On the 24th floor of a very tall building in downtown Atlanta, one can find the front office of the Atlanta Dream.
A front office is simultaneously mundane and magical. At one level it looks like any standard corporate office where they might sell widgets, with employees in cubicles and staff going about their business in a well-practiced manner.
But if you look closely, it’s no ordinary place.
The light blue – the baby blue of the Atlanta Dream – features boldly along with the matching red that can be found on any Dream logo. There are standing cutouts of Angel McCoughtry, WNBA basketballs everywhere, and pictures on the walls of great moments in the Dream’s history such as the first WNBA exhibition game in the UK. In the conference room, life sized decals of all five Dream starters decorate the windows, complete with the height markings of each player for the interested visitors who want to see how they literally stack up against Erika de Souza or Lindsey Harding.
The office of the head coach possesses that same dual nature. A nice executive desk, chairs, office equipment you would find in any HR department. But when you look to your left, you’ll see a whiteboard with the names of each current player on the WNBA roster attached to small magnets, each player located as expected underneath their current teams. That assignment could change at any minute, and the new Atlanta Dream head coach and general manager Fred Williams could quite easily walk over to the whiteboard and move a player from one team to another the way you or I would move a checker from square to square. It is then that you realize that this office is one of the command centers of the Atlanta Dream.
This is a room where big things can happen.
Fred Williams’s career is a long one. He was a point guard for Boise State University where he managed to make All-Conference in 1979, graduating in 1980. For a decade, he was at the University of Southern California (USC) – first as an assistant coach - and after a stint as an assistant coach at UC Irvine returned to USC first as an assistant head coach and then as a head coach for two years ending in 1997.
He served as a head coach in the WNBA from 1999 to 2001 for the Utah Starzz (now the San Antonio Silver Stars). After his first head coaching stint he was an assistant with the Charlotte Sting from 2003-2004 and then was the head coach of the San Diego Siege of the National Women’s Basketball League, leading them to the finals in 2006 before the league shut its doors in 2007.
He then became an assistant under head coach Marynell Meadors when the Dream was founded in 2008, and has been with the Dream since the doors first opened in Atlanta. In August of this year he was named interim head coach and general manager and he was officially hired in December to fill both roles by the Atlanta Dream. Experience is certainly not lacking when it comes to Fred Williams.
We had a chance to sit down with Fred Williams and ask him a few questions about his "new" position, his approach to the offseason, and the 2013 WNBA Draft.
Swish Appeal: Coach, out of all of the players that the Atlanta Dream finished the regular season with, without naming names do you know which ones will be back? Do you definitely know at this point "who stays and who goes"?
Williams: Well, personally I would say they all will be coming back because they have that commitment to me and to the organization. They all want to be back here. As the free agency market is open, we know that Lindsey Harding will be a free agent and Angel McCoughtry is also out there. They all committed to come back to our team and I have first dibs on making that happen.
Swish Appeal: What is going to be your approach when you start training camp this year? What kinds of things will you emphasize, and what goals will you be aiming for?
Williams: Number one, rebounding! (laughs)
Swish Appeal: Well, you think you’d be pretty good at rebounding with Sancho [Lyttle] and Erika [de Souza]!
Williams: Well, we were a pretty good rebounding team through the whole season, but I just think that when it came down to playoff time we slacked off in that area some. And I think with free throws - we have to get a little better shooting free throws; we have to get our percentage up some.
Swish Appeal: What will change in terms of coaching strategy and philosophy between you and your predecessor? Say in outside shooting, or ball pressure, or any other aspect of the game?
Williams: Well, I’ve been here from the start with the blue print of our running game. I’ve been an offensive coach and offensive coordinator here and Joe Ciampi is back with me with the defensive scheme of things. You’re still going to see a fast paced, energetic team throwing a lot of combination passes, and you’re going to see some pressure defense in the backcourt in making teams turn over the ball.
Swish Appeal: Is there any particular area of the team you'd like to have extra depth at?
Williams: I just think for us, we just need to play consistently throughout the year as a team. The only other thing I’d see is that if there were some personnel changes I would have to fill those voids somehow.
Swish Appeal: You found yourself very suddenly shoved into the interim role as head coach and GM this August. Two questions come from that. First, did you have any inkling about what was going to happen? And second, how long did it take things to quiet down to your satisfaction after it was all over?
Williams: We really had no inkling as to what was going to happen. I just felt that when it did happen with me the reaction of taking over the helm right away was “what would I do?” I had to sit back for two minutes and think about it, think about the scenario of how to approach the team. I approached the team individually to get their mind set focused of which direction I wanted them to go as a unit. After that, I met with them as a team. I just told them where I stand and where we’d stand for the rest of the season and we just went forward.
Swish Appeal: Has what happened in August made you more open to trade Angel McCoughtry as you look to improve the team in light of that incident?
Williams: No. I just think a lot of things happen in our business with coaching and basketball. Angel’s the type of player that you really have to communicate with a lot and you have to communicate more with her one-on-one. That’s been my goal from Day One to communicate with her one-on-one what I expect from her, on the floor and off the floor.
