Tiffany Hayes is still growing. Seven years into her career, the Atlanta Dream guard has continued to improve year-over-year on both ends of the ball, and currently has her team in position to earn a double-bye to the semifinals.
“I’m growing in this league,” Hayes told High Post Hoops earlier this season in Los Angeles. “Every year I learn something new whether it’s offense or defense. I learn the players more, even though there are new players coming in. I study the great players in this league.
“That alone helps me when I get out on the court. I know their game. I know what they like to do, so that makes it a lot easier for me.”
The Dream have built their foundation on the defensive end of the ball with Hayes right at the center of it all. The 5’10 guard is regularly tasked with the assignment of matching up with the opponent’s biggest perimeter threat. Atlanta has posted the best defensive rating in the league (95.8) through Wednesday, and the offense has come alive.
How good is Hayes? Depends who you ask. She’s risen to the point where her coach, Nicki Collen, regularly refers to her as the best two-way two guard in the league.
“I’ve gotten a ton of joy from coaching Tiffany Hayes. She was always someone that, you know, when you play against her, you kind of thought, ‘Oh, she’s always complaining; she’s always laying on the floor.’ But she’s just a warrior,” Collen told High Post Hoops. “She just really, really competes on every possession, and I think she’s as good a defensive two guard as there is in the league.”
Night after night, Hayes finds herself matched up with some of the best scorers in the league — Allie Quigley, Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi, Kayla McBride, Jewell Loyd, Kristi Toliver. Just as each of those players has a unique combination of strengths, Hayes has the tools, desire and basketball IQ to make life difficult for all of them.
The six prior players listed have combined to shoot 38.8 percent from the field (66-of-170*) in 14 games against Atlanta this season. Tune in for any of those matchups and you’ll see Hayes pressuring the ball, slithering around screens to keep up with her mark away from the ball, competing to get back into plays and expertly navigating the dance as a help defender to bait opponents into the very pass she’s expecting them to make.
Hayes acknowledges that Atlanta is a defensive team, and that that side of the ball fuels their offense when everything is clicking.
“We play hard all the time,” Hayes said. She and her Dream teammates are having fun doing it, too. Unrestricted free agents Jessica Breland and Renee Montgomery signed on in the offseason, and star forward Angel McCoughtry returned after taking the 2017 season off to rest.
Atlanta closed last season dropping 11 of their final 13 to miss the playoffs. With the influx of starter-level talent, a new head coach and a new general manager, the Dream have won 11 of their last 12.
“It’s more chill this year,” Hayes said, pointing to players and coaches joking and laughing on the court during warmups. “It’s a lot more fun and laid back this year. And I think that’s another reason why we’re just working so good together, because it’s also fun on and off the court. All of us get along well, which has never been a problem with our team, but this year we really get along well. I think that’s definitely gonna help us out in the long run.”
As of Tuesday, it’s confirmed that Hayes will indeed be a member of the Dream moving forward. She agreed to a multi-year contract extension earlier this week, meaning six of the top nine players in Collen’s rotation (Hayes, starting center Elizabeth Williams, reserve wing Brittney Sykes, Montgomery, Breland and rookie forward Monique Billings) are signed at least through the 2020 season.
Montgomery, the team’s starting point guard and top three-point shooter, has been close with Hayes for years dating back to the time they spent together in college.
“She knows me better than anybody else on the team just from that one year we had together in college,” Hayes said of Montgomery. “We learned each other fairly quickly at UConn. We gelled that year, we won [a national championship] that year. That was our first year winning in a while. We knew each other then and we’ve kept close with each other throughout the years. Me and her have the longest connection.”
Montgomery, an All-American point guard at UConn, took Hayes under her wing that season.
“It was more so me just making sure she was good along the way, knowing that I had been doing that for three years at that time and that she was just entering,” Montgomery said. “So that’s why I called her my baby Husky. My main thing was just to be sure she was good, as far as basketball-wise and anything else.”
Asked for a favorite memory from that season, Montgomery pointed to UConn’s 2009 Sweet 16 game against Cal. Hayes’ line from that game: 28 points on 10 shot attempts, seven assists, zero turnovers.
“She had a monster game,” Montgomery said of that performance. “She was like the silent assassin. It was Maya Moore, me and Tina Charles who were the people that were talked about the most. Here she comes, and she was just a silent assassin.
“She would just do her thing. That was a huge game where it was like, ‘Okay, this girl is gonna be good.’ That game really stood out to me because it was like, ‘I’m here.’”
Hayes was selected 14th overall in the second round of the 2012 WNBA Draft by the Dream. After becoming a full-time starter in 2014, she has continued to fly somewhat under the radar, but not in the eyes of her peers. Candace Parker cited Hayes as the best WNBA player that wasn’t a household name yet on the JJ Redick podcast back in 2016.
