December 5, 2020 

No. 3 pick opens up possibilities for Collen, Dream

Atlanta learned its fate in Friday night's WNBA Draft Lottery

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The Atlanta Dream will have the third overall pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft after dropping one spot from its second-best odds to win the lottery. This will be the first time since 2009 that the Dream will pick inside the top five.

After amassing the second-worst record in the WNBA over the last two years following its semifinals appearance in 2018, the Dream had a 27.6% chance of winning the top pick, but instead fell to No. 3 after the Dallas Wings jumped into the second slot.

With its first high pick in over a decade comes a chance for Atlanta to progress its rebuild with a prospect who can immediately contribute. When the Dream selected Angel McCoughtry out of Louisville in 2009, they set themselves up for a decade with a Rookie of the Year, six-time All-WNBA selection and eight-time All-Defensive Team selection who led the Dream to three WNBA Finals appearances and four trips to the Eastern Conference Finals or WNBA semifinals.

But with all NCAA players getting an extra year of eligibility, it makes the pre-draft scouting process much more difficult. Instead of knowing the seniors who will be in the draft and just needing to do research on which juniors will likely declare, there’s the potential for both juniors and seniors who might be drafted to just remain in school.

“It’s just really a hard year this year to know,” said Dream head coach Nicki Collen. “With the uncertainty of the NCAA, with the uncertainty of COVID in general. Yes there are juniors that are eligible, [but] will they come out? How does COVID affect them?”

That uncertainty has led to Collen and general manager Chris Sienko exploring a different way to rebuild the Dream: free agency.

“The draft may very well depend for us on what happens in free agency,” Collen said. “So if free agency goes the way we want it to go, then we fill in with the draft. Ultimately for us it’ll be a matter of truly going into free agency and trying to address what our greatest needs are and then figure out, potentially through the draft, how we make ourselves deeper and better.”

One of the biggest issues with relying too much on the draft is the lack of in-person scouting. With conferences’ and teams’ COVID-19 restrictions, it’s impossible to conduct the level of in-person scouting typically required of the pre-draft process.

That lack of ability to see players up close and personal lends itself to Collen’s wariness of focusing too much on the draft rather than free agency. Collen, Sienko and the Dream’s scouting department have all seen the free agents up close in-person for years now.

“There is a different component to watching a player in person,” Collen said. “And seeing their mannerisms, sometimes seeing how they warm up. I always make it a point to get to a gym early and see what kind of workout they go through, or are they someone that just sits and watches?”

Aside from live game action is a severely underrated aspect of the free agency and pre-draft process: workouts. Whether team or individual, coaches learn a lot from players in an empty gym, and not being able to properly conduct those workouts this year with draft prospects is an issue for Collen.

“We really want to see them on the practice court,” Collen said. “Because practice habits oftentimes will carry over and show you how committed a player is to getting better. Because when the lights come on, you see one thing, and when they’re not as bright and they’re in a gym and it’s a two- or three-hour practice, you see a different side of a player.”

A rather large wild card in the Dream’s offseason is the status of guards Tiffany Hayes and Renee Montgomery.

Hayes opted out of the WNBA bubble over the summer, but she is currently playing in the EuroLeague for Perfumerias Avenida. With the 2021 season not expected to be played in the more restricted, secluded bubble environment, Collen expects Hayes to be back in Atlanta.

“I don’t have any doubts that [Hayes] will be back,” Collen said. “She certainly chose to opt out [last] summer, but she has another year under her contract. Hopefully with the vaccine and back playing in arenas and not that bubble environment, I anticipate that Tiffany will be back.”

Collen added that her and Hayes text regularly, and Hayes had a big game in Avenida’s win yesterday, scoring 16 points.

The situation with Renee Montgomery is significantly more murky. The former All-Star and two-time WNBA champion has been pondering retirement since she opted out of the bubble to focus on her commitment to social justice.

Montgomery has been one of the most vocal and active members of the WNBA in regards to social injustices, and as a result has carved out a role that could loom as larger and more important than basketball.

Returning to play basketball at the height of a global pandemic and one of the biggest American social justice movements in history isn’t an easy one; there’s no timetable yet.

“I think she’s still in that mode of trying to figure out what she wants to do,” Collen said. “She loves basketball, she doesn’t see herself giving up on basketball necessarily, but I think it’s all very COVID-driven for her.”

Muddying the pre-draft process waters even more is that in a class with a handful of highly skilled international prospects, the Dream are resigned to solely watching game clips and highlights rather than being able to travel overseas to properly scout the players.

“The thing that’s most frustrating this year is I just would like to get out internationally,” Collen said. “I think there are some international prospects that I would love to see in person. So we’ll just have to see how it unfolds.”

Written by Jake Caccavaro

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