May 2, 2022 

2022 WNBA season preview: Atlanta Dream

After a hard reset this offseason, the Dream peg Howard and McDonald as their future

Culture is a funny concept. When the Atlanta Dream won games last year — yes, they won games at the start of the year — the good vibes were inescapable. Once the losses started to pile up, though, camaraderie soured. That phenomenon is not unique to Atlanta, but it underscores the greatest challenge the team will have to overcome in the upcoming 2022 season: building a culture with a losing record.

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Projected Lineup

PG: Erica Wheeler // Aari McDonald
SG: Tiffany Hayes // Kristy Wallace // Maya Caldwell
SF: Rhyne Howard // Megan Walker 
PF: Cheyenne Parker // Nia Coffey // Naz Hillmon
C: Monique Billings // Kia Vaughn

Returners: Tiffany Hayes, Cheyenne Parker, Monique Billings, Aari McDonald
Added: Rhyne Howard, Erica Wheeler, Nia Coffey, Kristy Wallace, Naz Hillmon, Kia Vaughn, Megan Walker, Maya Caldwell
Gone: Chennedy Carter, Courtney Williams, Elizabeth Williams, Crystal Bradford, Odyssey Sims, Tianna Hawkins, Candice Dupree, Blake Dietrick 

For a franchise that used words like “culture” and “character” as if they’re oxygen this offseason, a challenge awaits; In all likelihood, the Dream will drop the vast majority of their games. Lest we forget, Atlanta finished last season with an 8-24 record, and are starting almost entirely anew.

What has changed since 2021, then? Just about everyone in the organization. 

Now absent: Atlanta’s leading scorer (Courtney Williams), brightest young talent (Chennedy Carter), and best defensive player (Elizabeth Williams). Enter Tanisha Wright, the team’s new head coach who has garnered respect from her peers around the league, and Dan Padover, who repeated as WNBA Executive of the Year in 2020 and 2021. Enter Rhyne Howard, a rare talent snagged with the draft’s top overall pick, who looks like a “foundational” piece from Day 1. Enter Erica Wheeler, Nia Coffey and Naz Hillmon.

“We’ve shown that we’re a team that’s going to be highly competitive in everything that we do,” Wright said following the team’s final preseason game. We’ll play some defense, and on the offensive end, we’re going to share the ball, make plays for ourselves and each other, and just [be] a team that enjoys playing the game and enjoys playing with each other.”

Since most of the roster is new, and just three of the players (Cheyenne Parker, Aari McDonald and Howard) look like certainties for the 2023 roster, this season’s top priority will be figuring out which other pieces are part of the long-term puzzle. It’s also up to Atlanta to show that it can become the “model franchise” that it has spoken so extensively about becoming. The team wants to attract marquee free agents in 2023 and beyond. That’s also hard to do with a losing record.

What she brings, and what we want to know

Erica Wheeler adds stability and shot creation from the point guard position and should provide plenty of ankle-breakers. In what ways will she help Aari McDonald grow?

Aari McDonald brings speed and defensive intensity off the bench and worked on her decision-making this offseason. How much can she return to her confident, shot-creating self from college?

Tiffany Hayes is Atlanta’s number one scoring option, who will also draw the opponent’s toughest offensive assignment. With a one-year deal, how much does she believe in the franchise’s future?

Kristy Wallace is an all-around scoring threat off of the bench. Led the team in scoring in Atlanta’s first preseason game. How will her all-around scoring ability translate to the WNBA game?

Maya Caldwell is a relative WNBA unknown, but knew how to fill her role at the University of Georgia and knows how to get a good shot inside. In what ways will she help the rest of the team glue together?

Rhyne Howard, the team’s dynamic top pick, is versatile and league-ready on both ends of the court. How much of an offensive load will she get to carry, and how will the team let her push through growing pains?

Megan Walker adds untapped upside as the nation’s former No. 1 high school recruit who prefers to get her points from long-range. What consistency will the Dream receive from her? 

Cheyenne Parker can score from all three levels, making her Atlanta’s best offensive big. How much, then, will she be asked to take on defensively after Elizabeth Williams departed for Washington?

Nia Coffey is a do-everything forward with a combination of speed, strength and smarts rarely seen off the bench. In what ways will she make the jump from a great role player to a great player this year?

Naz Hillmon, we learned in college, is a pure post scorer who comes into the league with a ready-made ability to generate points at the basket. How much can she grow as a defender this season?

Monique Billings is Atlanta’s athletic energizer bunny at the post position, who does the little things on both ends and came into her own at the end of 2021. With added responsibility, how will she fare anchoring a defense?

Kia Vaughn provides a veteran presence and is the team’s lone true center with a knack for offensive rebounding. How will she help bring the young frontcourt into the future?

Big Picture: Offense and Defense

Atlanta won four of its first six games in 2021 on the strength of its three electric shot creators in Hayes, Williams and McDonald. Due to myriad injuries to Hayes and Carter among others, as well as Carter’s lengthy suspension, it took another 26 games to win four more. 

During those long summer months, the team played with, at most, two players who could create their shot at an elite level. It’s no surprise, then, that Atlanta posted the league’s second-worst offense in fourth quarters (and by far its worst defense — more on that in a bit). 

