SEATTLE – When you think of WNBA All-Stars, the Atlanta Dream probably isn’t the first team that comes to mind. Atlanta hasn’t featured many superstars in recent years other than Angel McCoughtry, and she’s not in uniform this season.
That has all changed in 2017. The Dream now boast a trio of young, up-and-coming players that just earned their first All-Star selections. Point guard Layshia Clarendon, shooting guard Tiffany Hayes and center Elizabeth Williams are in Seattle this weekend representing the best talent in the WNBA. Only the first-place Minnesota Lynx have more All-Stars. Atlanta has the same number of players here as the defending champion L.A. Sparks.
“It’s really special. It just shows that our team is putting in that hard work,” Hayes told WNBA.com at their All-Star practice on Friday. “With three of us here, it just shows our young talent. Our team is very dangerous, and I can’t wait to show that in the second half of the season.”
It’s not a complete shocker that this trio has made it to an elite level. In fact, two of them were on our preseason list of top candidates to become first-time All-Stars.
Still, some of the names they will take the court with on Saturday are considered the best to ever play in the WNBA, such as Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Sue Bird. Williams said she feels lucky to be around “legends” of the game this weekend. Clarendon put the accomplishment into further perspective, and judging by her Tweet earlier on Friday, her arrival in Seattle was clearly emotional.
“You’re talking about the best 144 players in the world in the WNBA, and this is the best 24,” Clarendon said. “So that’s a really competitive group of players that have gotten themselves this far. For eight of us on the East, it’s our first time.”
McCoughtry had been a perennial All-Star since joining the Dream in 2008, and her decision to rest this season has allowed teammates to shine brighter than ever before.
With the ball now in her hands more often, Clarendon ranks second in the WNBA at seven assists per game. Williams, the reigning Most Improved Player, is among the league leaders in blocks and offensive rebounds for the second straight year. Hayes is averaging career-best numbers across the board, including a huge improvement from three-point range up to 39 percent. The Eastern Conference Player of the Month in May, Hayes also ranks third in the league in free throws attempted.
The Dream have also maintained their up-tempo style of play without McCoughtry. Led by Clarendon running the point, they are scoring the most fast-break points in the WNBA for the fourth consecutive season.
“We all had a bigger role to fill. We all had to pick up the slack,” Williams said of McCoughtry’s absence. “Tiffany is top 10 in the league in scoring, and Layshia is near the top in assists. We’ve all kind of elevated our game a little bit to make up for it.”
“I think when you don’t have a big player like that, it forces everyone else to step up and be a leader,” Clarendon added. “Obviously when I played with Indiana, Tamika Catchings was that leader. And then when I went to Atlanta, it was Angel. With that person out now, who’s going to step up? Who’s going to lead the huddles? When we lose, who’s going to get blamed? When we win, who gets the credit?”
They’ve done it collectively, and together the Dream are surpassing expectations for this season. That said, they own just a 9-11 record at the All-Star break, barely part of the current playoff picture. But Atlanta was a .500 team last year with this trio of All-Stars in addition to McCoughtry.
When McCoughtry eventually returns – whether it be later this season or in 2018 – they could be primed for a jump to the top of the East.
“I think in the second half [of the season], we still have to work on our consistency,” Hayes said. “Next year, with us building off this season with our three All-Stars and Angel coming back, we’re going to be pretty darn good.”