Winning it all feels reachable for Atlanta
The Atlanta Dream’s 2019 mantra is to “elevate.” What does a team that went from tenth to second in the league over one season shoot for in the next?
A No. 1 finish and WNBA title.
In her first season as head coach, Nicki Collen led the Dream to a 23-11 finish and an appearance in the WNBA semifinals, where the team ultimately fell to the Washington Mystics in Game 5.
Collen was named WNBA Coach of the Year.
Now, the team wants to do it all over again, but better.
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The goal in training camps across the league this week likely is to compete for a WNBA championship. But after being only a few points and minutes from making the 2018 WNBA finals, the Dream known exactly how capable they are of making it happen.
“(The team) saw ‘We can do this,’” veteran Renee Montgomery said. “It’s not like a goal like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah – championship’s a goal,’ they saw that we were No. 2 in the league, and knocked out of the semis. So now, once they see it, it’s easier to believe it.”
And for them, it starts with training camp on Georgia State’s campus in downtown Atlanta. Collen said during Dream media day that she wants the team to retain its defensive-minded, fast-paced identity and improving in offensive efficiency.
Considering the accomplishments last season, the team had plenty of newcomers – including at head coach. This season, most of the Dream’s key pieces are back.
Returning in the backcourt are Tiffany Hayes, Renee Montgomery, Brittney Sykes, Alex Bentley, Blake Dietrick and in the frontcourt, Jessica Breland, Elizabeth Williams and Monique Billings.
Both Montgomery, who led the team in assists, and Breland, who led the team in rebounds and blocks, played and started in all 39 Dream games in 2018.
Hayes led Dream in scoring in the last two seasons, returned to training camp Thursday for the Dream. In 2018, Hayes averaged 17.2 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game, and was named All-WNBA first team.
“There are great players in this league, but her defensive numbers combined with how much of our offense ran through her, she really had a spectacular season,” Collen said of Hayes.
Notably missing from the Dream this season is Damiris Dantas, who signed with the Lynx earlier this year, and Angel McCoughtry, who is recovering from a 2018 knee injury. Imani McGee-Stafford was traded to the Dallas Wings during the 2019 preseason.
There is no expectation for the two-time Olympian to start the season on the court, with the team evaluating McCoughtry on a “month-to-month, strength test-to-strength test” basis. Atlanta prepared for the season with the worst-case scenario in mind: the possibility that McCoughtry would not return at all in 2019.
“That is the approach I went into for free agency, that we couldn’t wait on her,” Collen said during media day. “That we had to be prepared. We’ve gone in and added some pieces to be versatile, so we could cover for her while she’s getting healthy.”
To compensate for the loss of McCoughtry, the Dream acquired forward Nia Coffey in a trade with the Las Vegas Aces and signed forward Haley Peters to a training camp contract.
Coffey, a 6’1 forward, brings size, versatility and strength the team misses without McCoughtry while Peters is an option at both small and power forward.
In April, Collen also added Mercury center Marie Gülich by selecting and trading Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner to Phoenix on draft night. Gülich, 2017-18 Co-Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year, is someone Collen had her eye on in 2018, but who Phoenix picked up before the Dream could.
“There’s just kind of this newfound opportunity here to stretch the floor and something that we don’t already have,” Collen said. “And (Gülich) really understands how to play. She really understands what we do.”
The Dream also grabbed Maite Carzola out of Oregon with the No. 23 pick in the 2019 draft and signed veteran Lynetta Kizer to a training camp contract. The Dream also signed Meme Jackson to a training camp contract, but waived the rookie out of Tennessee on May 15.
“The hardest part for me right now, is I think our last couple cuts are gonna be near impossible for me,” Collen said. “The overall level of talent in our gym right now, it’s better than it was last year.”
The Dream plays three preseason games, two in Connecticut vs. the Dallas Wings and New York Liberty, and a third on Friday, May 17 at the Albany Civic Center vs. the Washington Mystics.
The Dream start their 2019 season on May 24, when they host the Wings at State Farm Arena.
Brittney Sykes, who played at Syracuse, spent her first two years in the league playing her home games at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavillion, a court she regularly visited against in the ACC.
With the renovations of the former Phillips Arena complete, Sykes will start her third WNBA season inside of a new venue.
“I’m happy, those two years (at Tech) were worth it, now we’re back in the arena,” Sykes said. “I get to play on a real, professional court at home. So it’s pretty dope to get to experience that now.”
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