There are those basketball players whom coaches and teammates sometimes have to motivate. Whether they drift into disengagement on court, take a play off or seem to be moving in slow-motion, they need a word – or five.
Brittney Sykes is not one of those athletes.
The second-year Atlanta Dream guard is a fast-breaking force of nature between the lines, creatively slashing to the basket at lightening speed, locking down opponents on defense and sometimes rising up to emphatically reject a shot.
She plays with such passion and emotion that she sometimes has to consciously take her foot off the gas. But the New Jersey native never stays in the slow lane for long.
Chosen No. 7 by Atlanta in last year’s draft when she wasn’t invited to the event, Sykes proved to be the steal of the class. She started 23 games, averaged 13.9 points in 24 minutes per outing, and was runner-up for rookie of the year.
This season Sykes’ role on the young team is different. With the return of Angel McCoughtry, who sat out 2017, Sykes began on the bench. But since rebounding from an ankle sprain, which kept her out of five games, Sykes has returned hungrier than ever. She made a reappearance in the starting lineup Sunday, and scored 20 points on 7-12 shooting, dished seven assists and snatched four rebounds in electrifying play.
Coach Nicki Collen said Sykes’ enthusiasm is contagious.
“She is a bit of a human highlight film when she is on the floor, from high-flying blocked shots to explosive moves to the rim, she is so fun to watch,” Collen said. “She brings instant offense to the basketball court that energizes her teammates and the crowd.”
And as her game as grown, so has Sykes’ confidence off-court, which has paved the way for a new role for her there, too: the humorous player of the team. This season Sykes is a walking comedy channel with no commercials, from joke-telling to deadpan commentary to good old-fashioned silliness. No one is safe from her attempts to engage, including Collen herself, who donned a do-rag last month after losing a bet and then laughed with Sykes about it on an Instagram video.
Veteran Tiffany Hayes said her teammate didn’t express herself as much as a rookie, but this year “it is all coming out.”
“She’s always got some type of dance or some type of joke to show us, even if it’s on her phone,” Hayes said. “She keeps us laughing all the time. She’s a natural clown.”
Seeing Sykes now, it is easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that her basketball future looked anything but bright, as she struggled to come back from two major injuries incurred 10 months apart. But with some assistance, and a lot of work and growth on her part, the 24-year-old is a changed woman, with unlimited potential.
“She’s always been like that – she will give it everything she can,” said Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman, who coached Sykes for four years. “She’s an amazing kid.”
Much growth through adversity, with an assist
Sykes had a textbook high school career, ending as a top recruit and being named to the McDonald’s All-American team in 2012. She had a good first year at Syracuse but exploded in her sophomore season, scoring 532 total points, which was eighth-best in school history at the time.
Yet, in the first game of the NCAA Tournament that year, Sykes crumpled to the ground in the waning minutes with a torn ACL. The image of Hillsman leaning over her with one hand on her head and the other holding her hand was widely-circulated.
Sykes poured her heart into recovery, and had planned to be ready for that next season. But just three games into the schedule, the unthinkable happened: she tore the same ACL again. As she was working through the rehab and recovery process that she had just completed, Hillsman kept a closer eye on her than ever. One day he gave her a call to check on her.
“Coach Q called me one day and asked me if I was OK. I just broke down on the phone, and I’d never broke down in front of anybody,” Sykes said.
Hillsman came to see her, and they had a heart-to-heart discussion.
“He said ‘listen, you need to talk to somebody – a sports psychologist,'” Sykes said. “So we worked it out, went through school, and I found this doctor who I’m still in contact with. He’s my best friend.”
Once Sykes began treatment, she realized she had more work to do than she had thought.
“He not only helped me recover from the second (ACL tear), but I had to go back and recover from the first one, in order to get to the second one,” she said. “So that whole year when we went to the National Championship (2015-2016), that was my first year of talking to him. Then, going into my fifth year, I was in a whole other mindset. Now in this league, I don’t even think about it. If somebody brings it up I’m thinking, “that’s so old.”
Hillsman understood because he had fought through a shoulder injury during his own playing days.
“For her the battle was mental, not physical,” Hillsman said. “She had to get past (the injuries) to become the player she once was. It’s knowing you can do it, and she was just fearless. She came back ready to attack.”
In her last two redshirt seasons in orange, Sykes found herself repeating history. In her junior year, which culminated in an NCAA Division I title game appearance, she averaged 10 points – just slightly more than her freshman average. By her senior year Sykes was eclipsing anything she’d done before, scoring 19.2 points and grabbing 7.8 rebounds per game.
Once she got to Atlanta, Sykes transitioned smoothly to the pro ranks. She said it was because the situation called for her to step up.
“I think being a rookie, you have (not) much time to get it,” she said. “The position I was in, we didn’t have Angel, Tiff had to score a lot, and we needed to help her. So I had this much time to come in and do what I needed to do to help. I did my best.”
