- By JuliaKate E. Culpepper The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
After taking a year off from the Atlanta Dream, Angel McCoughtry announced Thursday she will make her return to the WNBA.
With her mind and body fully rested, the two-time Olympian is hungry and anxious to step back on the hardwood.
“(The time off) didn’t affect anything,” McCoughtry said. “It only benefited me in the long run to have a longer career. And everything with the Dream is now fresh and new, and I’m fresh and new and ready to come back rejuvenated.”
In January 2017, McCoughtry wrote a letter to the WNBA and fans revealing her decision to take a year off to preserve her career’s longevity.
Just as she suspected, taking the 2017 season off allowed her body to heal after being worn down from the year-round play she participated in since she was a senior at Louisville in 2009.
The year-round play and resulting fatigue is something many WNBA stars such as McCoughtry experience. They agree to play overseas a few weeks after the WNBA season ends to compensate for the difference in their salaries compared to their male counterparts in the NBA. If they don’t take a break, they can wear out.
Just over a year after publishing her letter and making that tough decision to sit out, McCoughtry said she has no regrets.
The past 13 months gave McCoughtry a chance to heal mentally and physically from eight years of continuous play and for the first time in a while, she was finally able to live.
McCoughtry acknowledged she gained a few pounds while taking some time off from her training schedule, but enjoying sitting still for a little while at her home in Atlanta and spending time with her family and her dogs was worth it.
“Sometimes we don’t get to enjoy the fruits of our labor,” McCoughtry said. “You have to enjoy that, and I think the greatest investment is definitely yourself.”
McCoughtry, who averaged 19.5 points in eight seasons with the Dream, re-enters the league needing 10 points to become the second-fastest and 18th player in WNBA history to reach the 5,000-point mark.
While taking that time for herself, McCoughtry — the first overall pick in the 2009 WNBA Draft — attended several Dream games and kept tabs on her team throughout the season, but even off the floor, she had that competitive edge.
Her heart was still with her team.
“When I watched, sometimes I would itch to get out there because some (of the team’s) leadership skills would lack and I would think ‘I could do this in this moment,’ or ‘ I could’ve helped her in this moment,’ so that’s always going to be inside of me,” McCoughtry said.
The Dream will welcome McCoughtry’s competitiveness, experience and hunger this season after undergoing several changes in the past few months.
In September, after going 12-22 and missing the playoffs for the second time in three years, the Dream fired coach Michael Cooper after four seasons.
When McCoughtry got the call in October from team owners Mary Brock and Kelly Loeffle revealing Connecticut Sun assistant Nicki Collen would take over as head coach, McCoughtry was thrilled.
Collen was an assistant at Louisville in 2005 when McCoughtry was recruited and signed with the Cardinals.
The familiarity between the two and support Collen showed McCoughtry as she grew into a woman at Louisville and even as a professional is exactly what McCoughtry said was missing from her game.
“I think that Nikki is just a great person, she has a lot of experience and I think she’s excited,” McCoughtry said. “She wants to build that relationship, and you don’t have a lot of coaches out here who care about you off the court. I particularly want a coach that cares about me when I’m not putting up 30 points a game.
Collen’s personal touch is something that McCoughtry thinks could not only help her game this season, but the entire team.
In the past two weeks, Collen’s personality helped recruit and sign two-time WNBA Champion Renee Montgomery and All-Star forward Jessica Breeland who will each provide veteran leadership the largely inexperienced team craves.
While this season will be largely about her return and how she can impact the Dream, McCoughtry knows that much of her role this season will be teaching a young team how to win and what it means to be a member of the Atlanta Dream.
“(I’m) a different player. I’m ready to help the young ones,” McCoughtry said. “I’m ready to start passing the torch to someone else, to be the face of the Dream, and that’s what it’s supposed to be. You pay your dues. I feel like I’ve paid my dues, and it’s time for me to teach the young ones. They deserve it.”
Regardless of where the Dream will be ranked in preseason polls or the outside noise that might say McCoughtry might be rusty leading up to Collen’s first season as a head coach, McCoughtry will block it all out.
She’s preoccupied with a winning a championship for Atlanta.
“I’m ready to start passing the torch to someone else to be the face of the Dream, and that’s what it supposed to be: you pay your dues,” McCoughtry said. “I feel like I’ve paid my dues, and it’s time for me to teach the young ones...
“As a leader of the team, we’re going to be one of the best teams to compete against every night. There’s not going to be any slacking. There’s gonna be a great dynamic. We’re going to the sisterhood.”