Growth-minded Bradford bringing perspective, energy to the Dream

BROOKLYN, NY – MAY 29: Crystal Bradford #9 of the Atlanta Dream drives to the basket against the New York Liberty on May 29, 2021 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Truly, there are no timeouts for Crystal Bradford.

When she’s on the court, the Atlanta Dream reserve guard is hustling hard on offense and making life difficult for opponents on the other end of the floor. On the sidelines, in team huddles and during practices, Bradford is coaching her teammates and infusing them with her zeal and humor.

Before games, she is likely to lead impromptu, in-tunnel dances – all of which helps to keep players going in an already-challenging season of sorts.

“I’m always trying to get my teammates involved, whether it’s emotionally, or some other way,” she said. “Even when I’m on the court, I’m trying to get them involved.”

Bradford’s position as the fourth-best scorer for Atlanta isn’t one many saw for the 27-year-old, who is making her first appearance on a WNBA roster this summer for the first time since 2015, when she was drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks.

That she seemingly popped out of nowhere, and in such fully-formed fashion, belies the years of work she put into both skills and personal development. It has been a long and winding road for the Detroit native, who has used unrelenting resilience as the springboard for growth.

Bradford capped a stellar collegiate career at Central Michigan as the program’s all-time scoring, rebounding, field goal and shots blocked leader. She was the first Chippewa to be drafted in the first round.

But the knee issues that kept her out of postseason play required her to have surgery, and she didn’t join the Sparks until midway through the summer. She played 15 games. The following year Bradford was cut in training camp, and so began her quest to return to the league.

She played in Brazil and then Finland before signing a contract in Israel, which she said felt like home. All the while, Bradford had a singular goal.

“I never gave up on being in the WNBA,” she said. “My friends and supporters didn’t, either. Some summers it was in the back of my head, and some summers I was ready. Some people give up ASAP. I think that’s why I’m such a good fourth quarter player. There’s never a time to give up.”

Bradford said she knew she needed to do some growing, so she got to work on that.

“I focused on maturing, and perfecting my craft,” she said. “I stayed overseas, and wanted to keep building there. A lot of times, what you do in the WNBA doesn’t carry over to overseas play.”

It was when she got to Israel in 2017 that Bradford said she felt the hunger to succeed in basketball like she never had before, as well as the confidence that is bred by experience. She did mental work and learned how to keep her composure during games, where she admits she still gets charged up.

“After a game, the adrenaline is so high,” Bradford said. “I’ve had so many nights to think, and to reprogram my thinking if it’s a loss.”

She was also aware that she had a reputation for having an edgy personality, so she set about working on that, too.

“I used to be afraid,” Bradford said. “I’m an inner-city kid who grew up with plenty of trauma, so I used to be afraid to be vulnerable. I think vulnerability has been a game-changer for me.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 21: Crystal Bradford #9 of the Atlanta Dream and Courtney Williams celebrate after the game against the Indiana Fever on May 21, 2021 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images.

Meditation has enabled her to be calmer and more focused. And taking a more deliberate approach to the game has increased her on-court potency.

“I want to be a playmaker,” Bradford said. ‘That’s also what’s changed about my game from LA to now: I’m smarter, stronger, faster. I’m able to make plays. I’m really a mismatch nightmare for anyone.”

“It’s like chef’s choice when I’m out there. I’m not running around crazy. I know everything that’s in my bag, and when to get it out.”

With an assist from her agent, Bradford got an invitation to the Dream’s 2021 training camp through coach Nicki Collen. Ten days before final cuts, Collen took the head coaching job at Baylor University, leaving assistant Mike Petersen as the interim head coach. Bradford made it a goal to impress him, and it didn’t take her long.

Petersen said that within six days, Bradford was contributing enough in every practice drill so that the squad she was on would win every time. When he and assistant coach Darius Taylor began to hammer out the final roster, they decided she had earned a spot.

“She’s got great energy all the time,” Petersen said. “She’s a light. She makes people laugh and she lightens the mood. She plays hard and is supremely confident. She’s been a really pleasant addition.”

Petersen admits he didn’t expect it.

“At the start of training camp, there was not one person in America who thought she’d make our final roster, but now she’s established herself, and she’s got a role on this team,” he said.

He lauded Bradford’s consistency.

“Literally every day has a Crystal Bradford moment,” Petersen said. “It’s not like she had a really good day and then she goes two weeks – or two days – without doing something.”

Veteran forward Elizabeth Williams said the team appreciates Bradford’s play and personality.

“She’s really high energy,” Williams said. “Obviously when you have someone that has had a long career playing overseas and is able to stick with us, she had a different mindset, and she brings that to every single practice.”

“We love the energy she brings on and off the floor. She’s unpredictable, so she’s really tough to guard. She can do a lot of things, and we like that about her.”

Heather Oesterle, a longtime assistant at CMU who took the head coach position in 2019, has watched almost every Atlanta game. She went to Chicago two weeks ago to see Bradford play in person, and was impressed with what she saw.

“She was a great teammate out there, and I wouldn’t say that about her early on in college,” Oesterle said. “She’s accepted her role, is great off the bench and unbelievable off the court, and that says a lot about how she’s matured.”

Oesterle said she appreciates the work Bradford put in to get another chance in the WNBA.

“She told me it was her dream come true to play in the states in front of family and friends, and that she appreciated the opportunity,” Oesterle said.

By the time league play wraps up in the fall, Bradford will have played one and a half seasons in the WNBA. In the spirit of “pushing her limits,” she will head to Poland to play this winter, for the first time. And she will turn 28 in November.

Bradford is philosophical about her journey as being unique, and she said it couldn’t have happened any other way.

“I’m an experience learner in that I learn by having experiences,” she said. “That’s just what it is – I might have to experience a few things.”