As Dorothy reminded us in The Wizard of Oz, there’s no place like home.
For the Dallas Wings, that statement could become a battle cry as they kick off a five-game home stretch with a two-game weekend matchup with the Seattle Storm on Friday night and Sunday afternoon. All told, the Wings will play nine of their next 11 games at College Park Center, providing a young team a rare, extended opportunity to build some momentum and pile up some wins before next month’s All-Star break.
It’s also a chance to show their hometown fans—and, quite frankly, themselves—that they can win in Arlington. The Wings are currently sixth in the WNBA standings with a 6-5 record. Just three of their 11 games this season have been at home; their only win came against last-place Minnesota. But that game gave Vickie Johnson a glimpse of what she hopes to see this homestand—energy, ball movement, and a loose demeanor.
“We played like we were supposed to play [that night],” she says. “Now that we are home for a while, we will take one game at a time. … We will just play hard and play our game.”
That game is heavy on defense, rebounding, getting out in the open court and running, and, most important, playing team ball. It’s a formula that has put Dallas a win ahead of its pace a season ago, in no small part due to the players taking a step up in crunch time. The 2021 Wings, just like the non-playoff editions before them, were often defined by inconsistency in the fourth quarter, the kind that can—and did—cost them winnable games. But being more defensively solid and mentally tough is how they won a game like the May 24 victory over Connecticut—a game the Wings are well aware would have been a loss in prior seasons. The team is maturing right before our eyes.
It helps that the Wings are finally at full strength with the arrivals last month of third-year forward Satou Sabally and new addition Teaira McCowan. Both joined the team late after long, successful runs overseas: Sabally was MVP of the Turkish League Championship, while McCowan was named EuroCup Women’s Player of the Year, Center of the Year, and Foreign Player of the Year.
One is ahead of the other for obvious reasons. McCowan is new to the team and the system and is still getting up to speed. Since her debut on May 13, she is averaging 3.7 points per game and 2.7 rebounds in just under nine minutes per game in nine games. Hardly eye-popping numbers for a player who recorded 28 double-doubles over the previous three seasons, the third-most in the WNBA behind only Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones (33) and Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles (31).
But she knows it’s a process.
“I think here in Dallas I will be a key piece of the team once I get acclimated and actually learn the system well,” McCowan says. “If I were here from the start of training camp, it would be different. But I missed training camp, just coming from overseas and a new team. That is a lot within itself. … I have to relearn everything. It’s been an adjustment because I’m on a new team, but I’ll get it.”
Johnson acknowledges the onboarding McCowan still must undergo, but remains confident it will happen. She has set a target of increasing McCowan’s workload to 12 to 15 minutes per game in the near future. While the 25-year-old is a capable scorer around the basket, the short-term impact will come from her defense.
“She’s more of a stationary defender, which is great for us because of her presence in some games,” Johnson says. “Some opponents won’t be able to go off in a game because of her. It’s really game by game.”
Meanwhile, Sabally hit the ground running. She’s played in six games and started three, with averages of 11.8 points , 6.2 rebounds, and 2.2 assists—all numbers that should be expected to rise as the season continues. The breakout was the June 3 win at Seattle, where she dished six assists to go with an 11-point, 11-rebound double-double during a rare start at center.
“I feel a lot better now—I’m over the jet lag,” she said after the game. “I got to practice with the team, finally, and it showed.”
To be sure, there are still areas for improvement. The Wings often settle for threes instead of attacking the defense, and they need to shoot more often and finish better in the paint. After Sunday’s 78-84 loss at the Las Vegas Aces, Johnson brought up zone defenses as a particular problem Dallas has yet to solve after the Aces threw out various looks to which the Wings had no answer.
“Teams will play zone against us so we have to prove that we can attack the zone and that we can be very efficient in the zone,” Johnson said. “It’s very important for us to come back and break down defenses, go through the zone, see it and understand the pockets where you can score. We have to be ready for whatever is thrown at us.”
Johnson also brought up the bench, which has primarily consisted of McCowan, Kayla Thornton, Ty Harris, Veronica Burton, Charli Collier, Awak Kuier, and Jasmine Dickey. “They have to step up and play,” she says. “We gave people quality minutes; it’s just a matter of being productive.”
That’s where continued growth from McCowan and Sabally could help most. Adding two quality players to the rotation, whether in the starting lineup or the second unit, means two more players for Johnson to rely on. And this roster has plenty of weapons, from the scoring guard tandem of Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey (they combined for 42 points in that lone home win) to steady contributions from veterans Isabelle Harrison and Thornton. Allisha Gray has been more impactful than ever while Harris has taken advantage of Moriah Jefferson’s release by flashing more range and skill at the point. Young players Collier, Kuier, Burton, and Dickey are getting minutes in fits and spurts, too.
It’s just about maturation—individually and especially collectively.
“The proof is in the pudding that it works: sticking to the plan, sharing the ball, moving the ball, making that extra pass, and, on the defensive end, locking in on the game plan,” Gray said after the win in Seattle. “When we play together, it works, and we win.”
The upcoming homestand is their chance to prove it.