Arlington, Texas – The Dallas Wings finished wrapped in an injury-riddled season Sunday with a loss to the Seattle Storm – their fourth in a row.
Despite ending with a 10-24 record and missing the playoffs, players and coaches are optimistic about the future, which will feature new players and a healthier roster.
First-year coach Brian Agler, who spent the previous four seasons at the helm of the Los Angeles Sparks, won’t be in the playoffs for the first time in a while. But he laid a good foundation in Dallas this year. The veteran coach said it was refreshing to coach a youthful team, but also challenging.
“I thought we made a lot of strides, I thought we learned a lot. I would probably say the best thing about this year is the learning experience,” Agler said.
The Wings were a completely different team from when he first took the job, as they lost Liz Cambage in a trade and were without their star point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith as continues to work her way back from giving birth to her first child. They were without guards Tayler Hill and Moriah Jefferson and forward Azura’ Stevens, who were all injured and missed most of the season.
When players return, and with super-rookies Arike Ogunbowale and Megan Gustafson readying for their sophomore years in 2020, the Wings are looking ahead.
Veteran forward Glory Johnson said she changed her style of play to accommodate personnel absences, and took advice in doing so from a famous fellow Tennessee alum.
“Tamika Catchings told me that once you start to extend your outside game, you extend your game and the play that you have left,” Johnson said. “It takes a toll on your body but when you develop an outside shot you can last a lot longer in any league.”
Dallas was the youngest team in the league for the 2019 season since there were many of the veterans that were sidelined this season. Diggins-Smith, who was on the sidelines at most games, said she was impressed by the team’s relentlessness.
“I was proud of the effort the girls gave,”Diggins-Smith said. “When you come into this league you don’t really have time to prepare as a rookie and get ready. Our young players have been able to make a splash and that’s a blessing in our foundation.”
The rookie that has probably had the most to learn on the fly was Ogunbowale. The former Notre Dame standout was shifted to the point guard position, which she hadn’t played in college, and she held her own. Ogumbowale finished the season as the third-highest scoring rookie in league history. But despite her personal success, she said she wishes the Wings had earned more wins.
“Next year we’re going to be really good once we get some of our best players back and draft a nice core player,” the Wisconsin native said. “Whatever happens in the off season we’re going to come back stronger, I’m excited for the future.”
The Mystics topped the Sky, 100-86. Elena Delle Donne became the first player in league history to shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the foul line for a season.
If anyone didn’t see Napheesa Collier as one of the top candidates for Rookie of the Year at the end of this WNBA season, it wasn’t the former UConn standout.
“(Rookie of the Year) was the goal I set for myself in the beginning of the year,” Collier said. “It’s something I’ve worked towards this entire season. So it’d definitely be really important to me.”
The Minnesota Lynx selected Collier with their No. 6 draft pick, while the other contender in what has become a hot ROY race is the Dallas Wings’ No. 5 choice, Arike Ogunbowale. Whomever wins the race will become the lowest draft pick to do so since Temeka Johnson, who went No. 6 to the Washington Mystics before her 2005 rookie season.
A compelling case can be made for both players. Many of Ogunbowale’s backers laud her scoring (rookie-best 18.5 points per game) and lack of a supporting cast around her. Collier scores 12.9 points a night, but her edge stands in a more balanced game over Ogunbowale in rebounds (6.5 to 2.4), steals (1.9 to 1.0) and blocks (0.9 to 0.0).
Ogunbowale is asked to shoot more, firing off 511 attempts this season (to Collier’s 320). Collier has made the most of her looks, though, owning a 48.4 shooting percentage (to Ogunbowale’s 38.6).
“I would say my all-around game and my efficiency (give me an edge),” Collier said. “I think I affect the game in a lot more areas than just points, and I don’t need as many shots to do it.”
Minnesota’s public relations staff has made campaigning for Collier a collaborative effort. They bring multiple departments together and add to the hype that picks up the most steam, largely through social media. (This year, that also includes plugging Odyssey Sims as the Most Improved Player of the year.)
But Collier’s teammates have been equally as passionate on her behalf, even if they feel like they shouldn’t have to be.
“I don’t even know why we need to campaign for Phee. I think it’s pretty obvious,” said forward Seimone Augustus, who was the 2006 ROY. “And it’s no disrespect to Arike, she’s had an amazing season, well half a season. She started off a little rough at the beginning and then picked it up. But when we talk about a body of work, from start to finish, Phee has been consistent throughout the entire year.”
Coach Cheryl Reeve said Collier’s balanced game makes her the best candidate.
