Dream players and coaches said that this year would be different all offseason, and although it’s still early, they’ve certainly passed the “eye test” so far. Monday’s practice was upbeat and included the entire roster other than forward Erika DeSouza (who is now in town with the team).
That’s quite a contrast from last season’s camp, where training sessions often included head coach Marynell Meadors spending the vast majority of her time trying to explain the ins and outs of the game to an incredibly young and inexperienced team. Meanwhile, many of the veteran players didn’t even make it to the camp until just before the season started due to their playing commitments in Europe.
“The first day [of practice] was amazing,” said guard Ivory Latta. “Today was great, too. Just the enthusiasm everyone has, we just keep picking everyone up. Everyone seems to enjoy each other.”
One similarity does remain from last year’s expansion team, as the whole side is trying to get to know one another all over again with just five players returning from the 2008 team. But this time around, that might not be such a bad thing.
“We’re new to them, they’re new to us,” said Meadors. “It’s like having an expansion team but with a lot more talent.”
The coach appeared downright giddy after just two practices, and it didn’t take her long to explain the biggest difference between the 2008 and 2009 editions of the Dream.
“We’ve got talent,” said Meadors. “They’re tall, they’re strong, they’re athletic, they’re good basketball players.”
The team might be getting along well, and surely the ability is there to have some success, but Atlanta has a tall mountain to climb to truly put last year’s disastrous 4-30 mark behind them. For the head coach, they need to begin that climb by getting some stops.
“We were last in defense last year, and we’re going last to first on defense,” Meadors said. “That’s what our goal is. Our defense last year was absolutely horrible. We are definitely trying to improve our defense so we can be a better team.”
COMPETITION FOR MINUTES …
Last year, Ivory Latta was handed the reigns to the team early in the season, and some would argue she was already guaranteed such a role before the 2008 year even began. This season it’s a different story for the combo guard. She’s competing for playing time with veteran Nikki Teasley, the newly signed Coco Miller, and guard/forward Izzy Castro Marques.
“That’s just something I take day-by-day,” said Latta. “If I do start that’s great, if I don’t that’s great also. I can come off the bench and bring the energy, or I can start with the energy. No matter what happens I’m still gonna bring it.”
It’s a similar situation in the post, where a plethora of players are fighting for playing time. One would think that six-time WNBA all star Chamique Holdsclaw would lead the way at that position in her return to the league, but after that it’s anyone’s guess.
Last year’s first-round pick Tamera Young showed flashes early last season, but didn’t respond well to being benched midway through the year and never recovered. McCoughtry is also a strong candidate to start from day one, and seems to be fitting in quickly with the team. Don’t forget about Sancho Lyttle, who many think is ready to break out if given an increased role in Atlanta. Tireless worker and spirited leader Jennifer Lacy is also back in the fold, and Meadors loves Marques, with whom she worked during her time with the now-defunct Miami Sol.
Then there’s DeSouza, who was Atlanta’s only consistent low-post force last season, but missed the majority of the season with a leg injury. She will spell Michelle Snow at the center position and also compete for minutes at power forward.
“I don’t remember having the same starting lineup game-to-game last year,” Meadors said. “What you’re going to see this year is more consistency. I can be more consistent with starting lineups and roles of people and times that they play, simply because I know what they’re bringing. The young team we had last year, you never knew.”
DON’T CALL IT A COMEBACK …
Dream fans and players rejoiced after the signing of one of the better known players in women’s basketball in forward Chamique Holdsclaw. But no one was happier than Holdclaw herself, who makes her return to the league after a two-year hiatus. Holdclaw’s career was previously marred with personal problems, including her being diagnosed with clinical depression in 2004. She had seemingly capped off her star-struck career when she retired abruptly while playing for the Los Angeles Sparks early in the 2007 season.
But she has no regrets about coming to Atlanta to begin playing WNBA basketball again.
“This is probably one of the greatest basketball decisions I’ve made, besides going to the University of Tennessee,” Holdclaw said. “I could have went to different teams but this is where I wanted to be. I feel like I have to go out there and do my best because this is something I chose.”
However, snagging Holdclaw was only the conclusion of a long and arduous process. Questions regarding ‘Mique’s return began to arise during the regular season last year, when she was spotted at multiple games at Philips Arena. Many of us media types were speculating about a Holdsclaw signing last season as well, although the Dream were justifiably mum on the issue. But behind closed doors, it was a different story.
“They were always trying to recruit me,” said Holdclaw. “They were trying to get me to come back for the second half of last season.”
After one of the many tough losses the team suffered, Meadors made it clear that the team wanted Holdsclaw in a Dream uniform.
“I was just outside the locker room after a tough one they lost,” recalled Holdsclaw. “I talked to coach Meadors and told her, ‘you just need to get those kids to finish under the basket.’ And she just looked at me and I was like ‘well, I can finish.’ She told me ‘when you’re ready to get back out there let me know.’ That was when I really started thinking about if I wanted to do this.”
Holdsclaw has lived in Atlanta for the last several years, and after attending those games last season, she started to get the itch to make her return. And she credited the fan base as one of the reasons for her comeback.
“I think the fans, in going to the games last year, it reminded me of my early years in D.C. when we led the league in attendance, we just had some good fans. That was the feel that I got,” she said.
The two met again in November after Holdcslaw had knee surgery. Meadors made it clear that Atlanta wanted the 6-foot-2 forward, but that she didn’t have to feel pressured to come back. Soon after, Holdsclaw put pen to paper on a contract with Atlanta.
Getting back on the court will still be an adjustment for the 32-year old, who last played a WNBA game in June of 2007.
“When I walked away I never thought I’d be back,” she said, “I’m just really excited to have this opportunity.”
But ‘Mique hasn’t been off the court altogether. She spent the past two seasons playing in Europe, and believes she was able to fine-tune her game during that time.
“Everyone knows I can score, but I think playing in Europe I really developed other areas of my game,” she said. “I just want to go out there and be that all-around player. I want to be able to walk off the court every night and say I had fun and we worked hard. You can’t just work hard and be miserable, you’ve got to enjoy it.”
McCOUGHTRY IMPRESSES …
The No. 1 overall pick of the WNBA draft will surely need some time to acquaint herself to professional basketball, but Angel McCoughtry’s ability was on full display this week.
She highlighted Monday’s practice by picking point guard Nikki Teasley’s pocket in the backcourt while the team practiced its transition offense and defense, which resulted in plenty of hoots and hollers from her teammates.
“A lot of people look at her on the floor and they think she’s not very big, but she’s built very well,” Meadors said. “She’s smart on the court. She plays beyond a rookie mentality, I think.”
KEEP IT LOCKED …
There seems to be a lot to be excited about with the Dream this year, folks. I’ll be back with another update from training camp next week. In the meantime, always feel free to drop me a line with comments, suggestions, and the like. Stay tuned!
Bagriansky can be reached at email@example.com.