Sykes’ best earned her rookie of the month honors last July, the second-most votes for rookie of the year, and a headlining spot on the all-rookie team at the end of the season. She played in Turkey overseas during the winter.
All of her experiences have given Sykes maturity and perspective beyond her years.
“I think she learned a lot in Turkey in those leagues,” Hayes said. “And coming back to our team, she has learned to play a role. Last year she was starting and this year she’s coming off the bench, and she’s taken it to heart; she knows that’s what’s best for the team. I think she knows she’s still a big part of this team. That’s a great part about her.”
Hillsman said Sykes’ resilience and strength have been the key to her growth.
“She’s a kid who gets it,” he said. “She understands her worth, what her skill set is, and her role. She’s a gym rat.”
Veteran Liberty guard Shavonte Zellous became friends with Sykes during their time playing in the Turkish league, and said she admires both the person and the player.
“Right now, she’s in a great place,” Zellous said. “Every time I see her I’m telling her how proud I am of her, and for the way she overcame her injuries. Anybody who made it through two ACL tears can give up on basketball. But her spirits are so high and she’s surrounded herself with mentors and great people to be around to help her get through and not worry about what happened.”
“She’s doing a marvelous job with Atlanta. Last year nobody really expected her to do what she did, and for her to come out and play like she did with Angel being out is tremendous for her. She’s a great person to be around – we really bonded a lot this year overseas. I try to mentor her a little bit about the league and how you stay ready and prepared, how to prevent injuries and how to take care of your body.”
Skyes was good-natured when she was injured last month, and said having to sit out for a few weeks might have ultimately worked in her favor.
“It’s cool, it’s just a sprain,” she said when the Dream came to Los Angeles to play the Sparks. “It’s weird because you have to be careful what you wish for. I was thinking ‘I need rest, I’m so tired.’ I graduated college, I came to the league, I went overseas and then I came right back to the league – that’s a lot. And the type of player I am, it’s no plays off, so it’s taxing.”
“I think this injury is a blessing in disguise for the simple fact that I’ve got other stuff going on with me, and I think this rest for my foot is helping everything else. When I come back I’m going to be fresh. I just hate it because it puts miles on Angel and they’re holding it down. I’ve been in those positions on other teams.”
Sykes has become one to truly celebrate the accomplishments of her teammates.
“I’ve learned about myself that I’m my teammates’ biggest cheerleader,” she said. “I get hyped on the and-one, I’ll flex, or whatever, depending on the moment. If somebody gets a three, oh my goodness. That’s the energy that I bring, where I could almost get a technical. We all feed off it. I never yell at the refs, I always yell out loud.”
Another role Sykes is now filling is that of mentor to forward Monique Billings, who like herself last year, is the only rookie on the team. Billings appreciates it.
“Sykes has been big sis, and her maturity is crazy to me because she’s only a couple years older than me but she seems like a 10-year vet in the way that she carries herself,” Billings said. “In the advice she’s given me, she’s so positive, and sometimes she challenges me. She’s like the big sister I never had, and I appreciate her. We have a lot of fun off the court, we goof around and mess with each other.”
Perhaps most important for her career, Sykes said her life lessons have taught her to appreciate the game and live in the moment.
“I’ve always loved basketball, but I didn’t know how much I loved it until it was taken away from me,” Sykes said. “All the little things I missed about it. Playing, yeah, blocking shots. But I fell back in love with everything that gets you to that point. I lost my way in understanding the process. I was thinking ‘end of game, end of game, end of game.’ My sports psyche told me to start living in the now and stop thinking about the future.”
Picture them rolling
Sykes said her new role as humor ambassador for the Dream has merely brought out a side of her that was always there.
“(Teammate) Bria (Holmes) knew my goofy side because she was always with me last year,” Sykes said. “But now I let it out more, to the rest of the team. It’s a new feel, a new team. I found the balance between work and play.”
She describes her humor style and delivery as “pretty honest.”
“I’m pretty genuine about the things I say and do. I don’t really try, it’s whatever I do or feel at that moment, respectfully,” she said.
Zellous, who is often the jokester for New York, said it is important for an athlete to fill that role on a team.
“She’s hilarious. Her sense of humor is good, and she is someone you want in your locker room, especially if you’re struggling during the season,” Zellous said. “Just to have somebody like her next to you makes everything easier.”
Collen called Sykes “a free spirit on and off the court.” But when the Dream get down to business, the coach knows she can count on her.
“She’s got a lot of basketball knowledge and she comes with it,” Collen said. “And that right there helps us to do it because she expects so much out of us, and we expect a lot out of each other. Credit to her and credit to Renee (Montgomery), because she comes in everyday with the same energy, and it’s infectious.”
Sykes said she takes a “details” approach to basketball.
“Everything’s simple,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve done anything out of my range. I push myself, but I pride myself off of the simple things.”
Collen said there are no ceilings for Sykes.
“Brittney has a passion to play at the highest level, and with some time and right commitment, there is nothing she can’t accomplish when it comes to basketball,” Collen said.