It’s fair to be a little more optimistic this season. Barring injuries, the Dream are back to a starting lineup with three high-level scorers.

Hayes, Wheeler and Howard should give the Dream more than enough variance on offense. Wheeler, namely, fills in where Carter left off, offering stability and shot creation from the point guard position. Wheeler and Howard should also give the Dream the 3-point shooting they desperately lacked in 2021 (10th in the WNBA). 

Wheeler (37.3 percent on 3.3 attempts over the past two seasons) and Howard (38 percent on 6.5 attempts across four years in college), who both can hit 3-pointers for themselves off of the dribble, should add spacing this season. Little more needs to be said of Tiffany Hayes, who remains the engine that keeps Atlanta afloat. Natural growth for McDonald feels possible as well, particularly following her 12-point showing off of the bench in the team’s second preseason game.

For as lackluster as their perimeter-oriented offense became last season, the interior offense was undoubtedly worse. After Cheyenne Parker missed the second half of last season following the birth of her child, the team had no true post threat in the post.

Lucky for Atlanta, Parker returns this year, and will receive reinforcements in the form of second round pick Naz Hillmon, who specializes in those at-the-rim opportunities. If the Atlanta Dream want to truly go five-out (sacrificing interior defense, as a result), Parker at the center spot could allow the team to modernize its offense. Parker has moved further away from the basket as the years have passed, with her average field goal attempt jumping from 5.8 feet away in 2019 to 9.0 in 2020 to 11.0 last season.

Though the Dream have talented personnel in their frontcourt, history suggests that their interior defense will lag behind its league counterparts. Atlanta sported a league-average interior defense in 2021 and then proceeded to lose defensive anchor Elizabeth Williams, who was asked to do a lot of the heavy lifting during her Dream tenure. That’s a problem in a league where the top-six MVP finalists all stand between 6’3 and 6’9, and the best guards make a living at the rim.

For as athletic and intelligent as Monique Billings is, she hasn’t yet been asked to anchor a defense for an entire season. Neither have Parker or Hillmon, and Kia Vaughn hasn’t been a consistent starter at the position since 2018. Wright, a savvy defensive coach and former savvy defensive player, will have her work cut out for her as she attempts to mold this squad into a favorable defensive team. Instead, the team will have to hang its hat on its help-side defense, requiring cohesiveness and conditioning as a unit.

Remember when I mentioned that the Dream had the league’s worst fourth-quarter defense in 2021? That team led the league in steals. It was also, frequently, gassed. Team-wide conditioning will have to be a priority if the Dream wants to establish a progressive defensive identity this season.

Focus on the Atlanta Dream young guards

It got dark in 2021. The Dream went over two months (July 2 to September 2) without a victory. In one-possession games, they finished 1-6. They faced a team with a winning record 14 times. They lost all 14 of those games.

If nothing else, there’s a bright light in the backcourt once again, fueled by the hope of future success. That hope rests in two Gen-Zers: Howard (22) McDonald (23).

Howard is the most important player to watch in 2022. Unlike last season, when McDonald was oft-shelved on the bench, most indications suggest that Howard will have a starring role on the roster from Day 1. Atlanta was comfortable trading Los Angeles’ 2023 pick this offseason, which very well could end up in the lottery alongside its own pick because Howard guaranteed the Dream a foundational player. It’s rare to get a two-way player that can generate points for themselves. It’s even rarer that they’re a 6’2 guard. It’s unheard of that they’re only 22.

As the team knows far too well, those don’t come around too often.

“She can provide scoring, she can provide defense, and I think she can be one of two-to-three key pieces that can be on a contending team,” new Atlanta Dream general manager Dan Padover said. “She’s going to have to grow and get better, but the ceiling is absolutely there for her to be one of those foundational pieces on a championship-level team.”

As for McDonald? The team has to figure out how it will assist the young guard in becoming the high-level WNBA player that her potential promises. It’s easy to forget that this is the same player who was one of the country’s best scorers at Arizona. This is the same McDonald who led her team to the NCAA championship game. 

“I definitely think we look really good,” McDonald said. “I love our defensive energy and we can really shoot the ball this year. I have very high expectations for us.”

Last year, even amid inconsistent minutes, she never lacked energy and intensity. But growing pains emerged, particularly when she was asked to score on the ball — and she wasn’t asked to do too much off of the ball, either.

On the ball, she was electric in college. Off the ball, she’s one of the quickest players in the league. There are plenty of avenues to success for McDonald. In college, McDonald took about 40 percent of her shots from within 10 feet. Last year, that figure barely cracked 20 percent last year. As for the midrange (between 10 feet and the 3-point line)? In 2021, she made just five (on 16 percent shooting). Those opportunities can creep up, even amid shooting slumps.

The Atlanta Dream brain trust hasn’t been afraid to use the word “rebuilding,” so that’s what we’ll go with here. This team is unequivocally rebuilding, and can’t lose sight of the long game during the upcoming season. While the Dream have three players capable of playing at an All-Star level this year — Hayes, Wheeler and Parker — they don’t have the plethora of sure-fire stars that you’ll find in Chicago, Las Vegas and Seattle. They have reliable players and high-upside players. But they may take some time to become a true unit.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

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

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