Atlanta Dream guard Maite Cazorla (center) shoots as Indiana Fever forward Stephanie Mavunga (left) tries to block her shot at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Meet Maite Cazorla, the Dream’s only rookie

In her 11th game for the Dream, Maite Cazorla was subbed in against the Connecticut Sun – the No. 2 team in the WNBA –as the Dream trailed by four points at State Farm Arena. She got the inbound pass, came off a screen and – after just five seconds on the court – drove down the middle of the lane for a layup.

The basket clipped the Sun’s highest lead of the game at the time and spurred a 10-0 run.

Cazorla, who has scored in all but one regular-season WNBA appearance, is highly effective, averaging 3.7 points per game in an average of only 15.7 minutes. She is the second-most accurate shooter on the team both from the field and beyond the 3-point line. 

“I have ultimate faith in her to make plays,” Atlanta coach Nicki Collen said. 

When Collen drafted Cazorla earlier this year in the second round as the No. 23 overall pick, she said the rookie had the potential to be, “the greatest value in the entire draft.”

At this point, Collen is sure that’s the case. 

Since then, Cazorla has met and even exceeded Collen’s expectations as she’s transitioned into the WNBA.

“I thought coming to college (the game) was physical, but once I got here I thought, ‘wow,’” Cazorla said. “The level is higher; the talent is higher, obviously, so that was hard – it’s still hard – it’s a transition and it’ll take a little bit of time.”

But with Alex Bentley – the Dream’s second-string point guard – suspended to play in the 2019 EuroBasket earlier in the season, Cazorla continued to prove her value with increased minutes off the bench and even a start for the Dream against the Liberty.

“It gave me a chance to look at Maite and get comfortable with her,” Collen said of Bentley’s absence. “We have more depth that way knowing that’s she’s available.”

Collen hoped that with Cazorla at point guard, she would be able to create off-ball shooting opportunities for Dream guard Renee Montgomery. And she has.

Cazorla has a point-guard mentality with the size and shot of a shooting guard, according to Collen. Her 44.2 percent shooting ranks among the highest on the team and her assists per game rank fifth, behind players who consistently get more minutes than she does. 

Collen compared Cazorla’s rookie season with that of Courtney Vandersloot, the Chicago Sky’s starting point guard who leads the league in assists per game. 

“I think if you compared the numbers and the minutes she’s played to Courtney Vandersloot’s rookie minutes, you would see that she’s very similar,” Collen said. 

And it’s no wonder. Both guards played under coach Kelly Graves in college, Vandersloot during his 14-year stint at Gonzaga and Cazorla more recently at Oregon. 

In college, Cazorla started every game of her career, leading the Oregon Ducks to two Elite Eights (including the program’s first in her sophomore season) and the program’s first Final Four last year. Her backcourt presence, coupled with shooting guard and triple-double star Sabrina Ionescu, was heralded as one of the best in the nation. There, she was the Ducks’ defensive powerhouse and a critical playmaker. 

She’s retained that status in her transition to the WNBA. In a June game against the Washington Mystics, the No. 2 team in the league at the time, she led the Dream in assists with six and added seven points in 25 minutes to have a hand in one-third of the Dream’s baskets.

As the point guard, Cazorla is a natural at running the floor, reading screens and setting up her teammates for open shots. 

“Sometimes, those rookies, especially as point guards – that’s a huge, huge adjustment, and she looks just as unflappable as she did in college,” Graves said. “Looks like she has adapted really, really well.”

Which is no surprise really for the Spanish national team veteran. She’s played for her national team since 2012, where Spain won gold in the U16 FIBA European championship. Since then, she’s won four more first-place finishes with Spain, including the U20 European championships. 

Atlanta Dream schedule

Against the Seattle Storm, Cazorla scored six points off perfect 3-point shooting with two assists in 13 minutes as the Dream won their first road game of the season. Cazorla, whose former Oregon teammates, coaches and fans made the trip to Seattle, joked before the game that she had never lost in Alaska Airlines Arena, Washington’s home court where the Storm are playing this season. She continued the streak in a homecoming of sorts in the Northwest. 

Dream teammate and former Pac-12 opponent Monique Billings said that the rookie has remained as confident as she was in college. 

“I didn’t know how she was going to adjust coming into the league,” Billings said. “But she’s still so poised. I really admire that.”

But, she will need to become more of a threat on offense, moving away from her familiar role as a pass-first player.

Graves, who was sitting courtside in Seattle on July 5, said he would like to see her become more aggressive, saying she’s too comfortable just moving the ball around. 

Collen agrees. 

“It’s hard to be a rookie and come in and start jacking shots,” Collen said. “It’s not her personality, but she’s got to know when to shoot it.”

That will mean becoming less of a pass-first player and more scoring minded, looking to create opportunities for herself as well as her teammates to make baskets.

In the meantime, Cazorla’s defensive hustle will continue to be an asset to the team and her stability as point guard will create off-ball opportunities for her teammates. 

“She knows how to play the game. She’s fearless in it,” Collen said. “She’s been everything I thought she’d be and maybe even better.”

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