“People that follow would know her, but she can play. She’s a guard, lefty, hit the three, quick as I-don’t-know-what. She gave us a 30 piece,” Parker said. “We were happy when Chicago beat Atlanta [in the 2016 playoffs] because they gave us a lot of trouble this past season.”
The game Parker is referring to? Hayes went for a career high 32 points on 11-of-18 shooting in Los Angeles earlier that season.
Hayes is a modern’s basketball fan’s dream, boasting a shot distribution that would make Daryl Morey blush. Hayes has taken 80 percent of her shots within five feet of the basket or from beyond the arc across her seven year career. She gets to the free throw line more than just about any guard in the WNBA — her career free throw rate of 47.9 is a full 20 points above the 2018 league average. (Some notes on James Harden’s 2017-2018 shot distribution, for reference: 80.8 percent of shots from three or the restricted area, 50.2 free throw rate.)
Few players have the burst to get into the lane as often as Hayes, and she has a great feel for finishing through and around traffic. She also possesses a deadly lefty hesitation dribble and left-to-right crossover. Her three-point rate has been relatively steady throughout her career, but she’s bounced back from back-to-back seasons shooting 27 percent on threes to become an above average long range shooter.
“In my head, I’m a good offensive player, and sometimes people wanna give me the three like I’m not gonna take it,” Hayes said. “In years before, maybe I wouldn’t take it because I wasn’t confident enough.
“My teammates and coaches have confidence in me this year, and I have a high confidence this year in taking those shots. And whether they’re going in or not, nobody’s yelling or screaming or doing anything like that, so my confidence stays high. So if I miss one, I’m gonna shoot the next one. Whether I miss it or not, one of ’em is gonna go in. So just my teammates giving me confidence to keep shooting, I think that definitely helps me.”
Look not just to Hayes’ three-point shooting percentage. The varied attempts she’s taking reflect that confidence her team has instilled in her, and opposing teams will have to begin to take note. Even with the added confidence in the three-point stroke, though, how is Hayes able to get to the rim with such regularity?
“So the funny thing is, everybody knows she’s going to the basket and no one can stop her from getting there,” Montgomery said. “That’s the thing that cracks me up all the time. She’s so fast. And she’s not one-dimensional. Everybody knows she’s a strong lefty but she drives to the right plenty of times as well.
“And now she’s hitting the three, so there’s a lot of things in her game that you can’t be like, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna do this and stop her.’ Nah, it doesn’t work like that. She has so many things in her arsenal to her game that she can beat you in multiple ways.”
Diana Taurasi recently told the New York Times that she has really locked in on taking just threes and shots at the rim as much as possible. Hayes’ game has always been that way, and she’s become more efficient even as she now carries a larger offensive load for her team.
“Getting to the rim is something I’ve been good at since I was a kid,” Hayes said. “I think that’s just my go to thing. A lot of people respect it. Not to brag, but it’s hard to stop and a lot of people say that. That’s my bread and butter, I won’t go away from that. My teammates know that.”
Hayes is scoring 22.7 points per 36 minutes (career high) in 2018, tied for sixth in the league per Basketball-Reference. Her 59.6 true shooting percentage is a career high, six points above the league average. Per Synergy, Hayes has scored 1.019 points per possession in 364 halfcourt possessions this season. That mark ranks third among starting guards.
“[My teammates] know that if I get in there and people stop me I’m going to find them,” Hayes added, “So it works well for everybody.”
Hayes has assisted on 17.6 percent of her team’s buckets when on the floor this season. She constantly drives the lane and looks to make plays, yet has posted a minuscule turnover rate of 9.7 percent.
In addition to flying under the radar, Collen and Montgomery have noted that their star guard is misunderstood.
“She’s super passionate,” Montgomery said. “Players like that, they wear their emotions on their sleeve. So if it’s a bad call or she thinks it’s a bad call, she’s gonna show it. She kind of got a pretty bad rep as far as complaining all the time to the refs, and now it’s a label that she has even though she doesn’t really do it like nearly as much anymore.
“So that’s the frustrating part for me, where she’s trying to do better and she has done better and yet it’s still that reputation following her,” Montgomery added.
Then there’s the All-Star snub. But as time has passed, Hayes has continued to shine, earning player of the month honors for the month of July.
“There are different ways to show your displeasure with something,” Montgomery said. “And I think the way she’s going about it, putting up numbers every single night, the message has been received. We don’t even need to talk about the All-Star snub no more.
“We’re in the playoffs. That’s old news. Now she’s going on to prove things that she can be — All-Defensive Team, 1st Team or 2nd Team All-WNBA. That’s what the conversation should shift to now.”
With a few more regular season wins, the Dream would be just three wins from a trip to the WNBA Finals after missing the 2017 playoffs entirely.
The 2018 postseason will come and go in a flash, with perhaps more capable title contenders than ever. Despite all that uncertainty, Atlanta knows one thing for certain.
Tiffany Hayes is here, doing her thing. Time to shift the conversation.