The Atlanta Dream’s 2022 season ended Sunday after an 87-83 loss to the New York Liberty ousted them from playoff contention. A 14-22 season doesn’t seem special on the surface, but a win-loss record cannot encapsulate the strides of a young team in a competitive league.
This is the first time since 2018 that the Dream eclipsed double-digit wins, all the more noteworthy after a dreadful season in all facets in 2021.
Rhyne Howard is a foundational star, reached her first All-Star game of many to come, and continued to progress and show more remarkable creation ability as the season wore on. Second-year guard, Aari McDonald, made significant strides as a sophomore, particularly as a finisher inside the arc. Many veterans played critical roles on and off the court in instilling winning ways in a rebuilding team. Simply put, Atlanta was abundant with meaningful stories in 2022 (more on that in the future).
Maya Caldwell’s story and journey to the league deserves as much shine as light can give, as far as I’m concerned.
A graduate from the University of Georgia, Caldwell was drafted in the third round with the 33rd pick by the Indiana Fever in 2021 after her senior season. She was quickly cut and transitioned to play for Gran Canaria in Liga ACB, Spain’s top basketball division.
When I got to sit down with Maya in Atlanta recently, she paused for a few beats. “That was an experience.”
“It definitely helped me grow as a player. Being an American overseas, a lot of WNBA players can tell you that you have to carry a lot of weight. You’re held to a much higher standard than a lot of other players. That helped me a lot, especially on the court and mentally off of it.”
Caldwell came home from Spain this past March after the Spanish season ended and received an invite to the Dream’s training camp in April. She played in the pre-season but ultimately didn’t make the team, not because she couldn’t play and fit Atlanta’s organizational ethos, but for lack of roster spots. They told her to stay ready and that she was on their radar for a hardship contract.
Caldwell finished her Master of Arts degree in Nonprofit Management and Leadership in May. When she was younger, her family ran a local nonprofit that collected canned food, clothing, and furniture for the less fortunate, something she had to put on hold as her basketball career picked up later in life. She hopes to restart it and build it up on the side.
That first contract came in mid-June; Caldwell started three games, including an 18-point outburst in her first, a win over the Dallas Wings. The Dream got healthy, and Caldwell went back to waiting.
“It’s hard to stay motivated sometimes, so I stay disciplined. I got myself on a schedule, and I would not let anything or anyone interrupt that schedule. If I had to make any changes, I made up for it. Just being consistent and being disciplined,” says Caldwell.
What’s her daily routine like waiting for a call-up?
She starts with 6:30 weights in the morning and then on her way to work. Then a skills workout around 2:30 pm and another gym workout around 6:30 or 7 pm, depending on her day. Wednesday’s were usually her recovery days, but don’t mistake them for off days. She’d still get shots up. She’d spend her day stretching and a massage if she could fit it in.
Caldwell received a second hardship contract and called to come to play for the Dream in early August, one she wouldn’t relinquish as she received a contract for the remainder of the regular season.
Everyone around the organization speaks highly of Maya’s work ethic and personality, which head coach Tanisha Wright touched on after the Dream defeated the Indiana Fever on August 3. “She’s been a total pro, has done everything we’ve asked her to do, and it’s paid off for her, so I’m proud of her effort for sure. We expect, and we know what Maya can bring to the table, which is why we keep calling her back.”
She dazzled in her six games with the team to close the season, starting the final four and playing 20-plus minutes in every game. Caldwell averaged 12 points per game, 3.2 rebounds, and 2.2 assists on 65% true-shooting (league average is 54.1%) and 54.2% from deep while taking four attempts per game.
Is Caldwell a 50-plus percent shooter from deep for an entire regular season? No, no one is, but she showed quality ability off of motion and even with some more self-created pull-ups and stepbacks inside and outside the arc.
I initially thought of Caldwell as more of a connective wing when I first saw her play, but especially during her second contract, she showed more on-ball juice. There’s an intriguing secondary creation ability to her game.
She moves well without the ball and makes quick decisions before relocating. Lacking hesitancy in her shot was massive. It’s one thing to get the call-up. It’s another to seize the opportunity like she did and be aggressive within the flow of the offense.
Caldwell is a staggering reinforcement; it is near impossible to be a ‘specialist’ in the WNBA. She carried heavy scoring and ball-handling duties in Spain. Roles are tampering down, which happens in any league at the highest level, to be sure, but the point remains that the talent and ability stand out. It’s hard to show that with 144 total roster spots.
“There’s so many players like me who are just waiting their turn, and they’re ready now,” says Caldwell.
“I’m ahead of most people in my position, being able to go back and forth on a hardship contract. That’s a blessing in and of itself. It’s not anything that’s in our control, so we just need to take what we can get.”
Caldwell took her opportunity and ran with it. From my time in Atlanta, you’d have no idea she wasn’t part of the regular roster. Perhaps one of my favorite pre-game rituals from any team this year has been Atlanta’s tunnel walk-outs from the locker room, led by Erica Wheeler. Watching Caldwell hit some slick moves as the squad broke it down before running on the court was hilarious and endearing.
“I love this team. I love their energy. Everybody has their own personality and has gelled together really well. That’s one of the things I’ve loved the most, because at Georgia, it was similar. You don’t find that with every team. I’m grateful to be a part of this… on and off (laughs), but we’re still here! I’ve loved it.”
To see her get the guarantee for the rest of the season a few days after we talked was awesome. It didn’t ensure her a spot for next year, but it solidified her place for the remainder of the year, which is essentially all you can ask for when trying to work your way into a league devoid of available roster spots.
She defends at a high level. She can fill multiple roles on the offensive end, playing on and off the ball. She’s made an immediate winning impact; It’s tough to be a prospect in a league when every team but one this season was openly competing to make the playoffs. She also earned the admiration of the coaching staff, team, and front office.
Regardless of whether or not it’s with Atlanta or another playoff hopeful next season, Maya Caldwell has earned her spot in the WNBA.
WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.