On Saturday, July 22 in Seattle the WNBA’s best of the best took to the hardwood for the 2017 All-Star Game. The usual names were in attendance: Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Maya Moore and Tina Charles to name a few. But, there was also a bevy of newcomers that arrived in Seattle as first-timers looking to soak up all that the weekend had to offer.
Three of those All-Star novices were from the same team, the Atlanta Dream. Layshia Clarendon, Tiffany Hayes and Elizabeth Williams all made their All-Star debuts, a just reward for the impressive season each has put together thus far.
“It was just a really special experience to share with each other,” said Clarendon while addressing the media on Wednesday. “Being a part of that elite group of players was awesome. It’s something I hope that a lot more people on our team can experience, because you’re on the court with the best of the best.”
While Williams has been a force to be reckoned with in the paint, it’s been the backcourt duo of Clarendon and Hayes that makes the Dream must-see TV on any given night.
Hayes has spent the entirety of her six-year WNBA career in Atlanta. The supremely athletic, end-to-end shooting guard has seen her points-per-game total increase each season, culminating in a 17.1 mark this season. That’s not only a career high for her, but tops on the Dream and tied for the 10th most points per game in the WNBA.
Ever since being drafted in 2012 out of powerhouse Connecticut, Hayes has shown time and time again that her ability to get up the floor and do so in a hurry is her greatest attribute. She can be seen scurrying through defenders with shifty ball-handling, and despite being listed as a guard, does a lot of her scoring at the rim through contact.
When Dream mainstay Angel McCoughtry announced she would be sitting out the 2017 season for rest, Hayes was immediately thrown into the role of primary scorer for Atlanta. She’s answered the call and then some, but attributes much of her scoring success to those around her also filling in voids.
“A lot of us have had to step up in different ways this season, and we’ve all taken the steps to do that. I think my scoring this year comes from that, all of us just having to do so much more. I’m just doing my part to help my team out,” Hayes said.
Any effective scorer will tell you they not only need the ball in their hands, but need it delivered at precisely the right time. That’s where Layshia Clarendon fits into the equation.
Clarendon was initially drafted by the Fever ninth overall in 2013 before being traded to Atlanta prior to the 2016 season. She fit seamlessly into the Dream’s starting point guard role and has only built on the solid foundation from last season.
This season Clarendon has staked her claim as the best passer in the WNBA. Her 7.2 assists per game are the second most in the league, and she’s tallied double-digit assists in three contests thus far, highlighted by an impressive 12-assist night in a win over the defending champion L.A. Sparks.
She’s also already set the Dream record for single-season assists despite the squad still having 11 more games to go.
“I think I’m having a great year statistically. I think I’ve really grown since being a rookie,” she said. “I’ve focused a lot on the small things. I show up every day and try to be great in those little moments, from shooting workouts, to lifting workouts, nutrition and recovery. All those little things apply to the larger goal.”
The larger goal for a franchise that has never won a WNBA title is clear: play championship-level basketball. Since the squad’s inception in 2008, the Dream have failed to make the postseason only twice and competed in the Finals on three different occasions.
When Clarendon arrived from Indiana, she not only brought her laser-sharp court vision, but also arrived with championship experience. She was part of the 2015 Fever team that lost a heartbreaking Finals to the Lynx in five games.
“I’ve been preaching a ton of mental focus to this team, having made it to the Finals one of my years,” Clarendon said. “I realize how mentally draining it all is and physically taxing it can be, especially during this time of the season. But, I think more than anything it’s that mental side of things and staying on the task at hand.”
At 10-13 on the year, the Dream find themselves clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot, if the postseason were to begin today. On the horizon is a daunting Thursday night meeting with the WNBA-best Minnesota Lynx, who at 19-2 have already secured a playoff spot.
“In terms of the matchup with Minnesota, we all have to have it in our heads that we’re going to bring something different. It’s not just going to be one, two or three people that have to step up. We all have to. We have the pieces here to do it,” Hayes said.
It will take a collective effort on Thursday and for the remainder of the season if the Dream want to solidify their place in the postseason. But, with a backcourt duo like Clarendon and Hayes running the show, the upcoming forecast should be for fireworks on the floor in the ATL.