June 22, 2022 

‘I love a challenge’: Maya Caldwell has big debut for Atlanta

Dream hardship player stars in win

ATLANTA — “Be patient. Keep working,” advises Maya Caldwell. These are the words of hardship greatness, and a long journey to a WNBA debut. Tuesday night, she proved it works, scoring 18 points in her WNBA debut, an 80-75 win over the Dallas Wings.

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In an unprecedented WNBA season riddled with health and safety protocols and injury, there have been moments of hope and brightness in the form of hardship contracts. Caldwell is perhaps the best example of this to date.

“It was good to be back home, be back in our gym in front of our fans,” head coach Tanisha Wright said after the game, a nod to an 0-4 road trip.

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The Dream, led by Caldwell and others, came out strong. Caldwell kicked off the Dream’s points with a beautiful driving layup, a perfect three, and a steal from Arike Ogunbowale that turned into a bucket for teammate Aari McDonald. And that was just the first quarter.

So who is this out-of-nowhere hardship player, and how’d she get here?

The Dream called in Caldwell due to their ever-so-common battle with injury and illness. On Tuesday, Atlanta had five players missing, three of which are regular starters, and just nine players listed on the active roster. Of the nine active players, seven are fresh to the league either on their rookie contracts or hardship waivers.

Atlanta signed Caldwell to a hardship waiver on Monday, just a day before her first regular-season WNBA game and subsequent dominance against the Wings.

She is a North Carolina native who played her college ball at Georgia, just an hour down the road from the Dream. After being drafted 33rd overall by the Indiana Fever in 2021, she was released a week into training camp.

The Dream picked her up this season, where she spent training camp and preseason with the team, earning a start and a decent performance in a preseason game against the Washington Mystics. After being waived on May 5, Caldwell said she’s been consistently training hard and staying ready.

“They told me to stay ready, that’s exactly what I did,” Caldwell told press.

But the months of training just skims the surface of Caldwell’s journey. In just 72 hours, Maya was back in the A and playing.

Caldwell was in the middle of signing a waiver for a summer league Queen City Pro-Am in Charlotte when she got the call from her agent with the news.

“Of course I’m screaming… I hop on the plane the next day, got here, settled in, and the next day we had practice,” Caldwell said. “There was a lot of pressure but I love a challenge.”

Caldwell rose to it, elite on both ends, something she prides herself on after cutting her teeth with the Bulldogs, who are all about defense, according to Caldwell.

She also excelled from deep, finishing 4-for-5 from three, including three long ones in the third quarter alone.

After an assist from McDonald, Caldwell nailed her fourth three of the night midway through that third quarter. The bench erupted. Caldwell said it would be a moment she would remember for years to come.

Overall, she ended the night as Atlanta’s leading scorer with 18 points and four assists on 69% shooting.

Caldwell’s stellar Tuesday showout doesn’t guarantee her a future spot on the roster. In fact, the grim truth of a hardship contract means that once the Dream return to at least 10 healthy players, they must release her.

Plenty of other teams saw Caldwell’s performance, though, and there are many instances where a player who impresses on a hardship deal is then re-signed on a rest-of-season contract. Accordingly, Caldwell remained confident about the road ahead.

“The mindset is to just play, to go out, perform, to do what I’m supposed to do. Play my role, and not worry about what’s next,” Caldwell said. “Just stay present.”

“I hope there’s no pressure,” Wright added. “She was someone who was very tough to let her go the first time so bringing her back the next time was an easy call.”

Ultimately, Caldwell showed her feisty determination and skill — for one night, at least, it all paid off.

“Dream come true,” Caldwell said.

Pun intended.

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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