August 5, 2023 

How Atlanta Dream’s team-building and draft approach changed the franchise’s trajectory

Inside how the Dream's Dan Padover and Tanisha Wright are leading the organization toward title contention

ATLANTA – The Atlanta Dream’s growth as a franchise is one of the most compelling stories in the sport, from a dysfunctional locker room and unstable management through the 2021 season to a rising force that is setting itself up to become a championship contender in the post-superteam era.

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In October 2021, the Dream made two hires: former Las Vegas Aces executive Dan Padover — fresh off WNBA Executive of the Year wins in 2020 and 2021 — who was hired as general manager and executive vice president of basketball operations, and WNBA veteran and then Aces assistant coach Tanisha Wright, who was hired as head coach.

“You’re building in every way: through the draft, through free agency and through a leadership perspective; kind of every reason you get into the profession,” Padover told ESPN after being hired by the Dream.

In the months following the two hires, Atlanta acquired center Kia Vaughn, regarded as one of the most influential locker room veterans in the league, from Phoenix for a 2023 third-round pick. Subsequently, the Dream traded guard Chennedy Carter, who was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team in the middle of the 2021 season, for veteran floor-general Erica Wheeler, the No. 15 pick in the 2022 draft — later used to select Michigan’s Naz Hillmon — and a 2023 first-round pick.

In the week leading up to the 2022 draft, Padover and Atlanta made a move up the draft board, sending the No. 3 pick, the No. 14 pick and the option for a 2023 first-round pick swap that benefits Washington (via Los Angeles) to Washington for the No. 1 overall pick; used to select Kentucky wing, Rhyne Howard.

“We made trades that gave us the assets and flexibility to move up to No. 1 and made picks based on our [scouting evaluations] in the past five months… and with [Howard], the ceiling is absolutely there for her to be one of those foundational pieces on a championship-level team,” Padover told media following the 2022 draft.

After a promising first season in Atlanta, the team extended Wright, the reigning AP Coach of the Year, and Padover through the 2027 season. Later in the offseason, the team made a blockbuster trade to pair Howard, the reigning Rookie of the Year, with athletic, two-way guard Allisha Gray, sending the No. 3 overall pick in the 2023 draft and its 2025 first-round pick to Dallas.

Atlanta’s team-building philosophy is built around these key pillars — positional versatility, patience/player development and culture — with an emphasis on high-upside prospects and schematic fits, making the coaching staff a significant part of the draft discussion.

“I would view it as [Wright] is the other front office lead next to me, right now, when we’re going through the scouting process,” Padover told The Next on July 30. “We lean on our full coaching staff heavily, we also have Mike Petersen on staff as a lead scout, and we have two folks who help us out from an analytics standpoint.”

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Atlanta Dream forward/guard Haley Jones (13) with the ball as Connecticut Sun guard Tyasha Harris (52) defends at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on June 15, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss, The Next

The 2023 draft had less depth compared to the upcoming 2024 and 2025 draft classes, due to prospects exercising their extra year of eligibility and returning to school. So for Atlanta, it was about targeting prospects with a bankable skill — Haley Jones’ floor game and Laeticia Amihere’s defense — and enticing upside if the other less polished aspects of their games come together.

“Every player is different, but we really look for someone who has some type of translatable skillset to the league and work on everything else,” Padover said. “With [Jones], it’s her size at the guard position [and] overall ability to see the floor, facilitate and rebound. She’s just a basketball player and you think that is more important because she has something that will hopefully allow her to make it and you work on the other ancillary things, like shooting.”

“With [Amihere], there’s a level of physicality, athleticism, build and attack mode about her that is rare to find in WNBA players,” Padover said. “Yes, she’s raw, but from a developmental perspective, if you can work on the more skill-based things, she’s got the frame to make it in this league.”

Atlanta has eight players on its roster under 25, a testament to the team’s patience and investment in young players.

“We have our folks put together a model that incorporates a lot of information, we don’t look at one specific data set like Synergy,” Padover said. “What we’re really trying to do is see what are the best predictors of prospects making it in the WNBA from their high school and college careers, whether that’s being a role player in the WNBA, being a star in the WNBA, this, that or the other — that type of data work was heavily involved in a lot of the draft picks we made, but some of them weren’t and we went against the grain, for instance, making a move to trade up for Rhyne [Howard].”

Though the draft is tough, the ability to build cohesiveness as well as find and retain quality contributors outside of the lottery separates the good from the great front offices in this league.

Since Oct. 2021, Atlanta has retooled its entire roster, retaining only three players from the previous regime: Monique Billings, Cheyenne Parker and Aari McDonald. The complete overhaul has the 14-13 Dream in the mix for home-court advantage in the 2023 playoffs after four-straight losing seasons, sitting one game out of fourth place with five weeks left in the season.

Written by Hunter Cruse

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

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