July 19, 2020 

‘Good surprises’ for the Dream in first scrimmage

Nicki Collen's team matched up against the Washington Mystics for 40 minutes of work today.

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Atlanta Dream forward Monique Billings, pictured here shooting a free throw during a against the Connecticut Sun on June 21, 2019, impressed coach Nicki Collen with her performance in the team’s first scrimmage. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Two days ago, the 12 WNBA coaches in Bradenton found out they’d be able to have scrimmages against the other teams at IMG Academy on Sunday. Though two days isn’t much time to figure out a plan, thanks to the unique advantage of all the coaches being at one site, they were able to get plans together nearly instantaneously.

Saturday night, Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault and Atlanta Dream coach Nicki Collen worked out the details of their Sunday morning scrimmage over dinner. They decided to keep things fairly controlled, with 40 minutes split between some half-court work and some four-minute blocks of live action.

Washington currently has 10 active players and Atlanta has just nine, so it was the first opportunity for the two teams to get some five-on-five action without being overly worried about tiring out their players.

“We did do some half-court execution and then we kept it contained at four-minute live segments so there was more of a break,” Collen said. “When you think about what our games look like and TV timeouts, it’s smart to go in four- and five-minute segments to get them back. I don’t think there’s any doubt that we got tired, but the good part is then they see it. We’ve been very controlled in how much we go up and down with only nine players. We feel like if we’re getting conditioning even in the half court, if we’re cutting hard, if we’re screening hard, if we’re attacking and being aggressive, that we’ll get our conditioning back little by little.”

Making it even easier to set up the scrimmage is the fact that most teams are sharing courts during practice — IMG’s main basketball gym has two courts that can be separated by a curtain. Atlanta and Washington are sharing practice time right now, so the coaches are able to just lean across the curtain and suggest they do some work against each other.

For the Dream, it was the first time any of their players have faced an external opponent in at least four or five months. And despite the controlled nature of play, Collen and her players felt they gleaned valuable insight from their time.

“For our players, we’ve obviously only had nine so far, and not having a sub and always going against one another, it was good to be able to see different combinations on the court,” Collen said. “I thought our intensity was good. We made some mistakes. I would expect that. Our execution has to be better. We were probably better in transition than we were in the half court, no surprise early in the season in that regard.”

In particular, Collen was pleasantly surprised by performances from third-year forward Monique Billings and Dream newcomer Betnijah Laney.

Laney was picked up after Tiffany Hayes decided to opt out of the season, mostly to fill Hayes’ spot on the defensive end of the floor, but so far in Florida, her offensive game has been better than advertised.

“We’ve been seeing amazing stuff from Betnijah in practice,” Collen said. “She’s been really, really good, so to see her do it in this setting — the scouting report on Betnijah Laney throughout her career so far is that she can’t shoot it. She’s a defender, she’s an energy player. It’s just not what we’ve seen so far in camp, so to see her do it in a five-on-five setting, to make open shots, to attack, to score around the rim, that was a really pleasant surprise.

“It was what we had hoped was going to happen, that it was going to translate, but she’s been one of those players in this league that the scouting report has said play off, help off, she’s going to come attack you, just don’t foul her. She’s really developed her game and becoming a better all-around player, especially at the offensive end.”

Both Collen and Elizabeth Williams pointed to Billings as someone who excelled in the scrimmage. Now entering her third season with Atlanta, Collen said Billings has really started to understand the game, which combines with her athleticism to make a well-rounded player.

“I thought the energy was great,” Williams said. “We’ve talked about playing with a high pace, and I think we did a really good job of doing that consistently. I thought Mo was awesome on offense and defense. She kinda led the way with being consistent and with her energy. I think overall there were just good surprises.”

While more experienced players like Billings and Laney thrived in the controlled scrimmage, the Dream’s rookies like Chennedy Carter and Brittany Brewer got their first taste of live WNBA action — and realized how much they still have to learn.

“I feel like I learned a lot in just that 40 minutes of scrimmaging,” Brewer said. “I was like, ‘I need a notebook. I need to take notes.’ … Running the floor is a moneymaker and my teammates do a really great job of that. Their pace is something that I want to translate to my game all the time. We do that in practice, but just seeing the difference that it makes against other teams is awesome. There’s so much [to learn].”

For Carter, who’s been tasked with running the point as a rookie, the scrimmage was a learning experience.

Collen often says that point guard is the hardest position for a rookie to learn in the WNBA, and with only eight practices under her belt, Carter naturally still has a lot to learn. But Collen spoke positively of what she saw from Carter — particularly in her matchup with Mystics guard Ariel Atkins.

“Ariel was all-defensive team two years ago, so we know she’s someone that can really get up and guard and has size and strength,” Collen said. “I thought that was a good challenge for [Carter]. For the most part, she made some really good shots. She had a few turnovers. She’s gotta understand our playbook a little bit better, so that she knows who to get the ball, where to get them the ball and when to get them the ball. I think that just is gonna take time.”

The Dream’s season opener is just one week away, when Atlanta will “host” the Dallas Wings. Collen said they have two more scrimmages planned, against Connecticut on Tuesday and Las Vegas on Thursday, so Carter will have time to further settle into the playbook before the season kicks off, while the Dream’s more experienced players get back into the swing of five-on-five action.

Written by Bailey Johnson

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