Dallas Wings rookies fit with team’s fighting mentality

Dallas Wings rookies Allisha Gray, Evelyn Akhator, Breanna Lewis, Kaela Davis and Sainya Chong. Photo by/Sharon Ellman.
Dallas Wings rookies Allisha Gray, Evelyn Akhator, Breanna Lewis, Kaela Davis and Sainya Chong. Photo by/Sharon Ellman.

Even before they came to Dallas, the Wings were known as a fighting team.

As the Tulsa Shock, the squad made a name for themselves by playing hard for every possession until the final buzzer. They brought that tradition with them last year when the franchise moved to Texas.

This season the Wings have played a blistering schedule, marking the halfway point of their year this past Sunday with their 16th game. They are 8-8, with three of their wins and three of their losses coming at a margin of six points or less. They beat the energetic Connecticut Sun four days ago and don’t play again until Saturday – their longest stretch without a game all year so far.

Dallas veteran forward Karima Christmas-Kelly said fighting hard has become a part of their team identity.

“We are a group of very hard workers and fighters who always want to do more on the court,” she said.

Fred Williams, who has been the head coach of the team since 2014, said that mindset likely came out of the practices he runs.

“I’m old school and I bring the boxing gloves in practice for a reason, so they can have that fight on the floor, and never give up,” Williams said. “As long as I’m their coach, they’ll be that type of team.”

This season the Wings are also one of the youngest squads in the WNBA. Center Courtney Paris has seven years of professional experience and Christmas-Kelly has six, but everyone else on the roster has four years of experience or less. The team has five rookies: Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis of South Carolina; UConn product Saniya Chong; Kentucky’s Evelyn Akhator; and Breanna Lewis of Kansas State.

Gray and Davis helped the Gamecocks win a National Championship in April, and Chong’s Huskies lost in the semifinals to runners-up Mississippi State.

Williams said taking on so many first-year players was not an investment in the future.

“We’re investing for now,” he said. “These are players we need now, and when we drafted them it was all about being pro-ready now. One of them has become a starter, and the rest are valuable contributors. The future is now for us as a team.”

Gray has started every game and is averaging 11.9 points and 4.8 rebounds per game behind Skylar Diggins-Smith, Glory Johnson and Christmas-Kelly. She was rookie of the month for May, and will likely win the honor for June. Davis has shown flashes of brilliance, and she and Chong are contributing solid minutes off the bench.

We had a chance to talk to Gray, Davis and Chong about their transition to the WNBA and to what has been called a “blue collar work ethic” team.

WomensHoopsWorld: How is this like other situations you’ve been in with a lot of newcomers?

Gray: My year at North Carolina, I came in with a lot of other highly-ranked recruits. There’s a lot of learning to do, but it’s fun because we’re all learning things at the same time.

WHW: Do you stick together as newcomers, or do you blend in?

Chong: With this team we all connect really well with each other, and it’s not just about us five against the vets; I think we all get along really well together. We connect really well off the court, and it does show really well on the court. We’re familiar with each other, we like each other, and on the court we want to see each other improve and achieve as best we can.

They’re not trying to criticize you; they want to make you better. It may not be something you want to hear, but……

Gray: We try to hang with everybody – I try to blend in with everybody. We’ve got good team chemistry and everybody hangs with everybody; everyone respects everyone else. It’s a lot of fun.

WHW: Which vet has been especially helpful since you arrived?

(All point to Christmas-Kelly and Diggins-Smith, sitting nearby)

Davis: They tell you how to handle certain situations, and they help us by telling us when we need to work on something.

Gray: Sky and Rima have helped me out a lot, especially from a guard standpoint. I have a lot of questions that I ask them about. They’re doing a great job of helping me and I’m thankful for both of them.

WHW: What are you personally trying to improve upon?

Chong: It’s not just during practices, but it’s on your off time. When you get in the gym, how many more shots are you trying to get up? What are you trying to get better at?

WHW: What’s the most significant thing you’ve learned since your WNBA career began?

Gray: You definitely have to be strong physically and mentally – especially physically, because you’re dealing with some strong women. And on the mental side you don’t get the stop calls, and if you go around screens…..you get fined now. I just don’t want to get fined (smiles).

Davis: We’re just learning; we learn from each game. Even when we lose, we’ve got to take something out of it.

WHW: How does this team keep getting better?

Gray: We have strong leadership, and everyone is stepping up. We have that winning mentality.

Davis: We’re better than our record and we know that. We’ve got to keep finding a way to put a game together. We’ve got to keep working on it and figuring out how everybody can gel.

WHW: This team has had a fighting identity. How do you each fit into that dynamic?

Chong: It’s always how I’ve been, wanting to get better each and every day. Going to a great college we were always running, always pushing until the final buzzer. Then you come here and it’s the same, all the way through the fourth quarter.

Gray: That was definitely my mentality in college, and coach (Dawn) Staley – she’s a fighter.

WHW: Describe coach Williams in three words or less.

Davis: Old school. Laid back. Growing up with my dad, he was old school and always kept to the basics in practices. Coach Fred is the same way.

WHW: Who’s the funniest person on the team?

Chong: I am.

Davis: KT (Kayla Thornton)

Chong: Ah, yeah. OK, I’ll take second.