How Jessica Breland helped anchor the league’s best defense.
ATLANTA — Renee Montgomery couldn’t help herself. As a reporter was asking a question to Elizabeth Williams at the Atlanta Dream’s post-game press conference following their 92-82 win over the Dallas Wings on Aug. 11, she had to correct him.
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Talking to Williams, the reporter began by saying, “We saw it again tonight, you and Jessica blocking a bunch of shots…”
Montgomery cut in: “Block party. Call it what it is. It was a block party.”
Indeed. Whether they are on the road or at home in McCamish Pavilion, Williams and Jessica Breland have been hosting “Block Parties” each night in the opposing team’s paint. On any given play, it might be Williams rotating over to send a lay-up into the stands, or it could be Breland rising up in the post to spike a shot down.
On Aug. 7, in a 109-100 win for the Dream over the Las Vegas Aces, it seemed like there was two Dikembe Mutombo’s under the basket, as Breland and Williams combined for nine swats.
When Breland signed her contract this off-season, coming to the Dream from the Chicago Sky, forming a partnership with her was something that Williams was looking forward to.
“I mean, I love blocking shots, but I really love when my teammates block shots, too,” Williams said. “And it’s nice, defensively in the post, if we end up switching or whatever, we have each other’s back.”
When it comes to shot-blocking, Breland and Williams have been the best tandem in the WNBA. They have denied 124 shots, which is eight more than the combined total of the next closest pair of teammates, Natasha Howard and Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm. Breland is third in the league in shots blocked with 65, while Williams is fourth with 59.
The Atlanta Dream are rolling this season, and there’s many factors to consider when deciding what exactly is responsible for the turnaround of the team. A year ago, the Dream won 12 games. This year, they finished with 23 wins, setting a franchise record for regular season victories. Since the start of July, they are 16-3.
Breland always admired the Dream from afar. She was a fan of many players on the roster. She never thought that the Dream’s woes from a season ago had anything to do with the talent on the floor.
“From a management point of view, I didn’t know how that was, not to say anything negative about anyone,” Breland said. “I think (Nicki Collen) came in with her staff and I think they’re doing something really wonderful here. That’s anything right? It starts with the head, top-down.”
The return of Angel McCoughtry, the arrival of Collen and her staff, the added veteran leadership of Montgomery, the leap that Tiffany Hayes took to establish herself as one of the league’s top players, and a new team attitude are things that people can point to as to why the Dream have been so good this year.
But another component has been the addition of Breland. She is an absolute shut-down defender, has paired perfectly in the front court with Williams and has an affinity for shot-blocking.
On any night, Collen can stick Breland on the opposing team’s best post player and count on Breland to make it a tough night for the player. In Aug. 9 win over the Sparks, Candace Parker finished with a -14 plus-minus rating after missing 12 shots and turning the ball over four times with Breland guarding her. She scored against Parker too, tallying 19 points.
“I’m a defensive minded player,” Breland said after that win. “When I get stops or doing something really well for my team, it gives me energy. In return, it feeds the other end of the court. You get into a player’s head when you’re playing great defense because it causes them to think about their offense.”
She’s a solid scorer and rebounder too, making 42.8 percent of her shots this season while averaging 8.3 points and 7.9 rebounds per-game, along with career-highs of 2.1 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.9 blocks per-game.
“Coming in, we knew what (Breland) could do offensively, but I don’t think a lot people realize how good of a defender she is,” Williams said. “Her length, her timing and just being smart, that’s what makes her a good defender.”
Part of the Dream’s identity has always been to be a fast team, and they’ve continued that this year under Collen, ranking second overall in pace per-40 minutes. But they have also added stingy defense to their makeup, allowing opponents to shoot just 42.3 percent from the floor, the lowest percentage in the league. Opponents also average an offensive rating of just 97.1 against the Dream, also the lowest in the league.
Breland has had a lot to do with that. She is second in the league in defensive win shares with a mark of 2.7, an estimate of the player’s points allowed per 100 defensive possessions.
“She was the leading shot blocker among all power forwards last year, so it’s not a surprise to me,” Collen said. “I know when I was in Connecticut, Alyssa Thomas struggled to score over (Breland) and she doesn’t struggle to score over a lot of people in the league.”
While the sound of Breland’s hand smacking away a shot makes her presence immediately known to opposing players, it has also given her teammates confidence. The Dream are among the league leaders in steals, averaging 7.6 per-game which is third among all teams, and Montgomery alone has swiped away 45 possessions this season. Before her season-ending knee injury, McCoughtry had 38 steals.
Easy swipes for the Dream are partly due to Williams and Breland. The Dream’s perimeter defenders can take more risks, like jumping a passing lane or reaching, because they know if they miss, the Dream’s Twin Towers are behind them to clean up the mess.
“Renee just said that to us (vs. the Wings) during a timeout,” Breland explained. “She said, ‘Hey, you know, we can get up and guard because we have our post players back there. Send it to them and let them block it.’ Those probably weren’t her exact words, but yeah.”
Breland has always been a defensive anchor for her teams. As a junior at North Carolina, she led the ACC in blocks per-game with 3.1. She redshirted her next season in Chapel Hill to undergo treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Months later, Breland, displaying the definition of toughness, returned to UNC for one more season. She played in 34 games and averaged 12.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per-game, which was good enough to get her drafted by the Minnesota Lynx in 2011.
Breland bounced around the league early in her career and then signed with Chicago in 2014 and had a breakout season. She was an All-Star while averaging 9.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per-game. She stayed in the Windy City with the Sky through 2017, producing similar statistical seasons.
This past offseason she was ready for a change and was sold on Collen’s pitch to come to Atlanta. Looking back at the press release from the signing now, it seems like Collen could see into the future. She was spot-on with what she thought Breland could bring to Atlanta.
“Her length, shot blocking ability, and rebounding will be assets on the defensive end while her ability to score from the perimeter and handle the ball will help us space the floor and be more dynamic offensively,” Collen said at the time.
One of the things that intrigued Breland was the chance to play with Williams, despite the fact that she’s a Blue Devil.
“Oh yeah. We play around a lot with the rivalry,” Breland said with a laugh. “I thought — and I told Nicki this too when she was trying to get me to come here — that the roster was good. I liked everyone on here, from Angel to Tiffany to Elizabeth. I was really excited because I loved (Williams’) style of play. She’s a true five. She stays down there, and she battles, blocks shots — even though she went to Duke, it’s okay. We play really well together.”
Williams and Breland are the only two WNBA teammates this season inside the top five for blocks, blocks per-36 and block percentage.
Breland has helped the Dream realize Collen’s vision of putting defense first. The team is hoping that a fast, but efficient style of play, combined with a hard-nosed attitude on defense, and extra motivation to get W’s for their fallen teammate — McCoughtry — will carry them deep into the postseason as the No. 2 seed.
“What happened to Angel saddens all of our hearts. We’re a different team without her,” Breland said. “We miss her dearly, we do, but I think we’re deep. I think Angel is in good spirits, knowing that we have her back.”