August 7, 2022 

A meteoric rise to greatness: the Atlanta Dream’s Tanisha Wright

A "players' coach," Wright's case for Coach of the Year is predicated on her relationship with her team

The biggest shock of the 2022 WNBA season may just be the Atlanta Dream. Slated to come in second to last by most, they’ve blown expectations out of the water and are looking at a playoff push in their remaining four games. The key to their success? Their fearless leader at the helm, Tanisha Wright.

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But what makes Wright so unique? It’s not just her defensive prowess or her experience in the league; it’s her focus on accountability, toughness, and trust.

“Trust is big for her, she stands on that. It’s just not one-sided with her. She wants us to trust her, and for her to trust us,” former teammate and current player AD told The Next. “And that’s what I really love about T. She’s a person of her word. She has integrity out this world… I couldn’t ask to play for a better person and a coach.”

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The Journey to Atlanta

Before her coaching career, Wright had a long tenure playing. Growing up outside of Pittsburgh, she attended Penn State, studied Elementary Education, and was a defensive superstar in the Big Ten. In 2005 she was drafted 12th by the Storm and spent nine years playing in Seattle, where she won a Championship in 2010.

“I just remember her being very vocal. She talked a lot. And I was with the Sky at that time and she was with New York, and I used to just remember it was annoying, like she was annoying. And I remember her high socks,” Atlanta Dream forward Cheyenne Parker told The Next about what she remembers about Wright as an on-court opponent.

In 2015 she left Seattle to play in New York, where she met Atlanta Dream GM and long-time colleague Dan Padover. Padover, who was working in the Liberty’s front office at the time, told The Next that Wright was a crucial part of their rebuild and leadership.

“Even before 2015, I think people probably would have said that. But it was very obvious,” Padover said about the possibility of Wright being a coach. “I’ll never forget one of the first practices in New York, she said something, and Bill [Laimbeer] looked over at me and just said, ‘Tanisha Wright is really fucking smart.’”

After spending 2018 in Minnesota, Wright returned to New York to play her final year in the W. One of her teammates at the time was AD, who is currently on the Dream after being picked up from New York in June.

“Back in 2019, she was a great teammate. I loved playing with her and she would always bring me confidence, she valued me as a teammate,” AD said. “So coming back playing for her that’s what I thought of first, when I first met her I could just tell she really valued me, she knew what I could bring to the table.”

And AD is not her former teammate turned current player. During her nine years abroad, she played with current Dream center Kia Vaughn in Israel in 2011, and they were even housemates.

The various players she both played with or against and coaches now are a testament to Wright’s meteoric rise to head coaching in the big leagues.

In 2017, she began her coaching career at UNC Charlotte while still playing. And although she was trying out a coaching gig, it was never her dream.

“I can’t say that I’ve always wanted to be a coach. When I went into college coaching, my first words to [Head Coach] Cara [Consuegra] was, ‘I don’t know if this is what I want to be doing,’” Wright told The Next. “I also enjoy helping younger players. I enjoy teaching the game, teaching is my background, I went to school for it. I’m just lucky that I get to do it in a different way.”

Meanwhile, after retiring in 2019, then-Las Vegas Aces Head Coach Bill Laimbeer was getting the band back together, with Padover heading out West in late 2018 and Wright in 2020.

“The first name [Laimbeer] brought up when we were starting to look at assistant coaches was Tanisha,” Padover told The Next. “[She] did a great job for us in the bubble; she did a really, really, really good job for us last year. We don’t finish top-two in the regular season without her.”

Rebuilding a Broken Locker Room in Atlanta

After two highly successful seasons on the Strip, in October 2021, Dream ownership filled their coaching and GM gaps and fixed their major culture issues by bringing both Wright and Padover to Atlanta.

Culture matters. In sports, culture really matters. To bring in a coach like Tanisha Wright, who I played against her a lot in the WNBA, have hung out with her, I understand her character, know her character. That’s who you want to build with,” Dream part-owner and former player Renee Montgomery told The Next. “You want to build with people that are going to build a good foundation, first of all, and then continue to build off of that, and we knew that is exactly what Tanisha could do.”

According to Wright and Padover, the offseason was nonstop. Padover explained that their previous relationship let them get to work quickly, skipping the pleasantries and immediately focusing on building a great team and longevous franchise.

