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Basketball

The Wings Exceeded Expectations in 2021. Up Next? More Growth.

The end was painful, but the future is very bright.
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Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Growing pains hurt. Especially when you’re trying to lay the right foundation.

The Dallas Wings felt growing pains Thursday night, in their first playoff game in three years. Inexperience reared its young head as they fell to the veteran-heavy Chicago Sky, 81-64. Afterward, in the locker room, there were tears from the players and prayer from the coach.

“When I left the locker room, everyone was crying,” said Vickie Johnson, who had just coached her first team in her first year to its first playoff game since 2018. “When you put in the work, when you have passion for the game, and when you love your teammates, you know, you love what you do—it hurts. 

“It’s a moment where you have to spend some time by yourself, and for me it was to pray and to ask God to fill that empty spot. You lose something when you have expectations of being great. You dedicate four to five months, and when it doesn’t happen, it’s a horrible feeling.”

But it’s a feeling that the Wings vow to remember next season as they build on what was actually a successful year for the young, talented franchise. Going into the season, the Wings hadn’t had an All-Star in two years, hadn’t seen the playoffs in three years, and had three coaches in as many years. They wound up having two All-Stars in Arike Ogunbowale and Satou Saballywith Ogunbowale winning the game MVP—plus an Olympic gold medalist in Allisha Gray, who won the first-ever 3×3 competition. And they finally returned to the postseason, even if the loss to the Sky left a sour taste in their mouths.

“You just don’t want to feel like this again,” said Isabelle Harrison. “I didn’t like how I felt after the game. Going into next year, that’s going to be on everyone’s mind.”

There’s reason to be confident in the Wings’ ability to capitalize on this season to continue growing, building, and improving. Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey, the team’s leading scorers this season, will both be in their fourth year. Sabally is entering her third, as are Ty Harris and Bella Alarie, who played her way into the starting lineup in the second half of the season. 

The Wings also have a cadre of stable veterans including Harrison, Gray, Moriah Jefferson (who this season showed flashes of her form as a four-time NCAA champion with UConn), and Kayla Thornton (the longest-tenured Wings player, who will be in her seventh season next year). And although rookies Charli Collier (No. 1 overall pick), Awak Kuier (No. 2) and Chelsea Dungee (No. 5) didn’t see a ton of playing time, the future is still bright for one or all to take a big step forward this next season and contribute regularly.

All of that is before any possible offseason additions. The Wings have the cap space to dip into the free agency market if they want to, and the loss to Chicago demonstrated the value of experience. Could Dallas try to add a veteran presence to the league’s youngest roster? Then there’s the draft, where Dallas has built this roster for the past three seasons and where they’ll have another top-four pick via a selection they acquired from Los Angeles. Maybe that’s another young blue-chip talent, or maybe it becomes a valuable trade chip. 

No matter what the roster looks like, Dallas’ greatest growth areas on the floor are finishing games, shoring up transition defense, and playing better team ball. Too many times this season, you never knew which Wings team you were going to get. At times, they played perfect team ball: spreading it around, shooting well, and rebounding even better. But too often the ball got stuck in one player’s hands, and the offense got too isolation heavy

If players arrive to training camp next season with a focus on the details and cleaning up small mistakes, there is no reason to believe that they can’t build on this year’s success. 

“This year was a big step for us,” said Ogunbowale. “Last year, we almost made it. This year we got in. Next year, we’re going to get a win. This is just the beginning. We can use this year to think about it and build.”

This year was all part of the process, added Johnson. A process that she and the team believe will indeed result in a championship. And it will start with memories of a heartbreaking loss and excitement over what’s to come.

“When I left that locker room and saw their faces and sadness in their eyes, I felt sad for them, but I was proud as well,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘Alright, they got it.’ Once a team can feel the same emotions at the same time, that means you’re growing.”

If this year is any indication, that growth may continue to come well ahead of schedule. 

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