Most of Tanisha Wright’s experience as a WNBA player and assistant coach has resulted in either contention or a championship. Success, rather-immediate prosperity at that, is all the new Atlanta Dream head coach has known.
By the time Monday morning came and Wright stepped onto the basketball court in Dream gear for the first time, it welcomed an entirely new challenge. She blew the whistle inside the Core4 Chamblee gym, and a significant rebuild for an Atlanta organization that welcomed a plethora of new, learning faces began with training camp.
“You can’t be a championship team without a culture, and that starts from setting a precedent,” Wright said after Monday’s practice. “We won’t win a championship in year one. Probably not in year two, either. We start building that mindset now, and these kids will be the foundation.”
After 23 total wins over the past three seasons, the Atlanta Dream took its offseason as an opportunity to start from scratch. The organization revamped its front office, coaching staff and roster in an attempt to fulfill a culture-first build that new ownership — led by Suzanne Abair, Larry Gottesdiener and Renee Montgomery — made a priority when it took over the franchise’s reins prior to the 2021 season.
Atlanta, on the floor, will have a vastly different look after a major overhaul with a flurry of trades, draft picks and allowing past contributors to walk in free agency. There’s no Courtney Williams, Chennedy Carter or any of the talent that brought on a series of conflicts from a year ago. There’s a breath of fresh, necessary air for those affiliated with the franchise.
The Dream aren’t dodging the term “rebuild” either, because it has seen such a process pay off in numerous professional organizations, including within the WNBA, over the last few seasons. A slow, drawn-out process might feel monotonous at times, but instead there’s intrigue that led the talents of Erica Wheeler, No. 1 draft pick Rhyne Howard, returning veteran Tiffany Hayes and others to play for the Dream.
“It’s exciting to know we get to start something new,” said guard Maya Caldwell, a former Georgia player who was a third-round draft pick of Indiana in 2021 and came to the Dream on a training camp contract after a stint with Spar Gran Canaria in Spain. “Coach T is ready to build, and I get to be a part of the first generation to make something shake.”
Monday’s training camp continued an exciting few weeks for the Dream organization. Atlanta traded up to the No. 1 selection to choose Howard after only one meeting during the Final Four in Minneapolis. Atlanta felt as if it had a generational talent with Howard’s scoring abilities, and general manager Dan Padover needed such a piece for years to come as Atlanta’s quest began.
Along with Howard, the Dream also selected Michigan’s Naz Hillmon with the No. 15 pick. A week ago, inside the Renaissance Midtown hotel ballroom, Montgomery walked into the room of media members and tabbed Hillmon as the “steal of the draft.” Atlanta had Hillmon as the third-overall target on its draft board, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
On Atlanta’s training camp roster, 12 of the 16 players weren’t with the organization a season ago. Wright said there’s a lot of teaching to be done, which gives reason to why Atlanta will hold occasional two-a-day practices throughout training camp. Hillmon said she’s already received mentorship from veteran Kia Vaughn, and awaits the arrival of Hayes from her overseas tour.
Monday featured those newcomers as Howard, Caldwell, Hillmon and training camp signee Que Morrison (also a UGA product) spoke to reporters on hand. For this bunch, it’s a bit of acclimation. They went from stars at the college level to now tasting the WNBA, where teammates have differing experiences and years of familiarity under their belt.
“Everybody is learning,” Hillmon said. “I don’t feel like I’m on an island as the only new person learning a new system. You get to put in what you want to get out of it, and you can help change the culture of the program. You know what you’re walking into, and you can make it your own.”
Although some players are getting adjusted to another level of basketball, there are some familiarities. Wright spent the entirety of Monday’s practice focused on defense, without a moment spent on offensive execution. The Dream will eventually install some offensive schemes, but some college programs, including Georgia, operated in a similar fashion.
Howard, a lethal scorer who had a share of 30-point performances at Kentucky, knows it won’t be the same experience she had at Kentucky with years of contention and conference championships. But, similarly to the enhanced on-court pace of the WNBA, a start in Atlanta brings a new chapter, although it may be quite different.
“It was very beneficial (to end up in Atlanta),” Howard said. “I told them I could lead, embrace a rebuild and bring a lot to the court. I’m very excited to step up to the challenge.”
For Atlanta, a beginning it has needed and awaited for a long time is here. The organization knows there’s plenty of work to be done, but it also carries more excitement and confidence than it has in years.
“I’ve never done this, but you have to (embrace it),” Wright said. “This is where we’re at. We have no other choice but to go through that. We explained that to the girls. Wins will look different for us. Winning today might be our effort. The focus has to be on things we must do to get to where we want to go.”