“I’d like to (give Collier the award),” Reeve said. “(She is) just the second rookie ever to compile 400 points, 200 rebounds and 60 steals. And the other player is Tamika Catchings. As I told her, that’s just tremendous company. … Phee just continues to be the best overall rookie in this league.”
Augustus, who went No. 1 before Cappie Pondexter went No. 2 to Phoenix, said overall team records make a difference. The 18-15 Lynx are headed to the postseason, while the Wings have struggled to a 10-23 record going into the regular-season finale.
“It was fun, obviously, to compete with the other rookie you were going against and seeing what they were doing, checking the stat lines and things like that,” Augustus said of her race with Pondexter. “But our competition was way different from (Collier’s) because neither one of us (reached the postseason). Phee’s in the playoffs, Arike is not. Phee’s got the quality body of work, Arike’s scoring the basketball.”
One thing is for certain: No matter who wins, somebody is getting robbed. So Collier’s teammates have done all they can to ensure it’s not her.
“It’s been amazing. I’m supported so much with them. They’re singing it every day,” Collier said. “They’ve been my biggest supporters, absolutely. My biggest advocates.”
She is grateful to have landed in Minnesota.
“I think it’s special (here). We’re a really close team,” she said. “We genuinely want the best for each other. I think that’s really hard to come by, that you recognize that, in order for the team to be great, individuals have to be great, as well. We support each other through that.”
If there was any doubt that the Las Vegas Aces’ pregame walk out routine had become a sensation, it was erased by a boy named Gabe two weeks ago.
A video of the youngster clapping his hands to the beat while yelling “Lady Aces!” as Las Vegas guard Sydney Colson does, quickly made its way around social media. The franchise invited him to lead the chant before a game, and not long afterward there he was, keeping perfect rhythm while smiling members of the team followed him out towards the court.
Just four months ago, the now-familiar ritual was nothing more than a one-person chant that Colson began to annoy her teammates. Since the entire team joined her, the walk outs have become highly-anticipated and the “Lady Aces!” refrain a very familiar one. The team also has a lot of fun with it.
“We all respect her, even though she’s super silly, we all have a level of respect for her and what she does on the court when she does get her opportunity,” forward Dearica Hamby said.
The chants, like most things in Colson’s life, started as a joke. Always trying to find a new way to make her teammates laugh, the six-year veteran decided to start giving her team new names.
“One day I was joking around at practice and referring to us as different corny (names),” Colson said. “That’s something they do with high school teams, putting ‘Lady’ in front of their mascot, and we are a professional team. So I was just being ridiculous and referring to us like we are little girls, and it was getting on everyone’s nerves.”
“But I like to do that – to intentionally get on your nerves – and then carry stuff on for a long time, to the point where either you’re going to start doing it with me and saying it, or you’re just going to ignore me. Most times it goes in my favor, like people act like they don’t like stuff and then I keep doing it for so long that they are like ‘ughhhh,’ and they give in.”
“I just wear them down,” she said.
Yet it was less of a conscious choice to debut the chants and more of a feeling that the Aces need to shake things up.
“I think we had lost a couple on the road, and during one of the losses we were just like, ‘we don’t need to do anything,” Colson said. “It doesn’t matter what we do before this game, it doesn’t matter if we get hype, or not talking or whatever, it was just like, get your (stuff) together before this game and go play.’ So then we won.”
It wasn’t simply about individual outcomes, but the need to bring their own energy to the games.
“It wasn’t about home or away or even wins or losses, it was just like, we feeling it today or we not?” Colson said.
The popularity of their routine was never expected, as it took even her teammates awhile to come around to the chant. Fortunately for Colson, they climbed aboard, but not until they added another element to the routine.
“We did it one day before a game and just added a clap and it was just a thing,” Colson said. “People were like, ‘Oh, we like that!’ Then they started asking us, so then we changed it for a little bit because I was like, ‘OK, now it became a show.’ Then we started to switch it up some so we were still having fun with it.”
In total, Colson estimates there have been six or seven different variations of the chant. Some come from movies like “Bring It On” or “Stomp The Yard,” but her favorite is based on the children’s song “Little Sally Walker.” Some have been a collaboration with different teammates – most often Hamby, with whom she played in San Antonio.
Others are simply thought of on game day, before Colson’s pregame nap, meal, shower or downtime before the game. The routine has not only boosted the team’s popularity, it has helped them build an identity, which they are taking into the final week of regular-season play and then, the playoffs.
It is ironic, in hindsight, that the “Lady Aces” phenomenon came close to never happening.
