How Atlanta won the East: Revisiting Angel McCoughtry's path to stardom

Atlanta Dream wing Angel McCoughtry led her team past the New York Liberty with 42 points in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Photo by Kailas Images.

Last night while watching Angel McCoughtry drop 42 points on the New York Liberty in the Eastern Conference Finals, Bethlehem Shoals of AOL Fanhouse said something that caught me off guard.

"Why have you never told me about this woman?"

I was at a loss for words for a few moments while frantically trying to scan the numerous winding conversations we'd had about basketball for just one mention of McCoughtry. I couldn't think of one time where we'd discussed her. Even during the NBA All-Star game when she played in the celebrity game.

And that's just bizarre -- McCoughtry is obviously a player I've had on my radar for a while.

Dream coach Marynell Meadors expressed her excitement about her way back in February when I spoke with her about the Dream's upcoming season.

Team USA Selection Affirms Anticipation of McCoughtry’s Path to Stardom - Swish Appeal
"I think just looking at Angel McCoughtry - I know she was Rookie of the Year - but I think there are bigger and better things coming from Angel," said Meadors in an interview with Swish Appeal in early February. "I just think she continues to get better and better. She's a winner - she'll find a way for a team to win. And she'll carry a team, she's got that capability to carry a team. And I think she will help do that with us."

After the season began, with all the buzz around the Dream's rather surprising 6-0 start this season, it was difficult to ignore of McCoughtry's MVP-type role in their success.

So why might I have failed to mention McCoughtry to a NBA observer who was new to the WNBA?

What Shoals and I often talk about is how the NBA and WNBA differ from one another in actually fascinating ways, primarily the versatility of the players and how skills are more evenly distributed across traditional positions. In a rather "Free Darko" sense, it becomes rather abstract discussion bending our minds to understand the game as it stands now and imagining possibilities for where it's going.

Anyway, as we spent perhaps too much time thinking about how this omission could have occurred (well past either of our bed times) what became apparent is that McCoughtry has never quite fit that WNBA-as-new-frontier narrative as well as some other players we've talked about. Part of the reason for that is embodied in something McCoughtry told me in an interview before participating in the NBA All-Star celebrity game back in Friday.

McCoughtry, Powell Ready for Haier Shooting Stars: Spreading a Message or Just "Ballers"? - Swish Appeal
"WNBA is just a woman’s national basketball association," said McCoughtry. "It’s still a NBA, just different genders. We’re all ballers. So it’s not a burden, it’s actually fun."

If there is any player in the WNBA that has a "NBA game" -- a player whose athleticism defines a large part of her style of play -- it's McCoughtry. When I spoke with McCoughtry later in the month before participating in the All-Star celebrity game, she told me flat out that her plan was "excited to dunk on celebrities" without any trace of laughter or disbelief. It wasn't until after I had read elsewhere that she had attempted dunks in games that I even believed it.

Of course I've often considered McCoughtry the most athletic player of the game and at this stage in the development of the WNBA, as Shoals said during our conversation she seems familiar to NBA sensibilities in a way that almost challenges the very notion that women's basketball is a "new frontier". Shoals suggested Elgin Baylor as someone whose athleticism was something opponents simply didn't know what to do with but became part of the evolution of the game. Similarly, in the WNBA context it's almost hard to know what to do with McCoughtry, partially because she has so much potential and partially because she is so clearly not close to her peak. It's quite likely that a more refined McCoughtry we see years down the road will make the player we see now look raw and almost unsophisticated in comparison.

And if last night's performance is just the beginning of something "bigger and better", as Meadors said in February, the end product could yield frightening results.

Dream statistical MVP: Angel McCoughtry

Yes, McCoughtry had a career-high and WNBA playoff record with 42 points, but most impressive is how she did it. She shot 12-20 from the field and had a true shooting percentage of 71.81%. But a large point of those points came from the free throw line, where she was 17-for-21 with an astronomical free throw rate (she had more free throws than field goals, which doesn't have often for scorers of her caliber). 

Key statistic: turnover percentage

However, perhaps the underestimated part of her game last night was that she had a game-high five steals in a game in which turnovers were a very significant factor. McCoughtry is quite possibly the best at playing the passing lanes in the league due to her combination of athleticism and anticipation. She blankets defenders off the ball and is ready to pick up on even the slightest miscalculation by a passer.

For the Liberty, when they were at their worst, it was because they were turning the ball over far too much and the Dream are a team that will live off turnovers if given the opportunity. In the fourth quarter the Liberty managed to keep their turnover percentage down to 10.63%, but the Dream kept theirs to an outstanding 5.55%. 

Key contributor: Erika de Souza

But what the Dream are really known for is their rebounding and last night de Souza came off the bench to grab six for the Dream, though only one offensive. But where she really made her impact was on the defensive end, not only with her 25.54% defensive rebounding percentage -- which certainly helped limit Liberty second chance shots -- but  also with her five blocks, a few of them emphatic. 

Whenever there is a display of athleticism mixed followed by an expression of pure passion in women's basketball, some people react as though the player has done something wrong as though they'd prefer the player to remain controlled or reserved (ladylike?). But it's hard not to enjoy those moments as part of basketball in a big game like this one. The Liberty have a tendency to revert to jumpshooting to begin with and having someone in the paint swatting shots away certainly doesn't help it any.

Add de Souza's 7-for-8 shooting for a game-high true shooting percentage of 84.45% and you've got a huge game from de Souza against a team who was down a post player.

Liberty statistical MVP: Cappie Pondexter

The hardest part about being swept now against a fourth-seeded team that nobody expected to be here after limping into the playoffs, is that Liberty fans will always have to look back and wonder, what if Janel McCarville had been healthy? 

It's a valid question, but ultimately Game 2 was not really decided in the paint at all -- it was about the closest thing you can get to a one-on-one duel in basketball. 

Pondexter's 36 points came on 14-for-27 shooting for a true shooting percentage of 59.84%, which is good but not great. But equally impressive about her performance was her assist ratio of 20.89% and her turnover percentage of 9.28% that contributed to her pure point rating of 5.12.

But in the end, this duel was won by McCoughtry who usually doesn't score with the same flair for the spectacular as Pondexter, but is almost unstoppable when she sees daylight and heads for the rim. 

The next step is seeing if McCoughtry can muster up some more of whatever it was we saw last night to mount a challenge to the Seattle Storm. Offensively, the measure of a star is not just production but consistent production and that was the thing that McCoughtry and Meadors discussed even in the off-season. 

Atlanta Dream Free Agency Breakdown: de Souza Expected to Re-sign, Searching for Veteran Point Guard - Swish Appeal
“I think we talked about consistency and I got an email from her a couple of days ago and she’s talking about our goal is to win the championship this next year,” said Meadors. “She’s going to come in here bound and determined that she’s gonna make some things happen. I just truly believe that she’s going to be a great leader for us, whether she’s captain or not.”

Update: If you're interested in Shoals take on our conversation, check out his Fanhouse piece.
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