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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!
Atlanta Dream 2018: So crazy, this just might work!
Another WNBA season at the Thillerdome is about to unfold, and this edition of the Atlanta Dream is certain to have a better “look” than the crew that entered 2017. But will a better “look” equal better end-of-season results?
What’s different? Well, literally for starters, thanks to their efforts to take last season seriously, Layshia Clarendon, Tiffany Hayes and Elizabeth Williams each have a shiny new All-Star credential in their quivers. Not that she often really looked the part, but Brittney Sykes is no longer a rookie. There’s also a new Dream management and coaching team, one taking much more than the semi-serious approach to the WNBA offseason we’ve grown accustomed to around these parts.
Oh, and there’s this: Angel McCoughtry is finally back!
The march to May 2018 began in January of 2017, when Atlanta’s franchise star announced a WNBA sabbatical to grant her body, and her focus, a well-deserved respite. That decision set the team’s clock ticking, first for coach Michael Cooper and now for his replacements, to provide the building blocks for a team ready to contend not only after McCoughtry returns to WNBA action, but in time for the team to return to a renovated Highlight Factory in the spring of 2019.
If new GM Chris Sienko and the new coaching staff, led by first-timer Nicki Collen, can get this team to gel quickly, contention might not have to wait until next year.
After issuing Cooper his walking papers, team owners Mary Brock and Kelly Loeffler essentially knew what they were looking for in a head coach – and, more specifically, who. They got plenty of intel from Sienko, the consultant they would later hire to be the new GM. So, by the time Collen arrived for an interview from Sienko’s former employer, the Connecticut Sun, the Dream owners were already planning to hand over the head coach job.
Don’t expect a vast departure from the high-paced “Run With The Dream” philosophy of seasons past. Collen has repeatedly noted a desire to get her new team to “play fast.” Yet, she wishes to depart from her predecessors by demanding quick decisions and efficient ball movement to extend to the halfcourt offense, where Atlanta historically bogs down.
Swift decisions with the rock, when Angel gets double-teamed, when Layshia attacks inside off pick-and-roll action, when Brittney beats her assignment, when Tip drives, when Libby snags an offensive rebound… Collen wants the Dream offensive players to know how to execute, precisely, and find open scoring opportunities for teammates when opposing defenses find themselves imbalanced.
With Sienko in charge, Atlanta made potentially the most momentous veteran free agent signings in franchise history, at least the biggest early-offseason additions since acquiring Sancho Lyttle via the 2008 Comets dispersal draft.
Guard depth was immensely advanced with the acquisition of Renee Montgomery, a former All-Star and Sixth Woman of the Year who is now a two-time WNBA champion, after going all the way with the Minnesota Lynx last season. Those individual accolades for Montgomery, who was already living in Atlanta during her offseasons, came while she was playing with Sienko’s Sun from 2010-2014.
Back with the Lynx for the past two-and-a-half seasons, Renee shot a career-best 42.4 percent from the field in 2017, and also spelled future Hall of Fame guard Lindsay Whalen, the player Montgomery was traded for following her 2009 rookie season in Minnesota. Montgomery filled in capably for Whalen in 12 starts last season, while the latter was sidelined with a hand injury. She averaged a 2.0 assist/TO ratio last season, dishing out the most per-36 assists since her 2011 All-Star season in Connecticut.
Renee provides the Dream not only steady ballhandling but a legitimate perimeter shooting threat (8th all-time in 3FGs made), especially when the stakes increase. In Minnesota, Montgomery shot 39.3 3FG% (11-for-28) in the 2017 playoffs, boosting her career postseason accuracy to 38.2 3FG%. That included sinking half of her 14 attempts along the way to the WNBA Finals. Her being a decent free throw shooter (83.7 career FT%) is an additional plus for Atlanta. Even so much as a modest regression from her recent play with the reigning champs would still be a welcome development for a Dream team that has struggled with quality guard depth for years.
Sienko and the Dream were not done, bolstering the frontcourt by wooing another former All-Star honoree, Jessica Breland of the Chicago Sky. The power forward also played with Mongtomery, briefly, with the 2011 Sun, and provides an experienced yet younger alternative to longtime Dream star Sancho Lyttle, who signed as a free agent with Phoenix.
Returning full-time to a starter role in 2017, Jessica compiled her best numbers since her 2014 All-Star season with the Sky. She has ranked top-five in block percentage in four of her past five seasons, and she matched her career-best with 12 rebounds (11 defensive) during an early-season win in Atlanta last year. Her overall on-court efficiency took a dive in recent seasons, as it would for anyone no longer paired alongside Sylvia Fowles and/or Elena Delle Donne. But Breland should have no problems blending into frontcourt lineups featuring McCoughtry and Williams.