Swish Appeal: The Dream pick seventh in the 2013 WNBA draft. Are there any particular players you can name right now that might be potential draft picks in the middle of the draft? Are you allowed to say?
Williams: Everybody knows about the [Brittney] Griners and about [Elena] Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins and Taylor [Hill] who’s at Ohio State. If they happen to come into the league – there’s never a certainty that they will sign and want to come into the league - but if they do and hopefully if that seventh spot is there and some players like that are there, then we have to look at that.
Swish Appeal: Will you be drafting for need, or do you pick the best pick available? And does that strategy change in lower rounds of the draft?
Williams: You draft for your need, you know, what you need in that first round. If there’s a super, super player athletic-wise that you think you should grab in the first round you have to do that. But you pretty much go for your need.
And sometimes your need is height. If there’s somebody 6-5 or 6-6 there you can’t pass that up. In the later rounds you look for the best available athlete or your needs of what you need in that second position or that third role on your team.
Swish Appeal: Do college stats help at all in terms of evaluating the 2013 Draft class?
Williams: It helps a lot. You want to see their career free throw shooting, their 3-point shooting, their average of double-doubles. It says a lot about a player who has been in college who can show you that year in and year out, or how they’ve progressed from their freshman to their senior year.
Swish Appeal: Injuries and lack of player availability have affected the Dream negatively at various points of the franchise’s history. Angel McCoughtry is currently at Fenerbahce and Sancho Lyttle is at Galatasaray. Both of the teams will probably go deep either in Turkish league play or in Euroleague. If McCoughtry or Lyttle arrive late, how do you deal with that during the regular season? How do you deal with that for any player?
Williams: We’ve had that situation in the past here. It’s just something that we have agreement with the league and with teams overseas – if our players advance we want to see our players advance, we want them to win a championship somewhere – if it’s here in our league, if it’s somewhere overseas, it helps the WNBA and it also helps the player.
We have players who can step up in those roles to fill that void for a little bit, even if I have to look into the free agent market or if I’ve got to look into veteran players who have been in our system before.
A prime example is Tiffany Hayes. She stepped up when McCoughtry was injured for a little bit. Armintie Price has stepped her up a game up a lot. Cathrine Kraayeveld stepped up and helped us win a few games when Sancho or someone was hurt.
Swish Appeal: This is sort of an off-topic comment. You’ve got Angel, you’ve got Sancho and you’ve got Aneika Henry who’s at Rivas Ecopolis. And all those teams might go deep! It says something good about the Dream.
Williams: It does! A lot of the players that play – like those three players you mentioned – learn a lot from us here, from our system of practice and player and making them better. When they go to their teams overseas, they apply that to make their teams better over there. When they come back here, they pretty much know what the system is here and our style of play and they can fit right in and keep things going.
Swish Appeal: When you scout players as potential draft picks what sorts of things do you look at? Do any particular physical, intellectual or emotional qualities come to mind?
Williams: The main thing is looking for the passion and the drive to play this game of basketball, especially in our league. You’ve got to be very competitive each and every night as a rookie coming in. We look for that player who’s going to compete and have that passion and drive every single night even if they’re getting three minutes, ten minutes, whatever.
We’ve had that player – go back to Aneika Henry who was considered a rookie for us last year. Tiffany Hayes had that. We try to develop that and have that but I see that early before the draft even hits and say, “That’s player got that, I’d take that player over that other player just because of this, or just because of that.”
Swish Appeal: When Atlanta Dream players were quoted when you stepped into the interim position in August, they always called you "Coach Fred". Will you stay a "Coach Fred"? Or will the change in position require a change in how you relate to the players as individuals?
Williams: Well, “Coach Fred” is like – people calling Coach [Mike Krzyzewski] Coach K, back in the day Cheryl Miller called me “Señor Fred” at USC, Cynthia Cooper called me “Señor Fred” – I don’t know why! (laughs)
But Coach Fred has a good ring to it, I have no problems with that. Certain players – I called them by “AP” for Armintie Price, Angel “A”, and like that. We have our own little ways of calling each other nicknames, and I think that’s really cute.
Swish Appeal: Since you are no longer an assistant coach, do you have a hire for your replacement in mind?
Williams : I’m in the process of a lot of applications coming in. About two or three every day.
Swish Appeal: Did you ask for the applications…or did they just start coming in?
Williams : They just start coming in! (laughs) By word of mouth – in our business other coaches try to help other assistants stay in the league, or assistants that are out of the league try to get in. I’ll start to focus on that a great deal the first of the year. Right now, it’s a quiet time for us, and Joe Ciampi and I, we’ll be looking at some college players, but we’ll bring someone in who is going to fit in with our organization.
Swish Appeal: What kind of questions do you ask players in exit interviews? And have Harding and Price been "exit interviewed" yet or does that come later?
Williams : I’ve talked to every player. I have the exit interview when our season’s over with. Two days after the last game, they’ll come in individually and I’ll meet with them for a half-hour each. We talk about their game, what I expect for them to work on during the off-season. I take their stats and show there where there’s room for improvement. But I’ve talked to every player on the team, and every player’s committed to be back here with the Dream.
