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2019 WNBA Draft Analysis: Atlanta Dream leans on established experience heading into new season

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It’s not that there’s no room for new talent on the Dream’s roster — just that the players they have already make up a very well-oiled machine.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four-Semifinals-Oregon vs Baylor
Maite Cazorla is the lone rookie draft pick eligible to play for the Dream in 2019. As a player who never came off the bench in her career at Oregon, Cazorla’s college experience is massive compared to many other rookies.
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After a second-place finish in 2018, the Atlanta Dream’s latest acquisitions — or lack thereof — suggest the team is looking for experience to propel them to a similar position once more.

An active draft night saw Atlanta select Brianna Turner as the 11th overall pick. But by the end of the night, it had traded Turner to Phoenix for center Marie Gülich. The team’s third-round pick was Chinese center Li Yueru, who won’t be eligible to play until 2020.

Thus, the Dream ended up with just one potential rookie for the 2019 WNBA season in Oregon guard Maite Cazorla, who came off the board 23rd overall. But Atlanta also signed undrafted Tennessee guard Meme Jackson to a training camp contract on Wednesday, making eight guards in the running to make the roster.

Atlanta isn’t an older team, by any means, with just three players in their 30s. But they’re still top-heavy, age-wise, and that makes it more difficult for younger players to grab starting jobs. Fourth-year center Imani McGee-Stafford received two starts last season, while third-year guard Brittney Sykes started seven games. Meanwhile, the team’s major starters average about seven-and-a-half years of WNBA experience apiece, ranging from Elizabeth Williams’ four to Renee Montgomery’s 10.

Will it be an uphill climb for Atlanta’s newest players to make the squad? Yes. But as shown by Monique Billings in her rookie 2018 season, averaging 11 minutes in 32 games, playing time doesn’t have to be hard to come by once a player establishes herself.

A “Dream” trade on draft day

Atlanta’s first draft pick ended up turning into a trade for Marie Gülich, one of four centers the Dream has at its disposal. At 6-foot-5, Gülich will provide some needed height inside, though she still needs some time to learn to use it to her advantage as effectively as she did at Oregon State.

The Dream had targeted Gülich in the 2018 draft. Although she was on the board until the end of the first round, the team didn’t have a first-round pick to use on her. Now, Atlanta can use Gülich to boost its inside offensive game. Considering the team’s recent track record of getting newer players quality minutes, a good showing at training camp could propel Gülich to far surpass the 5 minutes, 1.5 points and 1 rebound per game she averaged with Phoenix last season.

How the rookies could contribute

Assist-machine Maite Cazorla

Maite Cazorla is the player to watch in a guard-heavy training camp rotation. Her experience certainly stands out among recent college players: She started all 146 games she played in at Oregon, a program record for games started and games played, and has international experience in Spain’s youth system.

Cazorla quickly established herself as an assist machine, finishing with 691 in her career, including a Pac-12-leading 206 as a freshman. She also has a natural ability to run plays and make shots from beyond the arc. Although Sabrina Ionescu joining the Ducks likely stalled Cazorla’s potential a bit, she now has the opportunity to carve her own path once more.

Atlanta will get one of the tallest in 2020: Li Yueru

Li Yueru won’t be competing for a spot on the Dream until next summer, but she’ll still be just 21 years old when the 2020 season rolls around. This suggests Atlanta’s desire to develop her and keep her with the squad long-term. She’ll join as one of the tallest players in the league, at 6-foot-7. Along with Gülich, this will certainly help the Dream toward its goal of more inside scoring. Li can also stretch the floor and create outside opportunities for other players — like Cazorla, for one.

Li also has a history of international experience, including on the Chinese national team in the FIBA World Cup this past autumn. Additionally, Li has already played with current WNBA talent in China, most recently with Nneka Ogwumike and Aerial Powers on Guangdong in the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association. This type of experience is invaluable for international players. Before they even hit the court in the WNBA, they’ll have a basic idea already of how their abilities match up with their future competition (or teammates).

Meme Jackson: Undeniable talent on an uphill journey

Although Meme Jackson will likely have the most difficult journey to a roster spot, her talent is undeniable. Averaging almost two three-pointers per game (Tennessee’s best last season) and hitting 82.9 percent of her free throws, Jackson will, at the very least, gain some valuable insights at training camp into how her current high-level game can fit onto a professional team — even if it isn’t the Dream.