August 6, 2021 

Family and focus: Darius Taylor takes the reins in Atlanta

How Taylor plans to build a Dream environment

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Darius Taylor. (photo courtesy of the Atlanta Dream)

How Taylor got here, and what he brings to the helm

Much like Mike Petersen, the Atlanta Dream’s interim coach for the first half of the season, Darius Taylor had no expectation of running a basketball team in 2021. Unlike his predecessor, Taylor isn’t brushing aside the possibility of becoming the team’s long-term head coach — even if his focus is on his team’s future, rather than his own.

“It’s a humbling experience to be in a position to lead anybody,” Taylor told The Next in an interview this week. “It’s any coach’s ultimate dream to be the head coach … I’m fortunate, however many games, if it’s 13 or if it’s longer, to be in that position and lead a team of really good players.”

In his 13 years as an assistant coach, Taylor has developed a reputation as a steady voice and a defensive scholar who has earned the trust of the team’s front office, his former coaches and his current roster. Behind the scenes, though, Taylor is defined by another force: his family.

That tight-knit group — his wife, Joni Taylor, who is the reigning SEC Coach of the Year, as well as their two daughters Jacie and Drew — has done more than mold Taylor into the unflappable coach that the Dream wanted down the stretch after Petersen stepped down for health reasons. They’re the reason he’s in Atlanta in the first place.

Before moving up to the WNBA, Taylor spent nine years as an assistant at Temple University and the University of South Carolina, where he worked as the right-hand man to head coach Dawn Staley. He ultimately left the Gamecocks in 2015 after marrying Joni Taylor, who was taking over at rival Georgia University.

Since he arrived at the Dream’s training camp in 2018, Taylor has been approached with inquiries to coach at the collegiate and semi-professional levels. He’s never entertained another offer.

“Obviously I had no interest,” Taylor told The Next. “I want to be as close as I can be to my family and still do what I love.”

That family culture has spilled over into Atlanta. A few players on the roster have young children who visit practices and come on road trips, marking a familiar sight for Taylor himself as a father. Taylor, for instance, isn’t shy about gifting Jacie and Drew’s old toys to Odyssey Sims’ son Jaiden, who spends the most time around the team. During the team’s downtime, Taylor has also connected with Tianna Hawkins and Candice Dupree to chat about parenting.

“We’re a really family-friendly organization and want our players to feel that we are there to support them and that we’re okay with their children being around,” Taylor said. “Not every organization is like that.”

Fatherhood and coaching is a good mix for Taylor, who said he has a knack for knowing when to switch hats and what buttons to push. There is, of course, always room to improve in both arenas. But he’s managing to separate the two.

“A lot of times I’m coming back home from practice where I’m in coach mode and I’m like ‘Hey, I need you to do this, this, this and this.’ I have to remind myself sometimes, ‘They’re only four and two,’ I have to be a daddy sometimes,” Taylor said, laughing.

Where the team goes in its second half

Team chemistry and culture are at the top of the mind in Atlanta, especially while 22-year-old star Chennedy Carter continues to serve her suspension from early July — a suspension with no clear timetable for a return, according to Dream PR. Restoring the team’s identity amid a tight playoff race would be difficult for any interim coach, and doing so without one of the league’s best point guards only narrows his room for error.

But, as one of the league’s most level-headed coaches, Taylor said building bridges, stressing accountability, and keeping his calm voice go a long way toward getting the team back on the same page.

“You can say the right thing, but if you’re delivering it the wrong way you’re wasting time,” Taylor said. “Managing a locker room with different personalities and egos is all about open communication and helping people see both sides of the fence.”

Multiple players have already attested to a rejuvenated culture as the Dream return to practice. Players are direct, intentional and accountable to one another in a way that was unfamiliar from the first half. In its first week back, the team held several meetings specifically aimed at addressing its issues from the first half.

Tiffany Hayes said the fresh start has already paid dividends. In June and July, bad practices and moments tended to snowball. Now, the Dream are quick to correct their course, though Carter is still away from the team.

“Everyone can talk when it’s going good,” Taylor said. “When things aren’t going well, the people who talk and how you respond is the most important.”

Taylor will also be aided by his two assistants, Daynia La-Force and La’Keshia Frett. La-Force will primarily work with the guards and on the defensive side of the ball, while Frett focuses on the posts and looks over the offense and defense.

Defense is the other demon that the Dream have yet to conquer. But Taylor said he is ready to right the ship.

“One of the things that we have to get better at right now is defense. We’re 12th in the league,” Taylor said. Going forward, you’ll see a mix of us being more solid and more disciplined defensively, us getting better in transition and in the halfcourt, and still mix it up where we’ll press and do some other things to change things up. Our defense will be similar, but again, just more fundamental and more discipline.”

Taylor believes that the playoffs are an attainable goal, and said that the Olympic Break offers the opportunity for a second training camp. It helps that the team is approaching 100 percent: on Wednesday, Hayes said that she is effectively back to full health and will be ready for the team’s first game back. But as long as Carter is out, the Dream will have a hole in their roster and plenty of questions for their future.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

Atlanta Dream and Big 12 reporter, breaking news and other things.

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