Colson was one of the Aces’ last cuts in training camp in 2018, and she played two games for the Minnesota Lynx at the end of the year. She was overseas playing this past winter when her agent told her she had another tryout with Las Vegas.
“I told my agent, I don’t want to go to a camp where I don’t have a chance to actually make the team. I don’t want to just go be a body for numbers, where they have players coming back or a situation like that,” Colson said.
“So I went in because (my agent) talked to the coach and the GM and truly believed that I had a shot…They wanted a veteran point guard to be here so I said ‘OK, sounds like it might happen. I’m going in with the mindset that I’m going to work hard and do everything that is in my control.’”
On the day of the cut deadline, she received the news: she would not have a spot on the Aces. The decision, while disappointing, impacted her less than she anticipated.
“I was planning on moving on to another career anyway, I was done with basketball,” she said. “So once I was cut, I was like, thank you for the opportunity, I’m going back home to Houston, I am going to pursue acting how I wanted to do.“
“I was at peace with my decision, and I was fine with it, I wasn’t even like moved by being cut, I said I knew this was a possibility.”
Yet the decision to cut Colson didn’t sit well with the rest of the team, including Hamby.
“I think everybody can say initially when we thought she was going to be cut we were all kind of devastated because we were like, ‘we need her on this team,’” Hamby said. “Because she brings people together, and in the locker room she is a big piece of what we have going on and the chemistry.”
Ultimately, Las Vegas coaches agreed they needed her, and contacted her right before the deadline.
“A couple hours later, they called me back. ‘Hey can you make it back to the gym?’” Colson said. “So I said, ‘Yeah I can make it back to the gym, but what does this mean?’ And they said, ‘Well, we’re signing you.’ And I said all right, then I’ll be there.”
Colson, who her teammates have said is the funniest person on the squad, took the turn of events in stride.
“The next day they were (joking) like, ‘What are you doing here?’ I was like, ‘Yeah I was cut, but then I didn’t feel like being cut, so here I am, you’re signing me,’” she said laughing. “I was like ‘I’m here, I’m here! You’re going to have to escort me out, security is going to have to deal with me.’”
Colson has made the most of her spot since that day. While her stats are unassuming – 3.5 points and two rebounds in just more than 12 minutes per game – her impact for the Aces has been evident to everyone in the organization, according to assistant coach Vickie Johnson.
“What she brings to our team is vital, as far as her energy and her leadership, her knowledge of the game, and also her ability to be the glue, to keep everyone together having fun,” Johnson said.
“This game is very intense, but at the same time you have to have fun as you play this game, and she brings that excitement for Liz (Cambage) and (A’ja) Wilson. Our other vets are very serious, and even though (Colson) is a vet, she has a kid personality in some ways.”
Hamby said her friend did the same thing when they played for the Stars.
“She brings people together, and in the locker room she is a big piece of what we have going on and the chemistry, bringing people together,” Hamby said. “Pretty much how her personality is, that’s how she plays. So it’s upbeat, trying to push the tempo, trying to be super active. It’s the same in the locker room.”
After three years away from the WNBA after her rookie season in 2011, Colson is happy to absorb any time in the league’s spotlight.
She helped Texas A&M win a National Championship her senior year, and then spent her first pro season with the New York Liberty before playing in Poland for two years. Unable to find a spot in the WNBA after that, she went back to the Aggies and became a graduate assistant and video coordinator.
During this time, however, Colson kept working to reclaim her dream of once again playing in the WNBA.
“I was hearing that is very hard to get back into the league, but I really wasn’t one to take no for an answer,” she said. “I would go and (Texas A&M) would have practice, then I would come late at night because that was the time that I had to be in the gym by myself… and some days I would just get home and be like, ‘OK, is this really what I still want to be working for?’”
Colson would come home from workouts and sit alone with her thoughts, the TV off as she sunk into her chair, trying to fight through both the physical and mental fatigue.
She eventually was signed by San Antonio, and she played there for three seasons while also coaching at Rice University in Houston during her first two years.
Colson plans on getting into acting after her basketball career is over, using her humor and self-described “ridiculousness” to be a glue in a different industry. But first, with the now-third-place Aces gunning for a top seed in the postseason, she and her team have schemes – and new tunnel walk outs – to prepare.
And if Las Vegas wins the championship, Colson thinks a different type of video may go viral.
“We’re going to the Bellagio and just jumping in,” she said. “If we win it all, it’s going to be a movie.”
The Aces finish their season on the road, playing the Atlanta Dream Thursday and the Phoenix Mercury Sunday.