May 12, 2021 

2021 WNBA season preview: Atlanta Dream

Answering questions on the Dream's strengths, weaknesses and everything in between

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Photo courtesy of Atlanta Dream Twitter.

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Who is on the roster?

The Atlanta Dream are going to look a little funky.

In the past three weeks, the Dream parted ways with Chris Sienko, the team’s president and general manager, as well as head coach Nicki Collen, who left for Baylor. Interim head coach Mike Petersen has repeatedly said that he will continue to carry out Collen’s mission and scheme alongside assistant Darius Taylor.

Time will tell if that’s a viable option on a team with so much turnover. Once the Dream finalize their regular-season roster, the rotation should split fairly evenly between returners and fresh faces.

Barring a trade, 11 of these 14 players will make Atlanta’s final roster. When asked about final cuts, Petersen said that the ownership group’s job is to make decisions. That level of participation runs counter to how most teams operate.

Guards: Chennedy Carter, Aari McDonald, Tiffany Hayes, Odyssey Sims, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Courtney Williams, Mikayla Cowling, Crystal Bradford
Forwards: Shekinna Stricklen, Tianna Hawkins, Monique Billings, Cheyenne Parker
Centers: Elizabeth Williams, Kalani Brown

How do you manage a rotation with so many high-level guards?

Not one soul in the organization is shying away from the fact that this is a guard-heavy roster. After missing the playoffs in 2020, Atlanta reloaded its rotation and starts the season with one of the most unique rosters in the WNBA with six starting-caliber guards. Petersen said trying to fit basketball players into traditional 1-through-5 positions is a “silly” pursuit, and certainly one that he has no interest in adhering to.

It’s hard to imagine that he’s bluffing.

Second-year guard Chennedy Carter is expected to lead the offense again after averaging 17.4 points and 3.4 assists per game as a rookie. Though she fell to the fourth pick, Carter showed that she’s the same scoring threat we had come to expect at Texas A&M. Her acceleration, body control, and ability to stop on a dime did more than translate. It gave the Dream hope. With injuries, opt-outs and a shallow roster, Carter became the ultimate safety valve last season, leading the league in usage percentage with a blotter test shot chart.

Those looks didn’t come easy — a striking 80 percent of her field goals were unassisted, the highest mark of any high-end rotational player in the league. That’s just one number, but it tells a very obvious story: Carter is a master at creating her own shot, and she didn’t have a ton of opportunities to find easy looks off the ball in 2020 due to her spot at the top of the opposition’s scout. That challenge could be good for her long-term growth.

“My teammate [Monique Billings] told me the other day that I’m really growing and being a leader,” Carter said. “I think that’s the area that I don’t see but my teammates are starting to see, so I really appreciated that. I’m trying to be a leader and be more vocal for my team. Of course on the court, just expanding my three-ball being more confident and shooting the ball a little bit more, that’s an area that I’m working on.”

Per Kurtis Zimmerman’s Across the Timeline, Atlanta has had seven All-WNBA selections in franchise history, and six of them were courtesy of Angel McCoughtry. Barring a setback, Carter could cement herself as a top-12 player in the league this season — not in spite of a smaller usage rate, but possibly because of it.

Everybody’s eating this year.

Atlanta added four guards this offseason, using the third pick in the draft to select highly-touted Arizona guard Aari McDonald, remaining aggressive in free agency to sign former All-Star Odyssey Sims and WNBA Champion Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, and bringing back franchise centerpiece Tiffany Hayes after she opted out in 2020.

All four players add a semblance of shot creation and a unique blend of talents that Atlanta sorely lacked during last year’s tenth-place finish. McDonald adds speed, playmaking and defensive energy; Sims brings leadership and suave facilitation; Hayes adds experience, defensive security and an all-around game; Walker-Kimbrough brings spacing, fast-break flair and a championship pedigree. Courtney Williams, the Dream’s energizer bunny, returns to Atlanta after filling in as the team’s secondary shot creator and primary trash-talker in 2020.

With a reloaded rotation, Petersen has a world of possibilities predicated on ball movement. Though some players on the roster will need to adjust to playing off of the ball, none of the Dream’s players said they see that as a challenge.

“I think you guys will see Friday what we’ve been working on,” Sims said. “There won’t be any problems about who’s gonna be on the ball, who is not … Yes we have a lot of guards. Wait until we start the season, and then come back and ask and see.”

If nothing else, 2021 is going to bring plenty of transition buckets. That should benefit the faster of the Dream’s guards, as well as Walker-Kimbrough, who had much of her offense come in transition last season. The frontcourt, with improved spacing and a penchant for offensive rebounds, will help create easier buckets. Atlanta is ready to run.

“I’m really excited to get in the transition game and really get the game going up and down,” Carter said. “I feel like we have a lot of guards with legs that can run, so I think we’re going to run and gun this season and really get to locking it in.”