After multiple scandals last season that meant having to get rid of star player Courtney Williams and burgeoning talent Chennedy Charter, they had their work cut out for them. Their main goal: find a group of players who were good people.

“You look at your roster, which ours was like four deep, so it’s like ‘sh*t, we gotta fill this thing out.’ I know it’s cliche, but we legit was like, ‘Okay, what people are out there that we think can really fit the way you see things and how you want things to be?’ Wright said. “Obviously, they had to be good basketball players too, but anybody in this league is a good basketball player, and then aligning that with the way I wanted to play with our system: having an open system and being able to have downhill attacks.”

In their search for good people and players, they built an entirely new roster with just four returners, Tiffany Hayes, Aari McDonald, Cheyenne Parker, and Monique Billings.

They traded Carter for 2019 All-Star Erica Wheeler, traded for locker room stabilizer and veteran Vaughn, added athletic wing Nia Coffey, and maybe most importantly, made major rookie moves.

Just days before the 2021 Draft, Atlanta traded the Mystics for the No. 1 Draft Pick and brought generational talent, Rhyne Howard, to the A. In addition, they got the “steal of the draft” and brought Naz Hillmon down south.

Toughness and Trust

With an almost entirely new team, Wright set expectations early.

“The first day we had our team meeting, [Wright] just really set her ground rules, and what she expected of the team. And, she made sure that everybody knew that she wasn’t wavering from her values, and what she expected from us. And even though we had that conversation in May, she still brings it up. We talked about it today after the game,” Hillmon told The Next after the Dream’s July 28 loss to the Lynx.

And Wright’s coaching philosophy is clear every second on and off the court.

“I think working hard is important, having a mental toughness is important, having a ‘we over me’ attitude,” Wright responded to a question about her coaching philosophy. “It’s not about you, it’s about us. When we play together, we play hard, smart… that’s a breeding ground for success.”

And one phrase captures this philosophy. Throughout every media session, player interview, and discussion with this group, the phrase “hardest-working, toughest team” is mentioned. To Wright, every game is simply about working hard, having pride, and being the toughest team out there, and the rest will fall.

“I tell them all the time … when you’re the hardest working, toughest team, I don’t care who we play, we’ll always be in a position to win games,” Wright said. “If we played the hardest, and we worked the hardest on any given night and any given day, I truly believe that we’re capable of beating any of these teams.”

And to a large extent, the Dream have done that. Despite their underdog status and injury-riddled season, they’ve punched way above their weight with wins against Seattle, Vegas, and nailbiters against Chicago.

“You don’t need a bunch of All-Stars to be able to compete with the best. You need a bunch of players that’s gonna work hard every night,” Wheeler told The Next. “And like [Wright] says, we’re the hardest-working, toughest team.”

Within that mentality is an emphasis on staying in the moment. Wright never talks about playoffs and reports they don’t discuss it as a team. When asked about how past or future wins or losses affect the team, she continuously brings up “short-term memory” and focuses on the game at hand.

And when they’ve been hit with their massive slew of injuries, instead of sulking, a next-player-up mentality runs deep. Hillmon, who spent the first two-thirds of the season coming off the bench, has been Wright’s embodiment of this after starting the past eight games in place of Nia Coffey and Monique Billings.

This toughness philosophy also translates to the technical. Wright, a defensive specialist in Vegas and throughout her playing career, emphasizes defense to a great degree. The team spent much of the season ranked No. 1 in defense and remain in the top five.

“To have a two-way coach that understands what you have to do, what you’re going through, and all of that just makes it easier for me,” Hayes told The Next. “And of course she’s going to get everything she wants out so she’s going to be tough on you. But I’m used to that, I’ve had Geno Arriumema in the past.”

Their scrappy, tough defense has made up for their often-lacking offense, keeping them a serious playoff contender all season. Beyond solid defense and being a hard-working and tough team, mutual respect, accountability and trust are core to this Dream team. Seen just in the media room, Wright constantly goes to bat for her players (excuse the mixed-sports metaphor).

“I learned a bunch of different things from Bill [Laimbeer], but one of the things that I learned from him is really showing your players that you have that you have their back,” Wright said. “My job is to protect them, their job is to go out and play basketball.”

And part of the trust for Wright is accountability.

“There are times I come in here and I’m like, ‘they didn’t play hard,’ but there’s only been like four or five games where they haven’t played hard enough for my standards,” ​​Wright said. “It’s good, because you build trust, they understand that I’ll eat it when it’s me, and always have your backs, but you got to go up and you got to show up, and part of showing up for me is playing hard every single night. I do for them what I would want somebody to do for me.”

