Atlanta Dream settling in at IMG, new leaders stepping forward

With Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes opting out, Elizabeth Williams has stepped up as a key team leader.

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Atlanta Dream center Elizabeth Williams (1) shoots during the WNBA game between the Atlanta Dream and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on June 21, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

WNBA training camps are officially open at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., marking the first time these athletes have been able to play five-on-five basketball in three, four or even five months. While there are still questions and uncertainty surrounding the plan, at this point, everything is going ahead on schedule.

The Atlanta Dream have completed two days of practice so far, though they’re still without their full roster as players continue to go through protocols to enter the clean site. Dream coach Nicki Collen said they don’t have a timeline on when or if the remaining players will be able to join the team at IMG, and she declined to name the players who are not yet on site.

Because it’s been months since the players have been able to actually play basketball, Collen is starting slow in training camp to prevent injuries.

“The thing I’ve been the most pleased with is that the players we have here right now are in good shape,” Collen said Saturday. “We’re being still very careful in terms of load management. We went two hours and 10 minutes yesterday and right at two hours today even though we’ve got a three-hour slot. Most of them continued to shoot on their own and partner up and shoot at the end, so it’s been good. I’m just being careful and not putting too much strain.”

Adding to the load on the players is that in a typical training camp, the reps are split between 15 players. Without even a full 12-person team, it’s more like each player getting 60 percent more work than they otherwise would.

“Our goal is to go hard but to go short,” Collen said. “I don’t have anyone that I’ve been worried about their ability to run up and down the floor. We’ve been pretty good that way.”

Settling into life at IMG has been an adjustment for everyone, but Elizabeth Williams and Blake Dietrick both spoke positively of their experience so far.

“I know that there’s some kinks that the league is working out or IMG is working out, but they’re doing their best and we’re doing our best to figure it out as we go,” Dietrick said. “I think we’re super lucky that we’re living with people. [Williams] and Britt Brewer and myself are living together, and it’s really helpful to have that support system. We’re having family dinners and that kind of stuff. It normalizes everything a little bit.”

Added Williams: “It’s definitely an adjustment. … I think we’ve come in with a good mindset. I think everyone just is really excited to get on the court and to play and get through that initial quarantine period. Obviously, it’s an adjustment, but it’s really cool, and it’s cool to have other teams all around.”

And it isn’t just life at IMG that the Dream has had to adjust to — there are only two players returning to the team from last year’s roster, Williams and Monique Billings. The Dream also have three rookies — Brewer, Chennedy Carter and Jaylyn Agnew.

Without veterans like Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes to lead the team, Williams has stepped into a larger leadership role than she’s previously held. Montgomery and Hayes have been the vocal leaders for the last two years, while Williams preferred to lead by example. She’s still leading by example, but her vocal leadership has had to increase.

“I think Elizabeth Williams has been an incredible leader through all of this,” Collen said. “… We certainly miss Renee, but I think that there’s opportunity. You always have to take a next man up approach to this. We miss her for a variety of reasons, both on and off the court, but I think it’s just giving opportunities to other players to find their voice and their role in this league.”

As the only player on the roster who has been with the Dream since Collen was hired in 2017, Williams has a particularly unique role in leading the new roster because she knows the systems inside and out. And while Collen doesn’t plan to install too many packages as the team settles and gets to know each other, having Williams to make sure everyone is on the same page will be invaluable.

“I think I have a unique leadership role, being with Nicki the whole time that she’s been in Atlanta as well,” Williams said. “Trying to make sure that her philosophies are forwarded to everyone else and to lead by example. I think that’s just generally how I try to lead. In a sense, it’s kind of cool that everyone is new, because we have to kind of relearn everything and I get to re-familiarize myself with everything.”