April 11, 2023 

Dream draft versatility, connections in act of continued growth

'We want them to have that winning mentality'

ATLANTA — According to Atlanta Dream Head Coach Tanisha Wright, there were “a lot of surprises” in Monday’s WNBA Draft, just none in her own war room.

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With a haul of Haley Jones, Laeticia Amihere, and Leigha Brown the Dream got exactly who they wanted.

“On my Christmas wishlist was Haley Jones,” Atlanta Dream co-owner Renee Montgomery told reporters.

Strolling into Monday night, the Dream held the No. 6, No. 8, and No. 15 picks. They originally were awarded the No. 3 pick in the lottery, but ended up with their selections because of trades, mostly in the acquisition of Allisha Gray via Dallas.

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These moves were highly calculated: Montgomery has been praying since at least December, and General Manager Dan Padover said he’s been watching Amihere since he got to Atlanta in October 2021. And their moves didn’t disappoint:

Stanford big wing Haley Jones holds onto the ball as South Carolina Gamecocks center Aliyah Boston tries to pry it away from besides Jones, while Cardinal big Fran Belibi tries to help Jones hold on from behind.
Stanford big wing Haley Jones holds onto the ball as South Carolina Gamecocks center Aliyah Boston tries to pry it away from besides Jones, while Cardinal big Fran Belibi tries to help Jones hold on from behind. (Photo credit: Eric Gay | AP via @BHS_GBB)

With the No. 6 pick, the Dream selected 6’1 guard Haley Jones out of Stanford. For much of the last years, Jones’ draft stock was lottery-level, but after slipping a bit in the past months, the Dream capitalized. Jones averaged 13.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game as a Cardinal.

With the No. 8 pick Atlanta drafted 6’4 South Carolina forward Laeticia Amihere. Amihere came off the bench for the Gamecocks, but at just about any other program would’ve been a starting star. She averaged 6.3 points and 4.1 rebounds in four years.

And finally, with the No. 15 pick, the Dream took home Michigan’s Leigha Brown, a 6’1” guard, known for her competitive spirit, who averaged 16.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists in Ann Arbor.

A winner’s mentality

Both of the Dream’s first-round picks are National Champions, Jones won Most Outstanding Player alongside Stanford’s 2021 Championship and Amihere took home hardware in 2022. Jones also played extensively at the youth USA Basketball level and Amihere for the Canadian Senior team.

“I’ve been in a background where winning has been my culture. I’ve been winning for most of my life,” Amihere told media following the draft. “I want to bring that winning culture to Atlanta. I know that that is their plan. … and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to bring a winning culture into the program.

Both first-rounders know how it feels to taste success and bring it to a new level, and for a young Dream team who missed the playoffs by just inches last year, the playoffs are the goal and expectation to many.

“They’ve played for winning programs so they have winning mentality. So anybody that we’re bringing in obviously has to be the right fit right person, but we want them to have that winning mentality,” Wright told reporters. “One thing you can say about the Dream is that we’re gonna show up and we’re gonna compete.”

Although Wright also noted the W is a whole other league that they’ll need to adapt to, winning can’t hurt.

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They can do it all

The calling card of all three Dream draftees is their spirit of versatility. All in the “big guard” arena, they can play on both ends and be flexible within their young, shifting roster.

“They’re all they’re all big guards, great size with a lot of different versatility,” Wright said. “We want to get out, we want to run, we want to try and score in transition. We want our pace to be high. Different things like that. All of them bring that to the table.”

South Carolina takes on Tennessee during the finals of the 2023 Southeastern Conference Women’s Basketball Championship at Bon Secours Wellness Arena on Sunday, March 05, 2023 in Greenville, South Carolina.

Although Amihere came off the bench, her impact on the Gamecocks All-Star squad was indescribable. At the SEC Tournament, Staley said, “She is the most versatile player I have ever had. She can play 1-5.”

Her length, athleticism, and wingspan bring the Dream to new heights, especially when they need backup size for Cheyenne Parker. And when South Carolina’s guards were down, Amihere could start at the one. Wright categorized her as a “game changer.”

