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Atlanta Dream shaping new identity with evolving roster

In this Aug. 12, 2018, file photo, Atlanta Dream coach Nicki Collen smiles during a WNBA basketball game against the New York Liberty, in New York. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan, File)
In this Aug. 12, 2018, file photo, Atlanta Dream coach Nicki Collen smiles during a WNBA basketball game against the New York Liberty, in New York. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan, File)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta begins its 13th season Sunday

The Atlanta Dream haven’t played in 10 months.

On Sunday, the team begins its 13th WNBA season, which will be the league’s most unique to date, and hosts the Dallas Wings at 5 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.

Plenty has changed for the Dream since its last regular-season game, from its roster to its home arena. The biggest change centers around the game of basketball, which now involves coronavirus testing, masks and social distancing to be played safely. That’s what led to the 2020 WNBA season being held in full at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

Each team will play 22 regular-season games before the playoffs in September. The shortened season means the Dream will play four games within the first week, matching up with the Aces (CBSSN), New York Liberty and Indiana Fever.

The Dream’s preseason was shortened, too.

After delays, the team began practicing June 27. By July 6, they arrived in Florida to begin training camp. Last week, the team participated in scrimmages against the Washington Mystics, Connecticut Sun and Aces, which the coaches officiated.

The team currently is practicing with 10 players - Chennedy Carter, Elizabeth Williams, Monique Billings, Shekinna Stricklen, Jaylyn Agnew, Blake Dietrick, Betnijah Laney, Brittany Brewer, Erica McCall (hardship signing) and Alexis Jones. They are without Glory Johnson and Kalani Brown, who remain on the team’s roster, are isolated outside of IMG Academy after testing positive for COVID-19.

Courtney Williams, one of the Dream’s marquee offseason signings, is not with the team.

“She will be coming, we do not know when yet,” coach Nicki Collen said. “But she will be coming.”

A new team identity

Collen’s current roster is not what she expected following free agency or April’s draft.

During the offseason, the Dream signed Williams, along with Stricklen, who starred in the 2019 WNBA Finals. Collen brought in Johnson, who she views as a versatile playmaker who could defend multiple positions but also adapted her game so she could stretch the floor. At 6-foot-7, Brown is a traditional center, who is young, but could bring needed size to the team. Brewer and Carter were drafted in April.

Then the pandemic delayed everything. Veterans Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes opted out of the 2020 season, which made way for Agnew and Laney, respectively.

Laney, who was waived by the Fever earlier this year, was expected to fill the defensive role of Hayes. But she has already impressed the team with her consistency on offense. That was Laney’s focus during the offseason after noticing people didn’t defend her and went under screens, per their scouting report.

Agnew is a sharp shooter who drew comparisons with Kayla McBride and Klay Thompson. But like Brewer, she won’t see much playing time to start the season as she adjusts to the speed and physicality of the WNBA. Jones was a rookie point guard with the Lynx during the 2017 WNBA championship season and played with the L.A. Sparks in 2019. Collen signed her while she was recovering from knee injury.

Core returners include Elizabeth Williams, a center/forward and consistent shot blocker, who is a quiet person who plans to lead by example from the paint. She’s been with the Dream since 2016, and both Williams and Billings have been coached by Collen and her staff since 2018. Billings, entering her third WNBA season, is also emerging as a leader with the team.

She’s always brought energy and prolific rebounding, but her defending improved through the 2019 season. During the offseason she worked on effective shooting outside the paint, ball handling and a deeper understanding of the game. Blake Dietrick also returned to the team, after spending the 2019 season with the Seattle Storm.

“It’s my job to get these guys together, to stay positive,” Collen said. “I think we have a ton of positive energy from our bench. And that’s the message I want. We’ve got to do it collectively at this point until we can get some of our reinforcements back. And I still think we’ll have to play that way. We’ll just have more playmakers.”

With so many changes - from the new additions, returning vets, and evolving nature of team’s roster, Stricklen consistently noted how impressed she was with how hard the team works. Atlanta is still working to build chemistry, but hopes to put out a viable product this season - starting Sunday vs. the Wings.

“It’s been competitive. It’s been a lot of trash talking,” Stricklen said. “But everyone is competing and playing hard against each other. I keep saying, if we could stick together as a team, as a whole, and play together, I think we’ll be really good this season.”

Carter remains the current focal point of the Dream’s offense. She’s had to adjust to the physical nature and pace of the league along with other rookies and also add 3-point shooting into her game. Collen has often discussed how difficult it is for rookie point guards to adjust to the WNBA, but said when Carter “touches the paint and passes it, we’re a really good team.”

“Chennedy is somebody we’re going to have to rely on. We need her to grow up fast,” Collen said. “We need her to be impactful. We need her to be confident. We need her to kind of understand what we do and why we do it. The other two (rookies) will not be rushed.”

The team is expected to be a better shooting team because it acquired Stricklen, the 2019 3-point contest winner, because of Carter’s ability to drive and kick and because of other added threats on offense.

Collen still wants the Dream to play in transition - she rather play 4-on-3 than 5-on-5 - values playing with pace and is striving to have five players on the floor who can create their own shot.

“We are truly going to win and lose as a team,” Collen said. “This is not Chennedy Carter’s team. But there’s certainly, how well she adapts and grows, will be how we’re successful until we can get Courtney Williams out there alongside her to be another playmaker. Because we’ve got a lot of good pieces. We just need them all here. And when we get there, I feel like we’ve started to put in the building blocks for how we’re gonna succeed.”