Rebuilt Atlanta Dream ready to become contenders once again

Allisha Gray. Atlanta Dream photo.

As the Atlanta Dream ready for their season opener Saturday with a slate full of fresh faces, they will rely on the strong culture they’ve built in training camp to take their next steps forward in becoming playoff contenders.

The team has fallen short of the postseason the last few years – last season by just one game – despite seeing No. 1 draft pick Rhyne Howard named the rookie of the year. But second-year coach Tanisha Wright and her veterans believe that the collection of returners and newcomers she has on her hands bodes well for 2023.

“Right now, we’re just working on our chemistry and building a defensive mentality and just being the aggressors and being the toughest, hardest-working team out there,” returning forward Cheyenne Parker said.

Also back are forwards Monique Billings, Nia Coffey and Naz Hillmon, and guards AD Durr and Aari McDonald.

In the offseason, Atlanta acquired veteran guards Allisha Gray and Danielle Robinson via trade from the Dallas Wings and Indiana Fever, respectively. They also drafted Haley Jones, Laeticia Amihere and Leigha Brown to build around their core.

In preseason game action Gray, in particular, showed off why the Dream traded their third overall pick to the Dallas Wings for her. Against the Washington Mystics, the Georgia native was the leading scorer with 14 points on 44 percent shooting. She led the team with 12 points on 8-of-8 from the free-throw line in their second game against the Sun.

“It was fun playing against them and now, I get to be on the other side of things,” Gray said. “I get to learn the system and stuff, but overall, it’s cool. I’m happy to be here.”

Haley Jones. Atlanta Dream photo.

Jones, a Stanford standout that Atlanta took with their sixth pick, has displayed toughness in training camp this month. During a recent drill that was run against practice players, where the goal was simply to stop them from scoring, she crashed the boards during a rebound attempt. The next day during a scrimmage, Jones had a great steal on an attempt at a behind-the-back pass and even made a fadeaway at the hoop.

She said she has tried to adjust to professional basketball as quickly as possible.

“At the college level, I talked about how it’s like everyone can’t be high school player of the year, this and that, and they’re on the same team,” Jones said. “Now it’s like conference player of the year and national player of the year all on the same team, so everybody’s of such high caliber, so I guess that’s just kind of like the reality check in that you really have to figure out where your spots are and play well and be who you are.”

Amihere, from South Carolina, said she is remaining locked in.

“I think the fast-paced level of play and then just making sure that you’re paying attention to details are very similar,” Amihere said.

One of the reasons the Dream were able to compete for a playoff spot last year was their defense, as they were fifth in defensive ratings at 99.8. That could change this season with the addition of former ACC defensive player of the year Lorela Cubaj, from Georgia Tech.

Cubaj stood out in training camp with an effective post game and a reliable jump shot. She will be a valuable addition to the team’s front court, and could help make up for the retirement of Kia Vaughn with both her offense and defense in the paint.

The new players will serve as great compliments to the talents of Howard as not only she continues to take the next step, but the team as a whole attempts to evolve into a contender.

“My personal goal is WNBA All-Defensive team, of course, and I want to be in the MVP race, but I just want to continue to make my team better and be there, however they need me so that we can have a longer season than what we did last year,” Howard said.

Atlanta took steps to improve their ball movement in training camp. Last week, with no practice players on hand, the team practiced running plays that set up layups and 3-point shots. Not only did the new players look great, but also Howard and Parker helped to lead the offensive schemes.

Wright said she has connected with athletes on a more familiar level in her sophomore season.

Coach Tanisha Wright addresses the team at a recent practice. Avery Wiggins photo.

“I’ve been with these young ladies for a year, the majority of them for a year, so it’s a different comfort level for me and for them, knowing which buttons to push, knowing how to get after them, who receives this well, who doesn’t receive this well, who receives that well, so I think that the comfort level is different,” Wright said.

The Dream open the season on the road tomorrow, taking on the Dallas Wings. Their home opener will be next week, as they host the Indiana Fever.