“You feel a little bit like a one man show,” Nicki Collen says, contemplating her first few days on the job as the new head coach of the Atlanta Dream. “One woman show, I guess.”
Following a disappointing 2017 WNBA season in which the Dream posted a 12-22 record, the team decided to part from the four-year tenure of head coach Michael Cooper, during which he lead the Dream to two playoff appearances. Collen, an assistant coach for the Connecticut Sun, was hired in late October.
“I was shocked at first,” Collen says of the offer, “but I was also incredibly humbled. [I was] just living the dream.”
While assisting alongside Connecticut Sun coach Curt Miller for two seasons, the team improved from 14-20 in 2016 to 21-13 in 2017, prompting Miller to win WNBA Coach of the Year.
“We’re very similar in our passion and our approach and how we think,” Collen says of Miller, “And that collaborative work environment was really good for me—and I think good for him. There’s no doubt he plays a huge role in how I want to move forward.”
Before her time with Connecticut, Collen served as a collegiate assistant coach at Florida Gulf Coast, Arkansas, Louisville, Ball State, and Colorado State for a combined total of nine years, helping to lead those teams to three appearances in the NCAA tournament and five appearances in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. She played in college at both Purdue and Marquette, making NCAA tournament appearances all four years.
One of the first actions she took in her new role was reach out to the Dream players for feedback (over the phone, as much of the team plays overseas during the winter offseason) about how they felt they could improve and become playoff contenders in 2018. Many told her they felt the team underachieved in 2017, and that they were better than their record indicated. Collen says the team relied too heavily on the athleticism of individual players, highlighting the difficulties the Dream faced with moving the ball on offense and generating offense in transition.
“At times they could be incredibly good at a system-making plays late in the shot clock because there are so many great athletes on this team that make one-on-one plays,” Collen says. “I’ll certainly continue to put them in position to do some of that, but I’d like to get to where we don’t rely on that.”
As Collen seeks to rebuild a winning culture in Atlanta, she says her primary job will be to get the players to buy in to her system. Having coached both collegiate and professional basketball, Collen knows that going through countless strategies from different coaches throughout their careers can cause players to become jaded to new techniques. She wants to make sure her players understand why each step of their new system is being put into place. That unity, she says, will put the team in the best position to win in 2018.
Atlanta has history as a WNBA playoff contender, and Collen hopes to lead the Dream back to postseason prominence. She warns that success may not be immediate. “I want our fans to know we’re going to play hard,” she says. “We’re not always going to make the shots, we’re not always going to look our best, but the effort will always be there.” Still, she’s confident that victory is within reach. “It’s certainly my job to bring [a championship] here.”