Coach Nicki Collen PC:Scott Cunningham
Coach Nicki Collen reflects on her first season in Atlanta
By Bob Corwin
Recently Pass Tha Ball got to spend some time with Atlanta Dream Head Coach Nicki Collen. She shared with us some thoughts on her inaugural season as a WNBA Head Coach.
Editor’s note: Material in [ ] was added to clarify Coach Collen’s comments without changing the meaning. Below, NC represents Coach Collen’s responses to our PTB questions.
PTB: I certainly had not hoped to start the interview with this. However, given what has happened recently, how does a team adjust to losing an all-star like Angel McCoughtry (out for the year with an ACL tear) so late in the season?
NC: It is tough, no doubt! Physically, emotionally! I told this team back in May that our strength was going to be our depth. Brittney Sykes pretty much started every game down the stretch for Atlanta last year so she is a capable starter in the WNBA. So, I felt like all season that we have starters that come off the bench for us. It [this injury] changes our rotations and takes away a little bit of depth not having Angel. I think our roster is built in such a way that we can handle this now. We are certainly going to miss her scoring prowess and ability to rebound the basketball. But, you got to pick up and move on. This happens all the time in sports.
PTB: Is it more of a mental or physical adjustment for the team?
NC: It is both. Mentally, Brittney Sykes was used to that role coming off the bench, being a spark with that second unit. Now finding her way with the starters which is a little more balanced unit in terms of touches. We are going to play through [Tiffany] Hayes a little bit more with the starters versus trying to run plays through Sykes when she comes off the bench.
PTB: Looking at the league, how do you see the competitive balance this season versus last?
NC: Top to bottom the league is just really, really good. I know Indiana’s record doesn’t reflect that but Indiana has beaten Minnesota [defending champs]. They beat us and Dallas. They knocked off good teams. You have to show up to compete every night in this league. There is a log jam two through nine which is starting to stretch out a little bit. It just shows you how competitive it is. We have been fortunate that we played well against the top half of the league and taken two of three against all the top teams which puts us in a good situation for tie-breakers. There is no one who you can look at and say that is who I would want to play in the playoffs because everybody is good.
PTB: From an assistant’s viewpoint, how does coaching in the WNBA (for two years in Connecticut) compare to college coaching [Collen was at both Power 5 and mid major levels in assistant capacity]?
NC: It is very different actually. In the WNBA there is very little time for player development. Our schedule is so fast and furious. There is no off-season. There are no pre-season practices. You get two weeks of training camp to try to jam everything in and then you start grinding away at games. This year is more condensed than any other year. It is less about teaching and more about game planning and adjustments game to game and in-game adjustments. Every game is close in the pros, having to coach in late game situations and time/score situations. In college you certainly have some of those. The number of close games in college versus the pros is not even close.
You have to manage personalities at this level. You do that in college but you have to do that more at this level. In college you have 18-22 year-olds, always 18-22-years-old. You get in the pros and you are dealing with 22-year-olds and 32-year-olds that are at very, very different places in their careers. You don’t necessarily manage them the same way.
PTB: How was it different being a WNBA Head Coach versus being a WNBA Assistant Coach?
NC: I was really very lucky in Connecticut. Curt [Miller, Sun Head Coach] gave me tons of autonomy and lots of responsibility in terms of game prep and game planning and communicating in huddles. The biggest difference for me has been the off-court stuff, being involved in the day to day operations of the organization and being a part of so many of the decisions with free agency and then getting on those flights to meet with those free agents. In a lot of ways, I got to do a lot of coaching in Connecticut. Here, for me specifically it is how much I am involved in the community and the stuff outside of the day to day [coaching].
Certainly being the one who gets to make all of the late game calls is different. Certainly I would tell Curt we should do this or that versus the one who this is all going to fall back on whether you win or lose and doing the press conference stuff. Being the face and voice of the organization is different. I always felt I understood that side and was so closely connected to the head coaches I worked for. I felt I knew what to expect in that area.
PTB: For players, what are the biggest adjustments transitioning to the WNBA from college ball?
NC: The pace that they have to pick up, the nuances of the game. Players that come into this league have had different levels of coaching in college. It is just the reality. When you get into this league, you got to learn quickly. You got to understand things that maybe in college they could not do. For example, size to the rim which is trying to keep a big at the rim. In college you are going to switch ball screens here and there. You do not rely on getting size to the rim because your guards and posts at that level are not that different in size. In the WNBA, you are going to constantly be bringing another big to the rim. That is something that you just do not see in college very often.
Another thing is how fast the games come and being able to understand tendencies of players and tendencies of teams. The attention to detail in this league is so different from college. If you don’t get it, you are not going to be on the court. Because everybody is so good in this league you have to understand “I have to take this shoulder away on this player.” We have to scout at a totally different level than any team does in college. Not only is the talent level higher but the level of sophistication of play is as well. You can’t just out-athlete somebody at this level.