Swish Appeal: How much contact does a coach keep with his players during the off-season? You're lucky enough to have Lindsey Harding and Armintie Price here for a little while, but does a coach hear from any of his players during the off-season?
Williams : It’s called the world of the internet! (laughs) The world of e-mail. Some I hear from by phone, but a lot is by e-mail. I talk to a player probably about once a week, they usually e-mail me and tell me what they’re doing. It could be just “hi coach, how are you doing, I’m doing great.” Tiffany Hayes, she’s over in Israel, I was really concerned for her –
Swish Appeal: -- right, after the shelling --
Williams : -- yes. So I heard from her five times a day for about a week, just to make sure she’s okay. But I talk to them by e-mail probably about 90 percent of the time.
Swish Appeal: Can you tell us about the owners of the Dream, Mary Brock and Kelly Loeffler? What are they like as owners?
Williams : They’re very supportive. They’re here for the long haul. They want to show a lot of improvement with everything, with the whole league, with ourselves, generating some energy for the city. They want to continue that. We’ve been there, we want to continue that, we want to continue to be in the playoffs and have a competitive product on the floor and that’s what they’re committed to.
Swish Appeal: WNBA players come to the league as fairly polished products. Is there an emphasis on teaching at this level, and if so, how much of one?
Williams : Oh, a lot of teaching. You’d think a lot of players would know some of the fundamental things of basketball - certain screens or dialogue and they don’t. You’d think you could get all of that in in four years of college and they just don’t. Sometimes it takes you ten years from college to the pros to get the whole aspect of being a great WNBA player or a great player period.
So we go back to the fundamentals from Day One. It’s important for them to refine that or to get the knowledge of fundamentals each and every day. We do shooting, pick and roll plays, screens – we talk about it all the time. Every coach in the league will tell you that they really break it down and go with fundamentals first.
Swish Appeal: What is the schedule of a WNBA coach like in the offseason? What are you doing right now? Scouting? Watching games? Relaxing?
Williams : It’s like 7-11 – you’re always open (laughs) even in the off-season! Also having the role as GM, you’ve got to think of things other than on-the-court situations.
The life for me is getting up in the morning about 6 or 7, going through e-mails, answering phone calls, doing interviews between 6 and 10 maybe, then in the afternoons looking at some film. I review film from last season, where we can improve. I take a game or two each day and try to break ourselves down, what we need to do better, look at our opponents. Overall, the things we do in the regular season – watch films and communication.
And you have appearances in the community in the afternoon or during the evening, speaking to ticket holders or potential season-ticket holders. That’s about two or three nights a week for me doing community service.
Swish Appeal: Is there any WNBA player that you would like to see pick up a clipboard and get into coaching?
Williams : I’m going to have the greatest answer here – I would like to see all of them have some chance in their career to do that, to be coaches. I emphasized that back in the college days with Cheryl Miller, and she became a coach. With Cynthia Cooper, and she became a coach. Karleen Thompson, the Sparks coach who was a player for me, she became a coach.
I would like to see a lot of them do it. I think Armintie Price has had a taste of that in college and I think she’d be a tremendous, tremendous coach in this league. Lindsey Harding. God, I can go on and on. Shalee Lehning’s done a great job at Kansas State, so I would like to see them back in that role at the WNBA at some point.
Swish Appeal: What was your most enjoyable moment with the Atlanta Dream, and why?
Williams : I would say the most enjoyable – there’s a lot of moments there – I think one is when we got our first win, against Chicago –
Swish Appeal: - and then you went on the road to Minnesota and got a win there too –
Williams : - and then we went to Los Angeles and won there that first year. That was really enjoyable because that was a team – we lost 17 straight games – and we hung in there. We hung in there as a unit, worked hard every day to get a win or another win. And I’ve said that the ultimate thing was to go to the Finals. And we made Finals, and I said, “wow, we’re here.”
Swish Appeal: Aside from the top three picks - Griner, Diggins, Delle Donne - who do you think is the best all-around player in the 2013 draft?
Williams : It’s hard to say. Those three players are awesome. There will probably be a few more players who will get on that board as seniors.
The dominant player that everyone’s talking about now is pretty much Griner. The other one is Diggins as a point guard. And Delle Donne who’s an all-purpose player who can do a lot of things on the floor. It’s really hard to pinpoint who’s going to be the real dominant player. I guess we’ll see at the end when we have the Naismith Award.
Swish Appeal: Is there anything thing that you want the fans or the readers of Swish Appeal to know that we’ve not talked about?
Williams : I’m very passionate for the game of basketball, especially women’s basketball. It’s been all my life. It’s been over 27 years, 28 years, it’s been all women’s basketball. I just want them to know that in those years I’ve been a coach, been an assistant coach, been head coach that I’ve learned a lot about situations, I’ve learned a lot about players and I’ve learned a lot about opportunity.
And, for me, I just want to take this opportunity to help this team grow, to get to where we need to be. That’s back in the playoffs again and being competitive. I want us to really build and to be here for another 16 or 17 years.