Youth and experience combine to give Dream balance on final roster

By Bailey Johnson

When Nicki Collen called Maite Cazorla Wednesday night, the Spanish rookie didn’t know what her coach was going to say. The call could’ve gone either way as the Dream narrowed down its roster to the final 12 players, but Collen was calling with good news.

“She said, ‘You’re officially a member of the Atlanta Dream,’” Cazorla recalled. “And I was like, ‘Oh my god, thank you so much.’ I was just so happy and excited.”

Collen and the Dream selected Cazorla in the second round of the 2019 WNBA Draft with the 23rd overall pick, and Cazorla earned her spot on the final roster after a strong showing in training camp.

Cazorla will start the season as the Dream’s third option at point guard, behind Renee Montgomery and Alex Bentley. However, Bentley will miss an undetermined number of games in late June and early July to join the Belarus squad at EuroBasket, leaving the Dream with an opening for a new backup point guard.

“When Alex goes, (Cazorla) moves up into that backup point guard role,” Collen said. “We felt like it was a time that we had to work to get her ready to be that and she’s shown that she has the skill set to handle that at this level. I think that she is not afraid. She understands the game and is ready for the challenge.

“She’s going to keep growing. It is the hardest position to play in the WNBA, first off, and then by far the hardest position for a rookie to play because so much changes at this level. There is so much pressure. Everybody is bigger, stronger, faster. She’s had to learn to protect the ball more because there’s no doubt that when you’re a rookie and you play the point, people are gonna come after you.”

While Cazorla is the only rookie on the team, Collen feels that her team has a good mix of youth and experience. With two second-year players in Monique Billings and Marie Gülich and three third-year players in Nia Coffey, Haley Peters and Brittney Sykes, the Dream has a solid core of young players to go along with its veterans.

And the Dream’s veterans aren’t exactly old — Angel McCoughtry and Renee Montgomery, the team’s oldest players, will turn 33 in September.

“I think we like to play with depth,” Collen said. “We like to use our roster. We like to keep them as fresh as possible because of how we play, and I think that combination of younger vets and youth serves us well in that purpose.”

Collen likes her team to play with energy and attitude, particularly on defense. Her philosophy of competing on every single possession requires intense effort from each member of the team, which makes keeping the players fresh particularly key.

With the need to keep players fresh, having versatile players like Coffey and Peters who can play both in the post and on the wing become all the more useful.

“In this league, you tend to play with seven guards and five posts when you have a full roster,” Collen said. “We felt like, as camp went along, knowing that Nia Coffey and Haley Peters could both swing down and play the post, it allowed us to keep four traditional posts and then two swing players, so that gives us some position versatility.”

That versatility will be called upon in the early part of the season as McCoughtry remains out indefinitely after suffering a knee injury last August. Tiffany Hayes and Montgomery figure to be two of the Dream’s key scorers, but replacing McCoughtry with one single player is a tall order.

“Especially in some ways without Angel, as much as Tiffany showed that she can be a superstar in this league, this team is built off of players that kinda need each other to be successful,” Collen said. “When we screen well, when we move well, when we cut hard, that makes us all hard to guard as opposed to necessarily a team that’s gonna play through a Brittney Griner or play through somebody that’s gonna demand double teams.”

The Dream open the 2019 season Friday night at State Farm Arena against the Dallas Wings, and Collen is hoping for a win to start the season on the right foot. The Dream beat the Wings 82-59 on May 13 when the two teams met in the preseason.