The Dream have pace, but can they space and defend?

It’s unwise to sleep on the Dream’s reloaded frontcourt, headlined by the offseason addition of Cheyenne Parker. Parker blossomed last season in Chicago, posting career-high figures in points (13.4) rebounds (6.4) and assists (1.5). Perhaps the most impressive part of Parker’s game was her improved efficiency, as she became one of the league’s most reliable stretch bigs, knocking down 46.9 percent of her outside looks and falling just a few free throws short of the 50/40/90 club.

That’s exactly what the Dream’s front office has been waiting for. Parker, to her own credit, said she is excited to have more opportunities on the perimeter this season but is focused on remaining a dominant post player.

The new options in the frontcourt give the Dream the stretch bigs they so desperately wanted last year. Tiana Hawkins, the other offseason addition, is the glue that Mystics coach Mike Thibault almost refused to give up, and she supplements the Dream’s roster with spacing of her own. Her basketball IQ and leadership have already been a training camp talking point, and her veteran presence should help guide a playoff-hungry roster.

Of course, Parker and Hawkins are more than the final puzzle pieces on offense. The frontcourt should aid Atlanta’s quest for a versatile defense.

“I want to be able to guard every position on the floor,” Parker said. “I want to be able to handle that as well as being able to guard the best post player that’s in the game. You know, it’s something that I pride myself off of as a basketball player.”

Elizabeth Williams returns as a force on the interior. Williams is the steady presence in Atlanta’s organization, and will go toe-to-toe with the opposition’s top bigs on a nightly basis. There are certainly worse ways to go. Monique Billings will fill in nicely alongside Williams, and her steady year-over-year improvement makes Atlanta more dangerous on both ends. It isn’t all peachy on defense, though.

The Dream allowed the second-most points in the WNBA last year and lost one of their All-Defensive selections this offseason with the departure of Betnijah Laney. Hayes’ return should fill in neatly on the defensive end as one of the premier perimeter defenders in the league. McDonald, a two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, also has a penchant for the defensive side of the floor. She joins the team after leading Arizona to an underdog run in the NCAA Tournament. She said one of her goals this season is to make an All-Defensive Team. Sims also brings this team to another level.

“You can never be too good on the defensive end or on the offensive end,” Sims said. “Sometimes I get mad. I don’t like to get scored on, I take that personally. So I’m just going to try to carry that over to this team this year and hopefully, that will be a better defensive team than last year.”

Does Atlanta have shot-makers? Absolutely. Does it have spacing? That is a murkier question. Atlanta has willing shooters across the roster, led by spacing savant Shekinna Stricklen, but perimeter shots are not this roster’s forte. Instead, the Dream’s top priority is maximizing the shots in the spots where they thrive.

No team took more shots from 16 to 24 feet last season — or from 8 to 16 feet, for that matter. Courtney Williams commanded those long twos at a higher clip than anyone in the league, and hit them at a valuable clip (48.4%). She’ll continue to take looks that are smart for her That doesn’t mean the coaching staff isn’t addressing spacing.

“I’m a nerd, I’m ‘Analytics Man’,” Petersen said. “On the first day of practice, we gave the players an offensive analytics report … that’s something we’ve talked about a lot. The players are, I would say, overly aware of what our expectations are in those areas and they’ve been phenomenal at applying it.”

Before leaving for Baylor, Collen said it was a priority for the team to cut down on long twos. While the personnel may suggest otherwise, a schematic change to shot distribution seems to be in the works.

What are the expectations in Atlanta?

Yes, the team may miss Collen. Petersen may give off Ted Lasso vibes. But he and Taylor seem to have the full support of the roster, and Atlanta is filled to the brim with smart players and championship aspirations.

“Everyone is proud for Coach Nicki and the opportunity that has been presented,” McDonald said. “But everybody said, nothing’s changed. We have the same goal, winning a WNBA championship. We’re going to see how we respond to change.”

Atlanta and its non-traditional lineups may very well baffle opponents, and that makes them a dangerous wild card on any given night. It would take a lot, but the caliber of the Dream’s additions could propel them in the top half of the league in a best-case scenario.

That said, Atlanta understands that it’s just a 32-game schedule, and even if the team isn’t at full strength on Day One, it needs to prove that it’s ready to compete in the opening weeks of the season. A worst-case scenario is in the cards — a lack of size, spacing and slow on-court adjustments leave the Dream out of the playoffs for the third straight season.

The most realistic finish plots Atlanta in the middle of those two extremes — a likely playoff team with the unpredictability and upside to steal a series in September.

More on this in the coming weeks, but expect the Dream to continue their push for social justice alongside new owner Renee Montgomery. Atlanta opens its season Friday, May 14 at home against the Connecticut Sun. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m. ET.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

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

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