to a courtship of a different feather from the Dream. Glory is well removed from her fine years as a Tennessee Vol star and a two-time WNBA All-Star, the last trip coming in 2014. Injuries during her last two seasons with the Dallas Wings has sapped her scoring efficiency, with shooting splits of 41.7/31.5/78.0 and 36.4/34.0/58.3 (FG/3FG/FT) in 2018 and 2019, respectively. But the 6-foot-3 forward strives to hone her skillset as an ever-evolving stretch-four. Glory remains a solid rebounder and a poacher on the defensive end (4.2 Defensive RPG and 1.4 SPG in 24.1 minutes/game). Relying less on having to make plays with the ball in her hands, she limited her turnovers to 1.0 per contest last season. 2018’s strong close worked against 2019’s lead-balloon edition of the Dream, as the reformulated draft lottery takes each non-playoff team’s past two seasons into account. The fourth-place lottery position yielded unfortunate results, as Atlanta was unable to quench their longstanding thirst for a sure-shot star point guard (Orgeon’s Sabrina Ionescu, bound to play for the New York Liberty). But the next best guard available in 2019’s Draft, and perhaps the one with the most sizable upside, did fall to the Dream, in the form of Texas A&M’s Chennedy Carter. The absence of Hayes and Montgomery will offer more ball-handling opportunities for the 5-foot-7 rookie than Collen likely planned, prior to the wraths of the ongoing pandemic. That’s great news for Chennedy (pronounced, “Kennedy”), who was a certified bucket at the collegiate level. 2018’s unanimous National Freshman of the Year award-winner averaged comfortably above 20 PPG during three seasons with the Aggies. Thanks to COVID-19, Carter wasn’t granted a chance to build on her sterling 31.0 PPG in NCAA tournament play, behind only Elena Delle Donne and Sheryl Swoopes (five WNBA MVP awards between that duo) as collegians for the highest March Madness scoring average. Her shooting efficiency, especially from the perimeter, waned in recent seasons as opponents zeroed in on her, but she remains a crafty interior finisher and, as Coach Nicki asserts, an “underrated passer.” How effectively she creates for her teammates, defends, and passes will guide how closely she tracks Ionescu in the race for Rookie of the Year. “I get y’all tryna be cute with some inches, but (tie) that cheap $&*^ up!” The fur won’t be flying with Liz Cambage this season, as the titanic Aces center elected to sit this season out. But Kalani Brown, with her hair flowing, made waves in spurts for the Sparks last season, most notably when she found herself in an entanglement with Liz last June and held her own (12 points off the bench, a season-high she’d tie a couple weeks later in Atlanta). Despite losing a few locks in the process, she was imposing enough to help her team win the game. The inches that matter for Kalani's sophomore campaign won’t involve follicle measurements. Clocking in last season at 6-foot-7, 245 pounds, Brown appears to have added significant girth during the downtime. Acquired by Atlanta in exchange for Sykes and Gulich, much will be expected of the space-eating Brown to help Atlanta (last-place in D-Reb% in 2019) secure boards across the floor. Whether the 2019 NCAA championship pivot from Baylor (and daughter of longtime NBA veteran P.J. Brown) will have the mobility to contribute fully at both ends remains to be seen. But if she can finish around the rim and keep up her solid free throw shooting from her rookie season, Kalani can limit her liabilities as a sixth-woman backup to the much leaner (yet hopefully meaner) Elizabeth Williams. If conditioning becomes an issue for Brown, another Texas collegiate star, rookie Brittany Brewer of Texas Tech, offers rim-challenging support as a reserve, and recent pickup Erica McCall can crash the glass efficiently, if not much more. With neither Hayes nor Montgomery making the trip, there are no 80’s babies on the roster; Johnson, who turns 30 next week, exceeds her former fellow Lady Vol, swing player Shekinna Stricklen in seniority by just three calendar days. Ranked fourth among active (2020 season) WNBA veterans for three-point swishes, Stricklen won the 2019 Three-Point Shooting Contest, and looks to be the one Dream player that can be counted on to sink money balls by the rack. Sizable for a shooter at 6-foot-2, Strick (38+ percent on threes in past three regular seasons) would have offered a wondrous opportunity for Collen to spread the floor alongside Montgomery to the benefit of an array of driving 2-guards, and would certainly have helped turn around Atlanta’s historically woeful shooting efficiency as a franchise (league-low 41.7 eFG% and 46.2 TS%; only WNBA squad hitting below 30.0 3FG% in 2019). Even so, the full-time starter at the wing for Connecticut last season can serve as the fulcrum, chemistry-wise, for Johnson and Courtney Williams, and a trusty release valve whenever Carter gets bottled up. A backup to Montgomery as a rookie during the Minnesota Lynx’s last championship run in 2017, Alexis Jones was granted a bit more daylight under Derek Fisher’s watch last season in L.A. Entering her fourth season out of Duke, Jones will be relied upon as never before to help run plays, and she can make an impact if she cuts down on her turnovers and especially her propensity for fouling. Returning to Atlanta one season after a stint in Seattle, guard Blake Dietrick was quite useful on occasions when she could hit an open three, not-so-much when her shots came up short. The third-year pro out of Princeton (5-for-17 on 2FGs in 46 appearances; 3rd lowest Player Impact Estimate value in 2019 2/ min. 15 appearances) must show she can be a threat on the drive if she intends to boost her reserve minutes in competition with recent arrivals Betnijah Laney (27 starts with depleted Indiana last year; 2nd on the Fever in MPG, 1.4 SPG) and Jaylyn Agnew (2020 second-rounder picked up off waivers from the Mystics). No matter the 2020 record, this campaign down in the Wubble shouldn’t be the final referendum for Nicki Collen at the helm. 2018’s WNBA Coach of the Year elevated expectations for the franchise, but she could never get the Dream’s spirited train to leave the station in 2019, as her players found themselves waiting for Angel like Vladimir and Estragon did for Godot. Coach Nicki gets to finally build a team from the bottom-up, without bearing much of the weights of decisions from organizational leaders past. She has some new veterans to turn to, including a pair with a recent Finals pedigree, that aren’t caught up in the old ways of doing things around these parts. Even better, she has a young starlet to mold and hitch onto for a long-anticipated rebuild. But the chemistry needed to compete in the rough-and-tumble WNBA will be lacking, especially with reliance upon a rookie scorer cutting her teeth and a series of inexperienced youngsters providing some semblance of depth but requiring tutelage on the fly. On paper, this looks to be a team that should turn some frowns upside down, particularly when it comes to seizing the rebounding edge. With C-Will and Carter pushing the pace, there could be tantalizing opportunities to thrive in transition on offense, something past Dream teams struggled to do without McCoughtry leading the way. Whether this team has the energy to sustain a cohesive defensive approach, in transition or in the halfcourt over the course of 40 minutes, remains to be seen. This could have been a fascinating post-Angel transition period, with Hayes and Montgomery on-board. Further, with many key stars sitting out (Jonquel Jones, Cambage, Tina Charles, Kristi Tolliver, Chiney Ogwumike, Asia Durr, Maya Moore, and possibly Elena Delle Donne and Odyssey Sims among them), this abbreviated season could have been a prime opportunity for Atlanta to build its way back into postseason prowess. Ultimately, that may have to wait until the curtains come up on the WNBA's next season, whenever that comes to pass. No matter how many wins this collective picks up, the ultimate challenge facing Collen and the coaching staff, as Atlanta treads through this 22-game schedule, is to shift the longstanding local narrative of What Could Have Been, into What Could Be. Let’s Go Dream! ~lw3