What began as losses have turned into opportunities in the eyes of Dallas Wings players and coaches, as they prepare to tip off the season tomorrow.
After losing top scorer and rebounder Liz Cambage in a trade, trading steady veteran Karima Christmas-Kelly, and seeing All-Star point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith out after having a baby last month, Dallas is starting over again – but excitement abounds.
Under the direction of the winningest coach in U.S. women’s professional basketball, Brian Agler, new faces dot the roster. In his first year with the team, Agler said he is putting all of the pieces together.
“You have to sort of figure out personalities, you have to coach everyone a bit differently,” he said. “But the standards don’t change.”
Though Diggins-Smith comes to practices and motivates teammates from the sidelines, seven-year-veteran forward Glory Johnson is stepping up on court.
“I’m having to step up and be more of a vocal leader than someone who would lead by example,” she said. “I would like to show people what I do and let it speak for itself without (Diggins-Smith) being on the floor this season, at least not for now, someone needs to speak up and be a lot more vocal.”
The Wings have a good mixture of young talent that has the potential to be developed into a contender in a season that is more open than ever, with superstars from several teams out for a variety of reasons.
Dallas was able to nab one of the biggest budding stars in the game in Notre Dame guard Arike Ogunbowale, with the fifth pick in the draft. Ogunbowale said she has had to adjust to the physicality of the pro game, but she is looking forward to competing against top-notch talent.
“Girls, are pretty strong out here,” she said. “I still go into the games with the same mentally, same preparation and go out there and do what I usually do.”
The Wings went 5-12 on the road last season and limped into the playoffs, losing 10 of their 11 final regular-season games, for their second consecutive first-round exit. The team was third in scoring, averaging 85.3 points per game, but they were also the worst three-point shooting team in the league, at 30.5 percent.
Agler, who guided both the Seattle Storm and Los Angeles Sparks to Championships, said he will try to implement certain characteristics with his new roster, but finding an identity will be a collaborative effort between himself and the players.
“I feel like we’ll be really solid defensively, I think offensively we will move the ball, spread the court and play inside out,” he said. “We will bring out the best in our teammates and I hope we are really good closing games out.”
Overcoming personnel changes and building a team chemistry are large hurdles for a 34-game season, but Johnson said it is the versatility of this team that makes them special.
“I think that is a big deal, having those players that can create, they can do a lot with their game;” she said. “You can mix them up and put them in different positions, they still feel comfortable and they are still able to play together; I think that is a big deal for us.”
Dallas finalized their roster Wednesday night by waiving second round picks Megan Gustafson and Kennedy Burke. The Wings received a rim protector in Imani McGee-Stafford, another post presence in Isabelle Harrison and Moriah Jefferson from the Cambage trade. Jefferson was placed on the suspended list, and may come back at any time this season.
Kaela Davis, Brooke McCarty-Williams and Ogunbowale have been getting time in at point guard. Agler said it is not like the team will be missing the opportunities that Diggins-Smith and Cambage had had last season, they will be shared throughout the team.
“Things will happen over time, I am not sure what the timetable will be,” he said. “What’s important to me is that we keep moving in a positive direction so that we are improving.”
The Wings will have a favorable schedule to start the season, with their first three games six days apart. They open in Atlanta against the Dream, and host the Minnesota Lynx in their home opener June 1.