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With their elevated play, can the Dallas Wings contend for a Championship?

Wings players celebrate a win. Getty Images photo.
Wings players celebrate a win. Getty Images photo.

When the season first began, the Dallas Wings were up to their usual: playing hard, yet losing close games.

But now, almost two weeks after their roster finally came together, Dallas is starting to play better. In fact, all of their six losses so far have been in single digits. They have won four of their last six games, including a big one over the defending champion Seattle Storm.

The Wings are the youngest team in the WNBA with three rookies, three sophomores, and no one older than 28. They have leaned heavily on dynamic scorer Arike Ogunbowale for the last two seasons, but thanks to new signees and two straight top-notch draft classes, the young squad is at last showing the rest of the league that they are contenders.

Second-year forward Satou Sabally and four-year veteran Allisha Gray returned from 3X3 Olympic qualifying competition earlier this month, and made an instant impact. Sabally, who played professionally as a youth before her star career at Oregon, give them a player that can score both inside and on the perimeter. Since returning, she has averaged 14.4 points and 7 rebounds per game. Gray is averaging 10 points per outing, but is struggling to find her rhythm. Although she will need to play better for Dallas to take the next step, she has shown improvement each game.

Before Sabally was inserted into the starting lineup, Marina Mabrey had put the league on notice that she is in the running for the Most Improved Player Award. She is the team’s second-leading scorer, averaging 16.9 points per game on 46 percent shooting from the field and 39 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

Mabrey, who was college teammates with Arike Ogunbowale before both were drafted to separate teams in 2019, has improved every year she has been in the league. But this season the guard is playing with tremendous confidence, and she is very aggressive. She has improved her ball-handling, mid-range game, and her ability to finish around the rim. Now with her new assignment, Mabrey leads a bench that head coach Vickie Johnson expects to score around 40 points per game. She is a big reason why Dallas is turning their season around.

We all know what Ogunbowale can do: she can flat out score the basketball. This year she again leads the way, averaging 20.9 points per game while shooting 38 percent from the field and 35 percent from three-point land. She is a high-volume shooter who puts up a lot of shots; a crafty playmaker who can’t be left alone for a minute – especially in crunch time.

The Wings’ success could come down to how efficient Ogunbowale can be. Taking high percentage shots and getting her teammates more involved could help them in the long run.

To start the season, the team had four rookies. Charli Collier and Awak Kuier were drafted with the first two picks on the WNBA Draft. Chelsea Dungee was drafted fifth and Dana Evans, 13th.

Collier has started 10 out of the 11 games she played, and has seen about 13 minutes per game. Johnson said her limited minutes have a lot to do with opponent matchups. Collier is averaging 4.2 points and 4.3 rebounds.

Kuier and Dungee have hardly had any playing time at all. Kuier, a highly-vaunted center from Finland, has played in just four games, and Dungee, who was the SEC’s leading scorer in her senior season, has clocked minutes in just seven games. Evans was traded to the Chicago Sky two weeks ago. In return, Dallas received a third-round 2022 pick, the rights to swap 2022 first-round picks with the Sky, and rookie Shyla Heal, who was immediately waived.

Johnson, in her first year coaching the team, is in win-now mode, which means rolling with her more experienced players. Right now the rookies may still not see much more playing time, but they are all talented prospects who could help the team in the future.

If the Wings want to contend for the WNBA title, they will need to continue to improve in all aspects of the game. The big key is how efficient Ogunbowale can be. Sabally and Mabrey must also continue their outstanding play and help shoulder the scoring load. Johnson said before the season started that she would help make Gray the best two-way player in the league. If both of them can live up to their end of the deal, the team could go a long way.

Dallas is third in the league in scoring, averaging 85.5 points per game. They also lead the WNBA in rebounding, with a 39.2 percent average. One area the team does need to improve would be defense, as they give up 83.2 points per game. If they could knock that number down at least 10 points, it would make them a more complete team, and that goal is possible, with their size.

Keep an eye on the Wings – they could make noise for the rest of the season.

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.
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.”