More-mature Angel McCoughtry leads surging Atlanta Dream into All-Star break

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MINNEAPOLIS — Her WNBA team is on an eight-game winning streak, the talent level around her is high, and she’s an All-Star again. But there’s one other thing Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry really wants: to truly enjoy it all.

“Charles Barkley said this to me, ‘Appreciate it while you can,'” McCoughtry said Wednesday before the practice session with Team Candace Parker at Target Center. “And I thought about that: I need to appreciate all these moments. Sometimes we take them for granted.

“You know, in four or five years, I might not be playing anymore. I’ve really learned to give my all every day.”

McCoughtry would love it if a couple of Dream teammates were here to play with her in Saturday’s WNBA All-Star Game (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), but she’s Atlanta’s lone representative. Tiffany Hayes is Atlanta’s leading scorer at 17.2 PPG, with McCoughtry not far behind at 16.5. She has been enjoying a season in which a little less is on her shoulders.

Under new coach Nicki Collen, the Dream have played a fast-paced, defense-oriented style that has clicked especially well the last few weeks. The Dream are 16-9, second to league-leading Seattle at 19-7.

“We have a deep bench … people who can step up at any moment,” McCoughtry said. “In my time in Atlanta, I haven’t had anything quite like this. I don’t have a big load this year. I can go out there and enjoy myself.”

Well, that’s overstating things; she plays the second-most minutes behind Hayes and is still feared by defenses. But McCoughtry also has been pleased to see the development of younger players such as Brittney Sykes and Elizabeth Williams, along with the veteran reliability of Renee Montgomery and Jessica Breland, both new to the Dream this season.

Nevertheless, McCoughtry remains Atlanta’s signature player. The former Louisville star was the Dream’s No. 1 draft pick in 2009, which was the franchise’s second year of existence after a 4-30 inaugural season.

McCoughtry has helped lead the Dream to the WNBA Finals three times (2010, ’11, ’13), losing to Seattle and then Minnesota twice. Atlanta didn’t win a game in any of those series, getting swept 3-0 each time.

That weighs on McCoughtry, whose goal — simply stated — is to get a ring. And this year’s Dream have a chance to make quite a playoff run. It would help things considerably if they are able to nab one of the top two spots in the standings, which would advance them automatically to the semifinals.

Since the loss to the Lynx in the 2013 Finals, Atlanta has had some postseason disappointments. The Dream lost to Chicago in the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals, a winnable series they thought got away from them. They didn’t qualify for the playoffs in 2015 or last year. In 2016, they won their opening-round game against Seattle but lost the second-round game to Chicago.

Now in a WNBA season with so much talent on display that it seems almost anything can happen, the Dream realistically can ask, “Why not us?”

It would be a crowning achievement for McCoughtry, who has considerable experience overseas, plus with the U.S. national team. Every situation there is to face in basketball, McCoughtry has faced it.

Yet there’s still a lot to experience in life. McCoughtry, who turns 32 in September, didn’t play last WNBA season, opting to rest and focus on things outside of basketball. She went through some great stuff and some very difficult stuff in 2017.

“I was trying to figure out a lot of things,” she said. “Me and my fiancée broke up. I had to get rid of a lot of toxicity in my life, and I didn’t have basketball. So I really was trying to figure out, ‘Where do I go from here? And if I wasn’t a basketball player, what would I be doing with my life?’

“That time off was good not only to get a break physically, but I got see what else I want to do. It helped on a lot of levels.”

McCoughtry started an ice cream shop in Atlanta that has provided her a window into the ups and downs of the business world. She has talked to other WNBA players who either own eateries (New York’s Marissa Coleman and Los Angeles’ Alana Beard co-own a Mellow Mushroom restaurant in Virginia) or are thinking about doing that someday (including Team Elena Delle Donne’s Kayla McBride of Las Vegas and Team Parker’s Rebekkah Brunson of Minnesota).

“I feel like I really understand now what it means to ‘give my all’ from having my own business,” McCoughtry said. “I want my employees to give their all so we can sell ice cream. The WNBA owners want the same from us.

“I never grew up saying, ‘I want to own my own business.’ But it’s something that hit me at some point: It was the right thing to do. It’s not been easy. Sometimes I barely break even. But when I see the smiles on faces in the community and am able to provide some people with jobs, I think, ‘All right!’ I’m not making much off the business yet, but I’m giving back and I’m learning. In due time, I know it will be successful.”

“It’s a much more mature game, I think. And to her credit, it’s not easy to have to change your role. But she seems to have embraced it, and they’re doing very well. So it’s working.”

Sue Bird on Angel McCoughtry this season

Team Parker teammate Tina Charles of the Liberty was sitting nearby and listening to McCoughtry talk about her business and the challenges of aging in the game. Charles was the No. 1 draft pick in 2010, the year after McCoughtry, and she has yet to take a WNBA season off. Instead, she opted not to play overseas last year.

“I wanted to focus more on my nonprofit, which is something I want to do after my basketball career,” Charles said. “I want to make sure when I’m done playing, I’ll know what it is I’m doing next.”

Charles has been the focal point of the WNBA teams she has played on, first in Connecticut and then New York. She can empathize with what McCoughtry has experienced with the Dream.

“When you get in the later part of your career, the tide starts to turn. New talent comes in,” Charles said. “You see with the Dream, they’ve had some players develop that grit and that confidence, and it means Angel doesn’t carry all that burden on her shoulders. She recognizes that and knows, ‘I don’t need to score 20-25 points in order for us to have a chance in the game.'”

Team Delle Donne’s Sue Bird also has played alongside McCoughtry on the national team and knows well about adapting to younger players.

“Everybody at some point has to evolve and change, with their role and the game itself,” Bird said. “What you see with Angel is she basically is the same player, but she’s a little more deliberate. Whereas I think in her earlier years, the ball was always in her hands and she was always having to make the play. Now she can pick and choose her moments a little more.

“That’s what I see in her game: She’s not forcing anything. Part of her game is to make things happen, so there’s still elements of that. But it’s a much more mature game, I think. And to her credit, it’s not easy to have to change your role. But she seems to have embraced it, and they’re doing very well. So it’s working.”

McCoughtry knows how big a challenge it is — even when everything is going right for a team — to win a title. But there’s just a vibe to the Dream now that hasn’t been there in a while. She’s very grateful she’s back to be part of it.

“I think I’ve figured out my niche; we all have,” McCoughtry said. “We’ve all jelled and adapted to each other’s games. I just want a ring. I know that’s a big deal for everybody; we all want that. But it definitely would be special for me to get one before my career is out.”



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