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Dream Update: An early-season look at the encouraging improvement of Haley Jones

While the Atlanta Dream’s recent games have been uneven, with a mix of frustrating and promising moments, the growing contributions of rookie Haley Jones, selected sixth in the WNBA Draft, provide reason for optimism.

Connecticut Sun v Atlanta Dream
The Atlanta Dream should be more than satisfied with the play of their sixth pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft: Haley Jones.
Photo by Alex Slitz/Getty Images

Last Sunday, the Atlanta Dream fell 89-77 to the Connecticut Sun under an avalanche of self-inflicted errors. The Dream turned the ball over a league-wide season-high 26 times, with half of these turns of the live ball variety. The Sun consistently cashed in on the Dream’s cough-ups, tallying 42 points off turnovers. Atlanta also hacked their way to 27 fouls, another season high that gifted Connecticut 30 free-throw attempts.

Tuesday, the Dream turned in a (mostly) much more composed performance in Brooklyn, staving off the Liberty to secure the 86-79 victory.

On Thursday, they followed it up with an even more impressive win, defeating the Sun for the first time in seven tries. After Atlanta allowed Connecticut to score 50 first-half points behind a turnover-fueled transition attack, the Dream came out with increased force and focus in the second half, holding the Sun to 30 second-half points before squeaking out the 92-88 dub in overtime.

Needless to say, Atlanta has been up and down in the season’s early going, with moments of potent promise paired with bouts of apparent incompetence. This is not an indictment of the team, as they are incorporating Allisha Gray into a young roster that now is without their two intended primary point guards.

The players most susceptible to sometimes wild swings in play are, of course, rookies. Let’s take a look at how Haley Jones, the only Dream rookie who has received enough minutes to offer a measured evaluation, has fared through the first month of the season.

Haley Jones’ early, exponential growth

In the first game of the season, Jones saw the court for only five mostly forgettable minutes, registering one (missed) 3-point attempt, one offensive rebound, one defensive rebound, one assist, one steal and one turnover.

Seven games later, Jones was integral to the Dream’s upset win over the Liberty, as proven by the 37 minutes that head coach Tanisha Wright kept her on the court. Jones matched her career high with 13 points, draining two of her four 3-point attempts as she took a career-high 11 shots. She also grabbed a career-high nine rebounds, frequently turning defense to offense by using her size and vision to fire hit-ahead passes that permitted the Dream to attack quickly. When Jones was on the court, Atlanta outscored New York by six points, her best plus-minus mark of the season.

Against Connecticut, Jones again was a vital contributor, despite trouble with fouls (she would foul out in overtime) and turnovers. In almost 35 minutes, Jones scored 10 points, including two crucial buckets and a pair of clutch free throws in the fourth quarter. She also notched a career-best nine assists. On several instances, she took advantage of her height to first see and then fire a laser to teammates cutting into the paint.

While injuries to Aari McDonald and Danielle Robinson opened up more opportunity for the sixth selection in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Jones has more than made the most of it, reminding everyone why, entering the 2022-23 college basketball season, she widely was considered a consensus Top 3 pick.

A confident Haley is a better Haley

As much as her responsibility and production has increased exponentially, her soaring confidence is even more striking. Jones openly has discussed her early struggles. Talking about her transition to the W with The Next’s Gabriella Lewis, Jones related, “Right now I feel so tense, so it’s really just like giving myself that grace to go out there and do my thing.”

She’s started to do her thing.

Since a breakthrough game against the Chicago Sky, Jones has exhibited unwavering confidence. Yes, she makes mistakes, failing to connect on passes to her teammates, losing her dribble when pressured by persistent defenders and committing the kind of fouls characteristic of rookies. Yet, she he has not cowered after her miscues, showing no timidity as she moves on to the next play.

Her willingness to take — and, so far, make — 3-pointers is illustrative of her confidence. Although 3-point shooting was considered her greatest, and possibly a detrimental, weakness before the draft, Jones has taken a total of 10 threes, hitting 40 percent of them. Threes account for approximately 20 percent of her total shot attempts, which equates to almost two attempts per 36 minutes.

While this current conversion rate from behind the arc is (likely) unsustainable, it augurs that Jones could establish herself as a enough of a threat from deep. If she ups her volume and her percentage hovers around league average, opponents will have to attend to Jones when she is behind the arc.

A stronger Haley is the best Haley

Encouraging for the Dream, as well as women’s basketball fans, is all the evident ways that Jones can make marginal improvements that, taken together, can situate her to be a high-impact player and, possibly, a star.

While more playing time with her still-new teammates will help her cut down on turnovers, increasing her overall strength, especially through offseason training, will allow Jones to more effectively tap into all her talents.

As a 6-foot-1 primary ball handler, Jones can effectively get into the paint or all the way to the basket in the half court. However, after the initial success of her attacks, things tend to get a bit shaky. She too often rushes her shot, firing off-balance jumpers or layups in an effort to evade any awaiting defenders. Developing strength will allow her to absorb contact before powering through for a finish, and, in all likelihood, more frequently draw fouls.

Increased strength also will amplify her on-ball playmaking, allowing her to be less bothered by pestering point-of-attack defenders and, in turn, fully tap into her passing vision.

If Wright eventually staggers Jones with McDonald, the Dream can hit opponents with a lightning-and-thunder combination on both ends of the floor. Whereas McDonald is a blur with the ball in her hands who can burrow into opposing ball handlers on defense, Jones can put teammates in advantageous scoring situations with her passing chops while being part of a smothering and switchable perimeter defensive corps.

What’s next for Jones and the Dream?

For now, this optimistic outlook for Jones and the Dream remains on the horizon.

It is reasonable to expect continued ups and downs for the rookie and her team. In the immediate, more tests arrive from the Indiana Fever (Sunday, 4 p.m. ET), the Dallas Wings (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET) and, once again, the New York Liberty (Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET).

And in the coming weeks, Jones could enter a slump, tripped up by the speed bumps that slow the progress of most every rookie during a long professional season. Such struggles could then cause her to question herself, destabilizing her steadied self-confidence. The eventual returns of McDonald and Robinson could also cut into her playing time, regardless of the quality of her effort.

Nevertheless, her first nine games give fans of Jones and the Dream plenty of reasons to imagine a future as bold and boundless as Jones’ ever-present grin.