Wings to elevate their game with defense, height

Azura Stevens shoots the ball against the New York Liberty earlier this week. Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images.
Azura Stevens shoots the ball against the New York Liberty earlier this week. Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images.

The Dallas Wings had plenty of offensive firepower last year.

They ranked first in the WNBA in team offense, scoring an average 80.2 points per game, and were tops in offensive rebounds. All five starters were double-digit scorers, and one of them – Allisha Gray – was named rookie of the year.

But after a 16-18 regular-season finish and a first-round playoffs exit, the Wings have begun camp and preseason play this year with only one thing on their minds: defense. Veteran Karima Christmas-Kelly said the team took the task on the first day of training camp.

“It is something that we are really going to try to focus on more, and just being able to be there for each other on the defensive end,” Christmas-Kelly said.

Last season Dallas was undersized and had trouble protecting the paint. But with the return of Australian star center Liz Cambage, who hadn’t played in the WNBA since 2011, and 2016 draftee Ruth Hamblin, the Wings will have paint presence. To that end, coach Fred Williams said his goal for the year is to create “a well-balanced team with speed and size that is relentless on defense.”

“My thing is 40/40 this year, give me 40/40 on offense, give me 40/40 on defense, that’s 40 minutes both ways and everything else will take its place,” Williams said.

That should be easier with Cambage, who is 6-8, and 6-7 Hamblin, who took last season off to play with the Canadian National Team. Both give Dallas size and depth in the post that they have not had before.

Other returners are fired up, including point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, who played well in a USA Basketball National Team exhibition game two weeks ago. She attributes her readiness to what she characterized as a more constructive offseason.

“I was with Fred all year, I think it is great having him here in town and having access to him,” Diggins-Smith said of her coach. “It’s a little avant-garde as far as me not being overseas and him in the same WNBA city as me. I definitely feel like I worked smarter this year.”

Aerial Powers, Glory Johnson, Kaela Davis and Kayla Thornton are also solid returnees for the Wings, along with Gray, who trained hard over the winter.

“(I worked on) improving my jump shot in the mid-range area, my three-point percentage and ball-handling,” Gray said.

Dallas added to that powerful mix by drafting Connecticut forward/center Azura Stevens with their No. 6 pick. She debuted in Monday’s preseason win over the New York Liberty with a team-high 19 points.

Williams said he believes his team has all the right pieces to make a deep run into the playoffs. But first they have to gel, as was evident in Tuesday’s 21-point loss to the Connecticut Sun.

“The main thing is team chemistry,” Williams said. “You have to have players that have that good chemistry, (because) at this level, the talent is pretty even.”

Diggins-Smith, who worked with a new trainer last winter, said she is not only stepping up her play, but she’s honing her leadership skills.

“We have the youngest team in the league, and we’re still learning,” she said. “I am still learning how to be a better leader, and (I’m learning) what I can to do help out.”

Dallas broke through last season to make the playoffs for the first time in several years. Now they have the potential to be an elite team, but they must first trim four players from their training camp roster to meet the limit of 12 by May 17. Before that, they have one more preseason matchup, against Dallas Sunday at home.