June 26, 2023 

How Nia Coffey anchors the Atlanta Dream’s defense, a film study

‘It’s just about applying pressure, so I can be a threat on both ends of the floor’

Atlanta Dream forward Nia Coffey doesn’t post gaudy statistical numbers, nor will she show up as a conspicuous talent in highlight reels, but as described by head coach Tanisha Wright, “She puts her hard hat on, comes to work every day and does her job.”

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Coffey’s first season with the organization in 2022 was plagued by a right knee injury, causing her to miss 21 of the team’s last 22 games. She recorded two blocks on the season – the lowest of her WNBA career – and looked less of the versatile defender from her season prior in Los Angeles that led Atlanta to sign her to a multi-year, six-figure contract in free agency. 

“Well compared from last year, I was having knee issues [dating back] to training camp,” Coffey told The Next. “I couldn’t really move the way I wanted to move, so that was a struggle.”

This season, the 28-year-old Swiss army knife forward has been an indispensable piece to the Dream amid early-season defensive struggles for the team.

“She’s one of our best communicators,” Wright told the media following Atlanta’s home loss against the Sun on June 11. “Like if you can’t listen to Nia, then they’re not listening because she talks them through every single possession.”

We sat down with Coffey to analyze the film to better understand her process and execution as a defender.

Note: Analysis of video clips is edited to reflect what Coffey saw on a specific possession. The film session in video and audio format is above.

How does Coffey look at perimeter defense?

Atlanta has an aggressive defensive scheme built around size, length, and positional versatility. Currently, the Dream is the only team in the WNBA to regularly start five players all over 6 feet.

For Coffey, she takes her role as a defensive stopper to heart and looks to fill in wherever necessary, depending on the opponent’s offensive tendencies and schemes.

“I’m able to guard one through four, depending on the type of size at the five,” Coffey said. “I can defend on the perimeter and put pressure [on the offense] from that position by using my length. It’s just about applying pressure, so I can be a threat on both ends of the floor.

Coffey exploded out of the gates to open the 2023 season, recording ten blocks through four games in May, trailing only Brittney Griner at 11.

I feel like I’m 100 percent back to health,” Coffey said. “It helps that it’s my second season on this team, so I understand the schemes, I know our players, and also just having experience in the league with it being my seventh season.”

“With someone like Arike [Ogunbowale], she’s comfortable when she’s able to [create] space and get her dribble going,” Coffey said. “Like if I can make her think about it and probe her in a different way, then she’s not as much in her rhythm. [Here], I know she’s trying to get to that left side; she got me with a move, but I know if I see my help side, then it has to be a pull-up [jumper] so, I just make sure to recover well without fouling.”

“I played with [Kayla] McBride and she’s a knockdown 3-pointer shooter,” Coffey said. “She does a good job of using her screens and getting her body set for that shot, so when I see her cross [Napheesa Collier] here, I’m like, okay, I have to go out there and contest that shot.”

How does Coffey look at rim protection?

Coffey does a superb job of blending her switchability with stout rim protection. She leverages her core strength, timing, length, and communication to add value at the second level on defense.

“With Collier, knowing she wants to go left, I know I have to make sure I contest that,” Coffey said. “I can see she’s starting to slow down a bit, so that’s when I’m able to recover and block the shot.”

“With [NaLyssa] Smith, I did my job by keeping her from going right and with or without Monique Billings’ [help defense], that was a part of the scheme,” Coffey said. “[Smith] can make that, but that’s a harder shot for her.”

“With Elizabeth [Williams] here, she is going up deep in the paint, so I want to make sure I get the ball at the flight, not when she is necessarily going up because that can get called for a foul.”

“With Stewie, it’s always about making it tough for her,” Coffey said.

“On that one, I didn’t need to help that much, Coffey said.” I just wanted to make sure in case Bri Jones spun back, but [Cheyenne Parker] had good position there, and thankfully I was able to recover.”

“Again, that’s knowing the scout, knowing when [DiJonai] Carrington goes right, she’s going right,” Coffey said. “So when I didn’t see anyone with her, I knew I had to help and try to contest that shot.

Wrap up

There’s a case for Coffey as one of the 10 to 15 best defenders in the WNBA and, without a doubt, the most valuable one for Atlanta’s defense.

This season, the Dream has a 105.8 defensive rating with Coffey on the bench, compared to a 99.4 defensive rating with her on the court – a real, significant difference.

“I keep saying it, Nia is so important to what we have going on,” Wright said. “She is our anchor defensively. I mean, she just gets it done; it’s not flashy [and] there’s no complaining.”

Written by Hunter Cruse

Hunter Cruse covers the Atlanta Dream and the WNBA Draft for The Next.

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