PTB: What in a player allows one to make a smoother transition to the WNBA from college ball? Some players succeed right away but others may take another year to fully acclimate.
NC: Two things make the transition easier. One is great coaching in college. Players who come into the league and really understand the game, that helps them. Having a high basketball IQ helps them.
The other thing is the better the athlete, usually the quicker the transition. This league is so athletic. If you do not come in with an athletic advantage, you got to figure out how to compete against better athletes. You look at the success of players coming into the league from the ACC or the SEC because those leagues are so athletic. That transition is usually easier than from the “skilled leagues” like the Big Ten. There is an adjustment period when you do not play against the same [elite] level of athlete in college.
PTB: As first year coach of the Dream, what has been most pleasing about this season and what has been most frustrating?
NC: I think what has pleased me the most is how our team has truly bought in to a full culture change and a coaching staff change plus new faces on the roster. We battled through Tiffany Hayes missing multiple games because of injury; Brittney Sykes missing multiple games because of injury. I think this team really believes what our coaching staff has tried to preach. They have seen the fruits of our labor because of it.
Frustrating has been that the Atlanta community has not jumped on board with us as fast as I would have liked. We have the best home record in the league. We are still not drawing as well as I would like to see us draw. I know it takes time and the best marketing is winning. I would love to see Atlanta see the product that we are putting on the floor. I think they would be really proud of not just the high level of play but the comradery and how these players are really competing and playing together.
PTB: I can’t disagree with that at all!
PTB: What must the Dream concentrate most on as the playoffs approach?
NC: I think we have to continue to really fine tune the offensive actions that we are good at. You sometimes go into a season and you think these are the good actions for Tiffany Hayes and these are good actions for Angel McCoughtry. You slowly and surely build your playbook. Then you have to take that playbook, make it a little more concise, refine things a bit more going into the playoffs, and having the players really understanding what those actions are.
We are continuing to play faster and faster. We are getting into actions quicker. That is why Elizabeth Williams has been so good the last month. She is running into ball screens and getting us into early actions and separating on screens. We need to understand what we are good at and what has gotten us to this point. It is continuing to build on what we have been doing for the last six weeks as we get into the playoffs.
On the defensive side, it is continuing to understand flowing to the ball. We have great individual defenders, shot blockers. We have to understand other teams’ actions and continuing to be a great team defensive team.
PTB: What is your coaching philosophy and how do you build a culture that supports it?
NC: I always bought into the quote “players don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Everything I do starts with that from taking the job, building relationships off the basketball court with our players and truly loving on them and caring for them and what’s going on in their personal life. Being able to separate the two.
That’s where your culture starts from my staff having that family environment. I built a staff. I took my time with my assistant coaches and with my trainer. All the pieces that are in place. I wanted us to be in this together and let my coaches coach and have their voices heard.
I would consider myself a players’ coach being transparent with our players. I want them to communicate with me when they are frustrated to let me know if I need to communicate better or differently. I need open lines of communication. On top of that culture that was built, I need to allow them to be who they are.
When we were in Minnesota, the press said this was the loosest team they had ever seen walk in to the Target Center. As long as these guys are attuned to the game plan and they show me they compete when the ball goes up, I want them to have fun. They play a game for a living. I coach a game for a living. We are going to play better if we are having fun and we are energizing one another. My job as a coach is to channel that so that they can still be who they are on the court.
PTB: Given that the WNBA recently had an issue with Las Vegas forfeiting to DC due to travel-related issues, I proposed to someone involved in the league that the WNBA consider chartering (obviously more expensive) when back to back games are involved. Currently the league only flies commercially. Any thoughts?
NC: I think in an ideal world that sounds awesome. I think it comes down to our league is only going to survive if we have enough money to do that. This year there are considerably more back to back games. We have only one back to back. I think three, maybe four is the most any team has had back to backs. It is a decided advantage for a home team when you catch a team on the back end of a back to back. I think in an ideal world we would charter more but I also want our league to be around for a long time and be healthy. If the [financial] numbers dictate that the league is capable of doing that, great! However, the difference in cost is huge [at least three to four times the expense].
PTB: The 2019 draft is still a long way away but who do you consider some of the top players expected to be in it?
NC: I think this is a really interesting draft. I think this is another fairly deep draft but it might be a draft where at least right now there is no obvious number one. It could be what do I need (a post or a guard)? When you think about guards, you think about Asia Durr (from Atlanta) [of Louisville]. Then do you go big route with Kalani Brown [of Baylor] or Teaira McCowan of Mississippi State? Then if you want versatile players, you start to talk about Samuelson and Collier of UConn. It is kind of a cool draft. You just do not know. Anigwe of Cal is a huge talent who is clearly a WNBA athlete as far as size and athleticism.
PTB: Thank you for your time Coach Collen!