Over the slew of games I’ve covered, Wright has done just that. She has no issue coming into postgame media and taking the blame. Nor does she have an issue saying her players didn’t play with the heart and toughness she expects.

“I have to do a better job of preparing them and lighting the fire up under their butts so that they can play the way that we need to play in order to be in these games,” Wright told media after their July 15 home loss to Connecticut. “For some reason, I haven’t been able to get that out of them so far. And that’s on me, that’s not on players.

“They just didn’t compete today. Which I take very personal because our team is based on being a team that has to compete every night,” Wright told media after their July 28 loss to the Lynx. “They didn’t compete and it’s a representation of me, I built my whole career on competing. So when they look like this I take it very personal.”

And this two-way accountability has left a tremendous impact on the team. Almost every single player has called Wright a “players’ coach,” both tough on the team and an equal who’s trusted.

“She’s basically one of our sisters,” Howard told The Next.

And the fact she’s so recently out of the league makes her coaching particularly meaningful.

“We laugh with her, we joke with her. Just being around her is so much fun. There’s times where she really gets on to us, but we have so much fun because she’s a joy to be around. And she brings out the best in us,” AD said. “She really helps us have fun and the times that we don’t have fun, she helps us think about, ‘Hey guys, remember have fun, this is what it’s about. You worked all your life to get here, so why not have fun?’”

Players have also noticed that her proximity to the league means she can be more direct, ultimately getting more efficient results.

“Another thing about her is that she played at this level. So I mean, she’s really a players’ coach, and you know that she’s been through it,” Hillmon said. “She’s always very direct. And you’re never really questioning what she wants you to do ever, at any position, because she doesn’t mince her words about what she expects from the team or you individually.”

Even players not on her team share this beloved attitude. Last year on the Player’s Pod, WNBA legend Tina Charles called Wright the most influential person in her career, citing what Wright taught her about accountability.

The Case for Coach of the Year

And this culture that Wright brought to Atlanta has resulted in a successful season, which surprised many. The Dream stand at No. 7 in the standings with a solid chance at making the playoffs. And although they’re young and still have quite a bit of consistency issues, they’re smashing preseason expectations.

For example, at The Next, our staff predicted Atlanta would finish ahead of Indiana. Furthermore, that poll predicted they’d have the worst defense in the league.

When asked if they’re surprised about this season, Padover and Wright didn’t express shock but said they still felt significant pride. Players feel similarly as well.

“We know that nobody expects us here this year,” Howard said. “We just come out and work and do our jobs, and be the hardest-working, toughest team like [Wright] says.”

But other players aren’t that shocked.

“I wasn’t here for training camp, but when I first saw [Wright] got the job I was like ‘Oh yeah, they’re going to be great this year.’ Because I know what Coach T does, I know what she brings to the table,” AD said. “So I’m not shocked at all.”

The Dream’s surprisingly good season is the main argument for Wright’s Coach of the Year case. In a short period, she assembled a high-functioning, cohesive team out of almost nothing.

What do her players have to say about her Coach of the Year campaign? Yes, with flying colors.

“I think that, given the circumstances, and I mean, every single one, all the way down to the injuries and the circumstances that we’ve had to face, she deserves it,” Parker said. “I mean, Becky Hammon, it’s amazing what she’s done, but they were already an established team. The Atlanta Dream started literally from the bottom, and she was able to help us just climb our way and make some noise this season. So she definitely 100% deserves it.”

And in true Coach Wright fashion, she had a much more humble response to the Coach of the Year pleas.

“I mean, I’m just out here doing my job. It’s them, they’re playing hard,” Wright said.

Although all anyone can think about is the playoffs and the last three spots, it’s not what Wright is focusing on.

“At the beginning of the year, it wasn’t that she set expectations or goals in terms of stats, it wasn’t like: ‘we want to get this many wins, we want to make it to the playoffs,’” Hillmon said. “It was really the values that will get you there, [and] if you bought into it.”

And this epitomizes Wright’s philosophy: it’s about the now, it’s about working hard, and the rest will fall. And honestly, the focus of this team is the future, and so although a playoff push is ideal, they’ll be fine in the long term without it.

But in the immortal words of All-Star Rookie Rhyne Howard, “I think we all know we should win out.”

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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