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Inside The W with Michelle Smith

Being traded from the team where you started your pro career, where you settled into a community, established friendships with teammates and where you feel like you belong, can be a shock.

“I was heartbroken,” said Atlanta Dream guard Layshia Clarendon, after she got a 10 a.m. phone call on May 11 informing her that she’d been traded from the Indiana Fever.

“I was really surprised. I had no idea it was coming. I had just moved into my apartment…I sat there and I cried.”

But when the former Cal star – who led the Bears to their first Final Four appearance in 2013 – arrived in Atlanta and sat down with head coach Michael Cooper and associate head coach Karleen Thompson, Clarendon immediately began to be valued. In fact, Cooper remembered Clarendon from the days when they were both in the Pac-12.

“He said that when he knew I was available for a trade, he jumped on it and it was a no-brainer,” Clarendon said. “He said he believed in me and he was really excited to have me here.”

Clarendon has gone from a role player in Indiana to a featured player for the Dream, where she is averaging 14.5 points and 5.5 rebounds a game since she arrived.

On Sunday, against her former team, Clarendon scored 17 points to help the Dream push their record to 5-1 in an 85-76 win over Indiana. It is Atlanta’s best start since 2013 – when it went 10-1 en route to a trip to the WNBA Finals.

“I think I have a little more room to show what I have, and what I can contribute,” said Clarendon, who said she worked on improving her 3-point shot and gained 13 pounds in the offseason to become stronger. “The last three years I have been playing behind (Briann) January as a backup point guard. And I was limited by that role. But as the starter, you have a lot more freedom how you want to play. And they trust what I’m doing.”

Clarendon’s play has given the Dream an offensive spark and a steadiness that has contributed to a surprisingly strong start. Atlanta has trailed at halftime in all but one game so far this season, but found a way to win.

Led by Angel McCoughtry, the Dream rank No. 2 in the league in scoring and rebounding. The Dream will play four of their next five games at home, including a big June 10 date against the unbeaten Minnesota Lynx.

Winning takes care of many things, and it’s certainly helping Clarendon to feel welcome in her new home.

“I still have one bag I haven’t unpacked,” Clarendon said. “It was kind of crazy that first week. But it already feels like I’ve been here over a month, even though it hasn’t been that long. And that’s a good thing.”

CATCHING A LEGEND

In Sunday’s loss to Atlanta, Tamika Catchings began the second player in league history to score 7,000 points in her career. The only other is Tina Thompson, the league’s all-time leading scorer with 7,488.

Catchings, who has been in the league for 16 years, currently has 7,005 points. Catchings would need to average 16.7 points a game for the remainder of the season to catch Thompson and become the league’s all-time scorer. She is currently averaging 11.6 points a game.

FINALLY, PHOENIX

The Mercury had never gone 0-5 in franchise history. They avoided that dubious distinction this year after shoring up their defense enough to post a 93-77 win over the struggling Mystics at home on Sunday.

After the game, Diana Taurasi told The Arizona Republic that she and her teammates were feeling the pressure of wanting to get into the win column after an 0-4 start that has been one of the most surprisingly developments about the 2016 season so far.

“Basketball is a funny sport,” Taurasi said. “Sometimes, the harder you try, the harder things are. Tonight, there were moments where what we focused on were the little things and being basketball (players) became easier.”

Two of the players that seem to be feeling the most pressure in the early going are Brittney Griner and Candice Dupree. Griner has struggled with foul trouble of late and Dupree is averaging 7.8 points per game, well off her career average of 14.9 per game. Dupree did, however, put up 16 points on Sunday.

“You have to remind them how good they are,” Coach Sandy Brondello said after the game. “They just need to play their game within the system.”

DIGGINS ON HOLD

Star guard Skylar Diggins’ comeback from the ACL injury that ended her 2015 season last June has yet to hit full stride. Diggins saw 12 minutes in the Dallas Wings’ home opener in Dallas on May 21, and hasn’t played since.

Wings coach Fred Williams said he will not play Diggins until she is 100 percent.

“I think everybody wants to see her out there, but if she goes out there at 70 percent and gets hurt, then she is back to square one,” Williams said. “I’d rather have her in the long run than in the short run. The home opener was about seeing where she is at and testing her knee.

“There is a different energy in the game vs. in practice. Different contact and different speed. We looked at that and started building her up more in practice. A lot more full court stuff and taking more hits and contact. I think she is probably a week or two away.”

Diggins’ return will obviously be welcome news for a Wings team that is holding its own without her and Glory Johnson, who has one more game to serve on her seven-game suspension. Johnson’s first game back will be June 8 against Washington at home.

THE RETURN OF SLOOT

Chicago Sky point guard Courtney Vandersloot has only played three games this season, an ankle injury limiting her time and Chicago’s ability to get off to a strong start.

On Sunday, Chicago ended a four-game losing streak, defeating Dallas 92-87, a game in which six players scored in double figures.

Vandersloot played just six minutes in the game, scoring two points with an assist. But the sooner the Sky had get one of the league’s best point guards back into form, the better. In her first two games in 2016, she totaled 18 assists.

MARQUEE MATCHUPS

Tuesday night’s Madison Square Garden matchup between the New York Liberty and the Minnesota Lynx will be the topper to a great opening month of WNBA play.

Both of the Liberty’s losses so far have come on their home floor.

Minnesota is shooting a league-best 48 percent from the floor as a team, while the Liberty is allowing its opponents’ a league-low 33.9 shooting.


Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the 2016 season.

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