Beyond her fantastic passing and ball handling, Jones’ size is unique for a guard. In college, it’s tough to come by and translates to the pros very well. She is a high IQ player who is extremely dynamic offensively and also has a strong defensive skillset, necessary for the Dream’s defense-first style.

“She has an ability to do a little bit of everything, and I think that’s going to complement the group we have already. She can play the 1-3, she’s able to pass, able to shoot,” General Manager Dan Padover told reporters.

And Brown fits a similar profile. Listed as a 6’ 1 guard, she has a similarly unique skillset. She can break down defenses, play on either end, and shoot well inside.

“Being able to have that size and be able to guard on the perimeter I think is really important. We’ll be able to switch a little bit more because we do have size. Hopefully, that turns into deflections,” Wright said.

But what sets Brown truly apart is her tenacity on the court. She has a palpable competitive drive that’s clear from the moment you see her touch the ball.

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Connections found this team

And although Jones, Amihere, and Brown are all versatile winners, they also all come with close connections to the Dream organization.

Jones is an alumna of Archbishop Mitty High School, nearly 2,500 miles away in San Jose, California. Jones is an alumni hero in herself, but recent Dream acquisition Danielle Robinson is the original Mitty icon.

“Every day at practice in high school I saw D-Rob up on the wall. So now that I get join her on a team with a Mitty legend, it’s hard to describe really,” Jones told media. “She was the first Mitty legend in the women’s basketball program. So now to get to play alongside her is kind of amazing. I don’t really have any other words to describe it.”

Michigan women’s basketball defeats Penn State, 82-72, at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, MI on January 3, 2023. (Photo credit: Atlanta Dream)

And the connections don’t end there. Brown joins her former Michigan teammate Naz Hillmon, both drafted at the No. 15. The two Wolverines are the first back-to-back Michigan WNBA draftees since the 2004-2005 season.

When scouting Brown, who was part of a group they were expecting to go for at the No. 15 spot, they asked Hillmon for advice.

“We spoke with Naz about her. We had a good feel that if that player was there, she’s another one who could come in plays multiple positions,” Padover told media. “Naz just said: love playing with her, ultimate competitor, and had nothing but good things to say.”

Last year, the Michigan fans came out in droves across the country to support Hillmon, the best to ever do it in a Michigan women’s jersey, and will likely bring similar energy for a Blue and Maize duo.

And also after this offseason, the Dream’s roster boasts two South Carolina Gamecocks. Both Allisha Gray and Amihere are champions of Dawn Staley’s program. The Gamecock family is strong, both with their connection to Staley and among alumni players, but also their fans.

Just a three and a half hour drive, Atlanta is the closest WNBA team to Columbia, S.C., and the Gamecocks fans show out like few other women’s basketball fanbases. Along with Blue and Mazie, we’ll likely see plenty of Garnet this summer.

Hillmon, Jones, and Dram star Rhyne Howard also played USA Basketball together, and know each well. Padover and Wright say all the connections weren’t intentional, but add a level of comfort.

But beyond the apparent connections, this draft also reveals many longtime opponents to teammates storylines. Howard put out of a photo on Twitter soon after the draft of Amihere and her guarding each other back in their AAU days.

From AAU, to country, to the SEC, Amihere and Howard finally get to play with each other, rather than against; a sentiment that runs throughout the Dream’s draft.

“Laeticia, we’ve been rivals for like four years now. We ran into each other in the photo room. We’re excited to finally get to play together, throw on the same jersey, and I think we’ll be quite the duo to throw up with people like Naz Hillmon, Danielle Robinson, Rhyne Howard,” Jones said.

The Dream organization and roster has made leaps and bounds over these past years, and the front office knows that there’s more pressure now than last year, but the excitement in ATL is palpable and these picks seem to fit in well with the system that’s being built.

Players will arrive in Atlanta shortly and begin training camp on April 30. But with 16 officially on the roster, with a limit of 12, it’s likely not all three of these draftees will see a WNBA regular season game.

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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