Tiffany Hayes happy to back in an Atlanta Dream uniform

Tiffany Hayes of the Atlanta Dream. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Bibik/Atlanta Dream
Tiffany Hayes of the Atlanta Dream. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Bibik/Atlanta Dream

Tiffany Hayes is used to having just a single week of downtime between playing basketball overseas and in the WNBA. She has played year-round basketball for eight consecutive years and her body responded with frequent reminders of fatigue.

Last summer, the veteran guard got a rare break after she opted out of the WNBA season. Hayes sat in her home. She got to breathe and relax for a moment. She cherished those moments of watching basketball from her television rather than being in the Bradenton, Fla. WNBA bubble in 2020.

“I’m not going to sit here, lie and say I missed it,” Hayes said. “Of course, I love basketball. For me to be able to spend time with my family and watch the fruits of my labor, I loved it. I don’t take it for granted.”

Over 600 days have passed since Hayes wore an Atlanta Dream uniform. She’s the only player or coach remaining from her first season with the organization in 2012. On Wednesday against the Chicago Sky (7 p.m., Facebook Watch), Hayes will “definitely” suit up for her debut, interim head coach Mike Petersen said, after winning a championship in Spain and missing the opener upon her return to Atlanta.

Hayes made her return to practice for Atlanta on Sunday. She already had most of the playbook mastered. The Dream developed their game plan in order to play to Hayes’ strengths as an offensive centerpiece and strong perimeter defender.

Petersen, who has been with Atlanta since 2017, felt like Hayes “hadn’t missed a beat.” Atlanta’s roster is full of youth and players who have yet to play with Hayes — aside from Monique Billings and Elizabeth Williams. Hayes had a handful of plays over recent days that left others saying “Holy cow,” Petersen said.

“She’s come back and immediately fit in. Everybody loves Tiff,” Petersen said. “She brings a defensive presence that is hard to explain. The talent level is obviously fabulous. It’s a huge boost for us, and we missed her last year.”

Hayes averaged 14.7 points per game for the Dream in 2019 and has averaged double figures in scoring for seven consecutive years. Atlanta has a deep backcourt with Chennedy Carter, Odyssey Sims, Aari McDonald and Courtney Williams. The group, however, is loaded with smaller ball-handlers, and Hayes provides opponents with a different look at 5-foot-10.

Hayes has a history of being a versatile piece for the Dream as she can play guard and wing positions. She was also named all-defensive second team in 2018.

“The last couple of days have been great to have Tiff back,” Dream wing Shekinna Stricklen said. “Her energy, her leadership and her whole vibe is great. Her return is big. It’s what we’ve been missing.”

Atlanta showed a handful of deficiencies in its season-opening loss to the Connecticut Sun. The Dream struggled to dictate pace, find offensive rhythm in half-court sets or defend the Sun’s size — especially Jonquel Jones, who had 26 points and eight rebounds. Many of Atlanta’s players credited the slow start as a need to jell as a team. A majority of the team’s players are new to the roster for 2021.

Hayes, in some facet, helps with each of those needs. The easy-going guard hasn’t had issues building chemistry with her teammates. She provides a “boost,” as Petersen put it, as an experienced offensive piece and do-it-all defender. Hayes is the franchise centerpiece, and the Dream believe they can be a vastly different team with No. 15 playing significant minutes.

“The floor will be super spaced with her out there,” Carter said. “If you thought it was clogged against Connecticut, I fully believe we’ll find lanes to drive against Chicago with her back.”

After her first practice, Hayes took on her leadership duties and gathered all of the Dream players for a huddle. Every aspect of Hayes is back, and Atlanta has longed for the expertise of a 10-year veteran to return.

Hayes won’t take basketball for granted, either.

“We hope all of this falls in our favor. We’ll keep doing our thing,” Hayes said of returning to a franchise with coaching and front office changes. “We won’t let it bring us down like everyone thinks it will.”

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