September 8, 2021 

How Aari McDonald and Monique Billings brought optimism back to Atlanta

A pair of post-break success stories

On Sunday, the Atlanta Dream finally won a basketball game.

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But we’re not exactly here to talk about that, or the 11-game losing streak, though it rightfully has to find its way into every conversation involving the Dream right now. Instead, let’s get a little more specific. Let’s talk about some small rays of optimism in Atlanta’s future, ahead of Wednesday’s announcement of a new team president and COO.

The franchise’s young star, Chennedy Carter, hasn’t played since July 4. The other two pieces of the team’s young core — Aari McDonald and Monique Billings — aren’t necessarily superstars. And yet, their emergence over the past month has given the franchise hope. Here are the subtle ways each has improved, and why it matters for the future.

The subtle ascent of Monique Billings

Monique Billings is built for playoff basketball. So it’s a shame she’s only been there once.

These days, it’s easy for a post player to become expendable. Every year you don’t put up gaudy numbers or stretch the floor, the rent on your roster spot becomes a little more available. Which makes Billings such an intriguing basketball player. In 2021, she’s averaged 7.6 points per game and has yet to make a 3-pointer in her career.

She’s done just about everything else at an exceptional level.

The tweet-length story on Billings is that she’s an energetic big who sets hard screens, plays good interior defense and grabs offensive rebounds. But her play is worthy of more words, because she gives so much more than that.

Most of Billings’ growth this season has come since the conclusion of the Olympic Break. Taking on an expanded role given the absence of Cheyenne Parker and the wavering health of Candice Dupree, Billings has flourished in a system set up for her to get touches. While she was a valuable member of the Dream off of the ball, she didn’t get much of an opportunity to shine with the ball in her hands. Her development as an on-ball threat is cathartic for a team that so desperately needed one.

One piece of that puzzle: her midrange has been automatic since the break. In the first half of the season, Billings’ jumpers often looked rushed and would brick off of the back rim more often than it would float through the net. But now, she’s settled in, and with a softer touch from 10-20 feet out, she’s become a legitimate concern for other teams.

Atlanta’s interim coach Darius Taylor, who primarily worked with Billings and the post players before being elevated to head coach, has injected new life and a new role in Billings. Assistant coach La’Keshia Frett, who works with the post players now, has witnessed that growth first-hand in practice.

“She’s just playing within the flow of her teammates and the pace of the game and just keeping it simple, but she’s doing the things that she does well,” Frett said. “She works a lot off having good energy and good vibes when she’s in the gym. So her comfort level along with the work ethic that she puts in, that kind of makes her unique.”

Frett and Taylor also said that Billings is one of the league’s most athletic post players, and if not for her height, it would be easy to mistake her for a traditional wing when she runs the floor and plays defense. Most post players, for instance, aren’t athletic or malleable enough to be a threat down low or when they get low. Billings is an exception, as one of just seven players who average at least one steal and one block per game.

Billings isn’t supposed to run the floor this well. There’s only a handful of players at her height who can do what she does in transition:

The energy doesn’t stop there: Billings is one of the WNBA’s best offensive rebounders, possessing a rare combination of strength, bounce and chutzpah.

“She and I actually had a talk the other day, because I was in Atlanta for her rookie season, and I am just blown away by the growth that she has achieved,” Atlanta guard Blake Dietrick said. “She has become such an incredible woman and teammate and player and I’m just blown away by her. You’re never going to get a lack of effort or desire or fight from her.”

“And so, for me, I can live with mistakes when they happen,” she added. “I’m not saying they happen often, but I can live with that if you’re giving 110% effort, and Monique is always doing that, and she’s always putting in the extra work, the stuff you don’t see on the court is that she’s early to the gym working out. She’s staying after practice getting work in. She’s always working on herself and working on her game. And now it’s starting to pay off and I think that’s awesome.”

ATLANTA, GA – JUNE 26: Aari McDonald #4 of the Atlanta Dream looks to pass the ball against the New York Liberty on June 26, 2021 at Gateway Center Arena in College Park, Georgia. Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Dale Zanine/NBAE via Getty Images)

Aari McDonald has found her rhythm

Aari McDonald’s minutes have been a sore topic of conversation around Atlanta, especially as the Dream have positioned themselves outside of the playoff race. It would certainly make sense for the team to give a piece of their core major minutes and the opportunity to develop on the court.

That much is true, but it’s a bit reductive to stop there. Because the minutes she has gotten since the Olympic Break have been valuable: the Dream are using her the right way, and it’s working.

Alongside floor spacers like Blake Dietrick and Tiffany Hayes, as well as an athletic roller in Billings, McDonald has secured the freedom of an open floor and is playing without a worry on her shoulders. To coach her up in the second half, Taylor has kept her in the game even after she makes traditional rookie mistakes.

“She’s really learning how to play with her teammates, picking her spots where she can be aggressive,” Taylor said. “Before she was just playing not to make mistakes.”

All year, we’ve seen a scrappy McDonald. But now, she looks loose. In transition, she’s a phenom (just like Billings) and has figured out how to command the offense in her rookie season — no small feat as a rookie point guard. To have almost twice as many assists (1.8) per game as turnovers (1.1) is also quite good. McDonald has a tight handle on the ball and is finally maximizing her speed on the offensive end of the court, rather than just on defense.

Don’t believe me? Just re-watch those clips above.

McDonald’s revamped confidence has manifested in the second half as she’s played longer stretches without that fear that dictated the first half. She’s also had Atlanta’s best plus-minus since the Olympic Break, and though that sort of catch-all stat slightly overstates her value, this much is clear: Atlanta is a good basketball team when she is on the floor. That’s perhaps the most important stamp you can have as a rookie.

“It makes not only me proud, it makes everyone proud just to see her do what she what she can do,” said Odyssey Sims, who has served as a mentor for McDonald throughout the year. “We’ve all seen her on a national stage when she was at Arizona for the national championship game before she got drafted. So it’s no surprise what she’s been giving … She’ll continue to learn and be that sponge. Of course, I’m proud of her. That’s my little baby.”

Sims is right: in March, the women’s basketball world learned that McDonald is built for anything. If Atlanta can become a playoff team in the next few years, they’ll have a young guard who is more than ready.

After this season, the three players who define the Dream’s core either become unrestricted free agents (Hayes and Courtney Williams) or has a future in flux (Carter). Though we likely won’t learn more about their destinations until January 2022, the team has plenty of time to figure its future out.

The team does know, however, that it can have McDonald and Billings around for the long haul.

The Dream will have control over McDonald’s contract through 2024, and though Billings’ should command a proper contract this offseason, her status as a restricted free agent means that Atlanta ultimately has the final say over whether she returns or not. Given the dearth of certainty on the roster and Atlanta’s massive cap space in 2022, it would be wise for the team to keep its evolving young talent around. Come time for playoff basketball, they’ll show that they’re worth it.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

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

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