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Inside the W with Michelle Smith: Angel Makes Her Return

Angel McCoughtry is back in Atlanta and happy to be there.

She is back in the WNBA and happy to be there.

She is back on the floor, and her plan, every day, is to be happy to be there.

“I’m older now. I’m wiser. I have experience in this league,” McCoughtry said the day before she started practice with the Dream, having walked away for the 2017 season to rest her mind and body. “I don’t think I’m carrying any burdens. I just want to come in and play.”

But McCoughtry knows about carrying burdens. She felt like she was carrying one for a long time with a Dream team that she led to the WNBA Finals three times in eight seasons, falling short of a title each time. The four-time WNBA All-Star and two-time scoring champion admitted she put pressure on herself as the face of the franchise. It was partly because of that pressure that she chose to take a season off.

But she returns — in a decision she called a “no-brainer” — to a remade team. Nicki Collen, who recruited her as a college prospect to Louisville, the place where she became a star, is now her head coach.

Collen has a deep, balanced team with talent both inside and out, and a promising mix of youth and veteran leadership. McCoughtry said she knows she doesn’t have to come back and do it all, or carry more weight than she can bear.

“Basketball should always have been something fun. It never should have been a burden for me,” McCoughtry said. “We are going to win, and I don’t have to put pressure on myself to do it.”

As McCoughtry played overseas in Russia this winter and spring, Collen, who was hired from the Connecticut Sun in late October, kept in close touch.

“It helped to have a pre-existing relationship with her,” Collen said. “I wanted to connect with her about why she should want to come back to the WNBA and to Atlanta. I wanted her to feel good about the direction of the team and see how she felt.”

McCoughtry signed a multi-year deal with Atlanta in February. She wrote in The Players’ Tribune that she knew her grandmother wanted to continue to watch her play, and she didn’t want to disappoint her.

McCoughtry made it sound this week as if she had her mind made up all along.

“It was a no-brainer kind of decision,” McCoughtry said. “To play and watch my family cheer for me, that’s important to me. The city of Atlanta has been great to me. It was really about the dynamic of family, and the love I’ve gotten from this city. We also had a new head coach and I was excited about that.

“This is where I belong. I just wanted to finish my career where I started.”

Collen made a great impression on the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

“She was texting me three or four times a week, just checking on me,” McCoughtry said. “It took me by surprise. I’m not used to this. But it showed me how much she cares. She’s excited, and so I’m excited.”

There is a lot to be excited about, as the Dream look to vault onto the list of WNBA title contenders.

McCoughtry comes back to a roster that not only includes three All-Stars from last season — guards Layshia Clarendon and Tiffany Hayes and post Elizabeth Williams — but also new veteran additions Jessica Breland and Renee Montgomery, who won a title last season in Minnesota.

“There is definitely a new energy, an exciting energy,” McCoughtry said. “I think it’s going to be a great atmosphere. I am going to get to know my new team, and I think we are going to have great chemistry.”

Collen told McCoughtry that she wants her star to come in and be a leader, and not play as if she has anything to prove.

“I just need to be myself,” McCoughtry said. “I don’t have to change who I am. I don’t have to think, ‘Oh, I’m coming back, I have to do this or do that.’ I’ve battled with that in the past, thinking that people expect things from me. I’m just going to play and do what I know how to do best.”

In McCoughtry’s case, that would be scoring — she has a career average of 19.5 points per game — and using her length and speed to be a disruptive force on the defensive end.

“She’s still a two-time Olympian and she is a playmaker,” Collen said. “She can shoulder less of a load because of the players we have around her. That doesn’t mean she isn’t still going to be the best player on the floor.

“Before she signed, the question I asked her was what she wants her legacy to be. This is the place where she can win a championship, not just where she wants her career to finish.”

Make no mistake: McCoughtry is not just back to have a good time. She thinks this team can win a title.

“I think we have all the pieces,” she said.

McCoughtry anticipates that the “serious” face that she used to wear on the floor all the time is going to be a thing of the past in 2018.

“There is going to be a lot more smiling,” she said. “I’m going to smile and enjoy it.”

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.