May 16, 2023 

2023 WNBA season preview: Atlanta Dream

The WNBA's young, fun playoff hopeful

Going into the second year with head coach Tanisha Wright and general manager and executive vice president Dan Padover at the helm, this year’s Atlanta Dream team feels a sense of relief. Returners know Wright’s system, Wright has increased comfort with the squad, and players are gaining confidence. For a team that has long dealt with tumultuous times, the comfort is novel and appreciated.

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Last season, the Dream blew the league’s expectations out of the water on many levels. They drafted guard Rhyne Howard first overall and built a team with just four returners. Although the 14-22 Dream narrowly missed the playoffs, they were a threat in the regular season.

Last season, there were no expectations, but building on impressive offseason moves and draftees, the bar this season is far higher. But the Dream don’t look at it that way. 

“I think we still have the mindset of being slept on,” veteran forward Monique Billings told media. “We don’t want to be too high on ourselves.”

The biggest offseason move for the Dream was acquiring veteran guard Allisha Gray, who averaged 13.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game last season, from the Dallas Wings. The Dream also acquired point guard Danielle Robinson and 21-year-old center Iliana Rupert. Due to overseas commitments, Rupert, Howard and forward Cheyenne Parker have not reported to the Dream yet.

Atlanta’s core remains very young, with Howard leading alongside second-year forward Naz Hillmon; third-year guard Aari McDonald; and drafted rookies Haley Jones, Laeticia Amihere and Leigha Brown.

Although there are plenty of new faces at training camp, Wright says her team has kept their defensive identity. “I think the defensive side, that’s always going to be strong. How we pressure the ball, how we pick up the ball, how active we are, we’ll always press that,” she told reporters. “Offensively, it’s going to be our pace, our unselfishness.”

The Dream’s roster is still not finalized, so a few names will inevitably drop. But if the Dream can continue to ride the momentum of last season, they won’t just be overachieving on low expectations; they’ll be paving a competitive path.

Offseason summary

Free agency:

  • Did not re-sign Maya Caldwell, Erica Wheeler and Beatrice Mompremier.
  • Signed Monique Billings to a one-year, $145,000 contract.
  • Signed Nia Coffey to a one-year, $130,000 contract.
  • Were awarded Iliana Rupert off waivers.
  • Signed Cheyenne Parker to a one-year, $200,000 contract extension through the 2024 season.
  • Signed Allisha Gray to a two-year, $190,000 contract extension through the 2025 season after acquiring her via trade.

Draft:

  • Drafted Haley Jones at No. 6, Laeticia Amihere at No. 8 and Leigha Brown at No. 15.

Trade:

  • Traded Kristy Wallace to Indiana for Danielle Robinson.
  • Traded the rights to Tiffany Hayes to Connecticut for the 2023 No. 6 pick.
  • Traded the 2023 No. 3 pick and a 2025 first-round pick to Dallas for Allisha Gray.

Training camp contracts:


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Projected rotation

  1. Danielle Robinson | Aari McDonald
  2. Allisha Gray | AD Durr | Leigha Brown
  3. Rhyne Howard | Haley Jones
  4. Nia Coffey | Naz Hillmon | Laeticia Amihere
  5. Cheyenne Parker | Monique Billings | Iliana Rupert (late arrival)

How does Allisha Gray fit in Atlanta?

Gray’s talent immediately raises the caliber of the franchise, and her presence has made an immediate impact in training camp.

“[Gray] is just solid, man. She goes so under the radar, but she has such a huge impact on what you can do. So when I describe Lish, [I] describe her as impactful,” Wright told the media. “Her ability to score the basketball, her ability to defend at a high level, her ability to be even-keeled will help our group at times be even-keeled as well. So Allisha is one of those silent killers.”

Gray, a 3X3 Olympic gold medalist and former South Carolina Gamecock, had a breakout season last year. She nearly made the All-Star team and helped propel the Wings to the playoffs.

“I definitely want to be an All-Star this year. I feel like last season I should’ve been All-Star, right on the cusp of it,” Gray told reporters about her goals. “And work on the defensive end. I feel like I’m a great defender. I feel like I was on the cusp of everything [last year]; now I just need to make that hurdle over.”

Gray is an elite two-way player, known by her teammates as “the shooter” but also able to play lockdown defense. She complements this growing young team in both demeanor and talent. Her connection with Howard, who has not arrived in Atlanta yet, will be fascinating.

Gray also joins this Atlanta team with quite a few connections. Her head coach in Dallas, Vickie Johnson, was let go after last season and came to Atlanta as an assistant coach. Gray called the two’s arrival in the A a “fresh start for both of us.”

This offseason, Hillmon and Gray played in Athletes Unlimited together, both finishing as top performers. And Gray will team up with Amihere, a fellow Gamecock. 

“It’s always easy to transition when you have people you’re very familiar with,” Gray said. “I wasn’t able to play with LA [in college], but I would go into the Gamecock practice and practice against the team.”

Teammates have nothing but praise for Gray and cite her confidence and their chemistry with her. As the season progresses and relationships deepen, Gray will likely only have more of an impact on the court.


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What does Haley Jones add as a second-unit initiator?

In the first media availability of training camp, Wright spoke on a few key areas her team needs to improve this season.

“One of the things we have to get better at is taking care of the ball,” she said. “You can’t average 15 turnovers and think that you’ll win a lot of games, so that’s one. I think creating more easy opportunities for ourselves is another thing we need to focus on, just being able to be playmakers and put the ball in the hoop.”

Last season, the Dream led the league in turnovers while ranking last in assists, which isn’t a recipe for success. Jones will help clean up those deficiencies as an initiator for Atlanta’s second unit. In her final collegiate season at Stanford, Jones was among the NCAA’s best transition scorers — making her a perfect fit for Wright’s up-tempo, defense-focused system.

“[The Dream] were third in pace last season but led for the first three-quarters of the season, so that speaks to me,” Jones told The Next. “It’s cool to be that point guard [because] you don’t have to wait for an outlet pass. I can fly in there and get the board myself.”

Unlike at Stanford, Atlanta’s offense will have multiple ball-handlers on the court at all times, opening up more flexibility for her transition creation.

“It’s also that I don’t have to dribble 20,000 times to get up the court,” Jones said. “I’m fine to ‘dribble, push’ or whatever and kick it up to amazing guards like Aari, fastest player ever, or [Robinson] … You also have people like Allisha Gray and AD running their lanes. So it’s really fun to play with a program like that.”

Additionally, a major stat to watch for Jones will be her progression as a 3-point spacer. She shot 9.4% from beyond the arc on 32 attempts in 2022-23, down from 24.4% as a junior.

“I don’t know if I have any tangible goals, I guess,” Jones said. “It’s just kinda shooting and not thinking about it. I think I have the skill, I have the talent to do it, the shot form is there, it’s now just [about] taking them.”

Best-case scenario

There is a realistic world in which the Dream make a deep playoff run. They’re young but have good veteran talent alongside a fantastic young core. If they can continue that defensive effort and build shooters in Howard, Gray and McDonald, they’ll likely erase some of their offensive deficiencies from last season.

Last season, they started extremely hot and faded down the stretch — in part due to injuries — so consistency will be key. But if this team gels, it could take down a lot of teams in the league and make the playoffs for the first time since 2018.

Worst-case scenario

There’s also a world in which this Dream team doesn’t gel, lacks consistency, and is too young to find its footing. If the Dream don’t make the playoffs, it will be a disappointment based on both the team’s goals and its potential. It missed the postseason by a single game last year and has added too much talent to miss again.

Written by Hunter Cruse

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

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