ATLANTA — When the Atlanta Dream pulled the trigger on a July 9 trade that sent Layshia Clarendon and a draft pick to the Connecticut Sun, this is not what they were expecting from the player they got in return, Alex Bentley.
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“This is better,” Dream coach Nicki Collen said Tuesday night. “Let’s face it.”
Bentley poured in a season-high 22 points in the Dream’s 109-100 win over the Las Vegas Aces at McCamish Pavilion that night, leading the Dream to their 19th victory of the season, and helping them clinch a playoff spot. She then followed that up with a performance of 13 points and eight assists in the Dream’s 20th win of the season on Thursday against the Los Angeles Sparks.
“My teammates make it so easy,” Bentley told High Post Hoops. “(Elizabeth Williams) is always setting great step-ups for me in transition. They’ve got to guard people like (Tiffany Hayes, Jessica Breland and Angel McCoughtry) so the floor is wide open for me.”
As the Dream continue their playoff push, Bentley is settling into her role with the Dream as an off-the-bench-sparkplug. And she’s having a blast, too.
“It’s nice being on a team who plays for each other, honestly,” Bentley said. “It doesn’t matter what five is out there on the court, we all want each other to do well. I’m having so much fun with them. Renee (Montgomery) is always in my ear, Angel is always in my ear, encouraging me. We encourage each other. We lift each other up. Like coach said, play together, stay together, have fun. That’s what we’re doing. That’s how we’re rocking.”
Atlanta missed the playoffs last season and won just 12 games. They played the season without McCoughtry and it ended with the firing of former head coach Michael Cooper.
McCoughtry’s return and the arrival of Collen have played a significant role in the Dream’s turnaround this season, but so have other fresh faces, like Renee Montgomery, Breland, Monique Billings and Bentley.
The 5’7 guard arrived in Atlanta after that July trade. The Dream needed more scoring and play-making off the bench. As good as Clarendon is, especially as a passer and defender, she didn’t fill the need the Dream had. Clarendon has scored double-digit points in a single game just once this season.
It took Bentley some time to adjust to a new team and a new role. Inconsistency followed; two points here, six points there. In two games with the Dream in which she played 15 minutes or more, Bentley produced zero points.
That’s changed over the past several days.
“It’s been a struggle,” Bentley said. “But I’m glad I’m finally seeing the ball go through the hoop.”
The Dream have won four straight, and over that stretch Bentley is averaging 16.3 points, 6.3 assists, two rebounds and 1.5 steals per-game.
“Bentley is going to drive left and make the cut shots,” said Aces coach Bill Laimbeer. “That’s what she is. She’s playing very well lately… She made those shots again tonight. (Bentley and Williams) hurt us.”
While gliding towards the basket and finishing at the rim is something Bentley does well, she’s also improved as an outside shooter over this recent stretch. In the Dream’s last four games, she’s knocked down seven shots from behind the arc on 17 attempts, good enough for a 41 percent success rate.
Simply put, Bentley is on a roll, and it’s coming at the right time with the Dream looking to lock up the highest seed possible for the playoffs.
“When Alex gets hot, you got to ride her because she can get on one of those for five or six games,” Collen said. “Statistically, over her career, her field goal percentage hasn’t been consistently high, but my gosh, when’s she’s playing like she did (Tuesday), you just keep going to her. She’s so confident. There’s just a natural confidence about the way Alex plays, and a belief in herself and her teammates.”
Bentley started her career in Atlanta, drafted 13th overall in the 2013 WNBA Draft out of Penn State. That season, she averaged 8.3 points per-game as a rookie role player and the Dream advanced to the Finals, where they were swept by the Minnesota Lynx.
That offseason, Bentley was sent to the Sun in a three-team trade that also involved the Washington Mystics. It was in Connecticut where she blossomed into a player who could get hot quickly and become a lethal scorer. She made the All-Star team in 2015, averaging 14.7 points per-game that year.
It was that season that Bentley slid over to play more of a shooting guard role, but she remains a fantastic passer. In Tuesday’s win, she tallied eight assists and zero turnovers. She’s had nine games this season where she’s dished out five assists or more.
In an offense that features players who can run to the rim and finish like Williams and Breland, Bentley’s passing can do real damage to opposing defenses.
Williams finished the game vs. the Aces with a career-high 22 points, shooting 91.7 percent from the floor, a franchise record for the Dream. Bentley assisted on four of Williams’ made-baskets.
On Thursday night, it was Breland who had the big scoring night, finishing with a team-high 19 points in the Dream’s 79-73 win. Bentley assisted on four of Breland’s buckets.
“When (Bentley) starts making those fadeaways going to her left, you just keep running that same screen,” Collen said. “And then she did a good job of combining that with knowing when to give it up and really dropped some dimes.”
Bentley’s arrival has also allowed the Dream to trot out a new look in recent games. Though they can both play point guard, Collen has played Bentley and Montgomery together many times. It creates a nightmare for opposing defenses, because both can create for themselves and others, and they can also play the role of a catch-and-shoot sniper.
When Bentley’s pick-and-roll plays are effective, it allows Montgomery to run to around and pick her spots. If the shot at the rim isn’t there, Montgomery will be waiting on the wing for a three.
“I was telling (Bentley), I don’t have a problem being a decoy. I’ll run around to the corner. I told the team to run that play all day until something different happens,” Montgomery said. “She comes off the ball screen and hits it right in the pocket. It’s simple basketball, but it’s hard to stop. If they don’t guard her off the pick and roll, she can shoot. It’s certain dynamics about lineups that make the team difficult to guard.”
Before she took the job with the Dream, Collen was an assistant with the Sun and got to watch Bentley develop up close. Collen knew what Bentley was capable of.
When Bentley became available — just days after a report surfaced that she was involved in a physical altercation with former Sun teammate Courtney Williams — the Dream jumped at trading for her.
“Certainly, I knew this is what she could provide for us. Not just someone who can go get 20 points off the bench, but also someone who can really put defensive pressure on the other team’s point guard,” Collen said. “And sometimes I can swing her down to give (Tiffany Hayes) a break. She’s stronger than she looks and she’s got great hands and great feet.”
With McCoughtry sidelined for the rest of the year after a season-ending knee injury, it’s likely that Brittney Sykes will start in her place. But the Dream will lean on Bentley more too, to make up for the scoring, play-making, defense and on-court leadership that McCoughtry provided.
On Thursday night, Bentley showed she can fill one of McCoughtry’s roles by taking the big shot in the big moment. A screen from Williams allowed Bentley to switch on to Candace Parker at the top of the key. Bentley made a quick dribble to get Parker off-balance, creating enough space for a long-range pull-up jumper that made it a two-possession game with 16 seconds to play.
“Alex lives for those moments and everybody who has watched her play knows that,” Collen said after the Sparks game. “She wants the ball in her hands and you have to trust her to take those shots because she’s rarely going to let you down.”
The Dream haven’t lost a step when they go their bench. When Hayes, Sykes or Montgomery need a break, Collen can turn to Bentley, who will provide energy, stifling defense and a basketball IQ that puts her teammates in a position to score.
And Bentley just might go off for 10 or 20 points, too.