Former Connecticut Sun assistant Nicki Collen is the new coach of the Atlanta Dream. (Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Dream).

New focus, energy surround Dream training camp under Collen

The Dream took the first step in bouncing back from their 12-win 2017 season this week as Nicki Collen ran her first training camp as head coach.

Collen and her coaching staff emanated a fresh energy during Monday’s practice while chemistry appeared to be developing between new and returning players. Underneath the excitement, however, there was a seriousness as the team prepared for their four exhibition games.

Collen’s detail-oriented and flexible approach has already helped the team focus on issues with ball movement and the one-on-one game that plagued the Dream last season.

“We were easily scoutable last year. ... So this year I think (Collen’s) really smart and very adaptable in X’s and O’s, and we’re going to have more ball movement and more weapons by the system we play so if you take one thing away, that’s OK, we’ll counter,” point guard Layshia Clarendon said. 

The Dream finished 12-22 last season, the WNBA’s third-worst record, and coach Michael Cooper was fired after four years. The lack of veteran leadership last season, most notably because of the absence of Olympian and All-Star Angel McCoughtry who took the season off to rest, was one of Collen’s challenges when she accepted the Dream job in October

A former Connecticut Sun assistant, Collen added veteran point guards Renee Montgomery, a two-time WNBA champion, and All-Star Jessica Breland shortly after free agency began. Add in McCoughtry’s expected return in mid-May from her Russian team and Atlanta will apparently have the veteran leadership it lacked last season.

“I think Renee Montgomery’s going to be really great for us,” Breland said. “With her leadership, she’s always talking and alway telling us what to do and where to be. ... Coach (Collen) did a good job with making a lot of different changes, putting a lot of pieces together.”

Montgomery is one of the few Dream players who knows what it takes to win a championship. Not only is she coming off her second WNBA Championship with the Minnesota Lynx, she also won a title on the collegiate level in 2009 with Connecticut.

During breaks at Monday’s practice, Montgomery’s work ethic was on display when she took time to coach younger players on the sidelines. She also stayed after practice and media interviews to practice shooting with Clarendon.

“I just try to tell them things I see and ways that we can improve,” Montgomery said. “Leadership can be in a lot of different ways, but I kind of just, if I see something, I say something and everyone’s just kind of receptive of what I say.”

Montgomery’s added leadership on and off the floor have already lifted some weight off Clarendon.

With the absence of McCoughtry last season, Clarendon, then in her fifth WNBA season, became the Dream’s most vocal leader. 

Being constantly engaged in every position on the floor exhausted Clarendon so significantly that in this season’s training camp, she’s sometimes taken aback when she hears another voice leading the Dream.

“I think it’s nice to have (leadership) more evenly distributed because it weighs on you a lot to always be that person and the voice,” Clarendon said. “Renee’s super refreshing. I hear another point guard on the court and I’m also double-taking, shocked at times.”

While Clarendon is in competition with Montgomery for the starting point guard position, she’s not concerned with the coaches’ final say because she can see the benefits of the poise and knowledge the 10-year veteran brings.

“You can feel her presence,” Clarendon said. “Last year, we obviously struggled, we didn’t have another point guard so it was a big, gaping hole in our team, so she’s filled that really well.”

The Dream will play in Chicago against the Sky at 4 p.m. Sunday in the first of four exhibition games.

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