In search of a frontcourt player who could serve as a stretch-four, Atlanta brought free agent Damiris Dantas back into the fold. In addition to the likelihood of more pick-and-pop action for Williams, Collen has expressed further excitement over the possibility of using Breland more in this specific role. Jessica flashed some of that perimeter potential at the outset of 2017 (7-for-17 3FGs in first ten games). But Chicago started out 2-8 and shied away from her outside shooting as the season wore on (just 1-for-4 3FGs in her final 24 Sky appearances). Potentially boosting the team depth would be rookie second-rounder Monique Billings, a 6-foot-4 forward who is hoping to expand on her newfound mid-range jumpshot.
This team is not stacked with 1-through-12 depth, but Collen’s club is endowed with a positional versatility that is unprecedented for this particular franchise. While I would prefer to start Montgomery for the sake of spreading the floor, she can relieve either of Clarendon or Hayes at the guard spots. Sykes may become a sixth-woman award contender, too, filling in at either wing position and, as demonstrated late last season, as a third option at the point.
Atlanta’s biggest wild card is their trade-deadline acquisition from 2017. Imani McGee-Stafford has only scratched the surface of her potential. The 6-foot-7, third-season center has averaged a double-double per-36 in each of her first two WNBA campaigns, plus she established a playoff rookie record with six blocks in her 2016 postseason debut. Yet, Imani found herself underutilized in 2017, first by Sky coach Amber Stocks and then by Cooper during Atlanta’s failed playoff push.
Getting McGee-Stafford active in the frontcourt rotation, ideally as a starter that allows Williams to shift to power forward, is a critical measure for the Dream’s on-court growth over the next two seasons. The Dream demonstrated their commitment to Williams by extending her contract for a couple more seasons.
An improved McGee-Stafford and Breland would help the Dream better contend in a league loaded with extraordinary talents at center. With McGee-Stafford, Williams, and Breland (all top-30 WNBA in per-game blocks) teaming up with McCoughtry (3rd all-time in per-game steals), Atlanta should prove capable of getting plenty of stops when opponents shift their offensive attack to the interior.
Hayes, Clarendon and Sykes were instrumental, meanwhile, in Dream opponents shooting just 31.4 3FG% last season (3rd-best in WNBA, virtually tied for best with Minnesota and Phoenix). If that development holds this season, and if Atlanta keeps opponents off the free throw line (4th-most personal fouls, 2nd-most opponent FTAs in 2017) while limiting live-ball turnovers themselves (16.2 opponent TO% in 2017, 3rd-best in WNBA), they will satisfactorily suppress foes with their defense while giving themselves ample room to sort out their own offensive flow.
The final X-Factor is the re-enmeshing of McCoughtry into the team gameplans. Angel has already played with Clarendon, Dantas, and Williams in prior seasons, and Hayes for much longer. Just last week, she got an opportunity to bond further with Layshia, Brittney, Tip, and Elizabeth during Team USA training camp, where Collen serves as an assistant.
The likelihood that a rested McCoughtry returns to All-WNBA prominence isn’t in question. But how much more hardware she can collect will depend on her ability to guide the execution of Collen’s offense, not merely her own. Collen, in turn, will also have to entrust the league’s premier two-way non-center to help orchestrate the team defense whenever her star is on the floor.
The blend of talent, experience and potential is as sound as it has been in any of Angel’s prior eight WNBA seasons in Atlanta. But when the team runs into adversity, which is coming for every competitive team at some points this season, McCoughtry cannot turn a tin ear toward her teammates and staff and just party like it’s 2013.
This is a squad loaded with players with huge off-court aspirations, from sports media to advocacy to modeling to retail and even medicine. A Finals-competitive squad only enhances those individual endeavors further, and McCoughtry is just the tide that, when she rises rather than capsizes, can lift all boats. If this team finishes strong, and Angel’s play makes several teammates better at both ends of the court, her MVP candidacy can’t be obscured.
Vying for final spots on the Dream roster include: Maggie Lucas, a veteran jumpshooting wing eager to make a comeback after tearing two ACLs since May 2016 (supported throughout by Kyle Korver’s off-season strength and conditioning coach); Adaora Elonu, a 2011 college-champ swing player with Texas A&M who has played in EuroLeague and was in camp with the Sun last season; Blake Dietrick, a star collegiate guard who led Princeton to an undefeated regular season in 2015, and; 2018 third-round pick Mackenzie Engram, who shined at forward for Georgia under coach Joni Taylor (spouse of new Dream assistant coach Darius Taylor). If they can impress in camp, there is enough room for at least one, if not two, of them to outlast the final roster cuts.
Cooper made the cardinal error of touting his 2017 Angel-free unit as championship-contender material. Collen and Sienko won’t make the same mistake, but they also know they'll have no time to get acclimated, not in this rough-and-ready WNBA, and not in Atlanta’s once-sleepy but now superheated summertime sports market. Whether they’re longtime diehards or on-the-fence wannabes, Dream fans deserve a team that’s worthy of a grand return to Philips Arena in 2019, not one relegable to whatever rink the Hawks construct down in College Park. In the meantime, this is shaping up to be one crew that can bring the Thrill back to the Thrillerdome.