Impending free agent Tiffany Hayes shows value to Dream, finishes strong

Atlanta Dream guard Tiffany Hayes drives against Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne during the first half in a WNBA semifinal playoff game on Sunday, August 26, 2018, in Atlanta.   Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Caption
Atlanta Dream guard Tiffany Hayes drives against Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne during the first half in a WNBA semifinal playoff game on Sunday, August 26, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

For the first time in nearly two full seasons, Tiffany Hayes has returned to her best form.

After opting out of the 2020 season, Hayes has been in a Dream uniform since May. She showed a glimpse of true form when returning to the organization, and many had her pegged as an All-Star candidate after a strong start to the season. A knee injury, which caused Hayes to miss nine games and significant pieces of many more, slowed the veteran guard.

Over the Dream’s past two games, near the end of a disappointing 2021 campaign, Hayes returned to peak form. This is the real and expected version of Hayes. The one who led the Dream to the glory days of championship contention. The one who opponents didn’t have answers for.

“Tiff is one of the better two-way players in our league,” Dream interim coach Darius Taylor said. “She’s continued to work and do what she needs to do to feel good about herself. She’s playing her game the way she can play it.”

Hayes, in a two-game home stint against Indiana and Los Angeles, went into takeover mode. She had her first 30-point game since 2019 by dropping 31 in a winning effort over the Fever. Hayes followed it by single-handedly willing the Dream into contention against the Sparks with 25 points — accounting for 37% of the team’s scoring in a losing effort.

The Dream’s record has fallen to 8-23, with one game remaining on the schedule. On Tuesday, the team celebrated its first home win since June 29 with a postgame dance party, 2Chainz in the building and plenty of jubilation to go around after defeating Indiana to “play for pride,” as veteran guard Courtney Williams said, and try to avoid last place in the WNBA standings.

Hayes, however, emerged as the Dream’s shining light as a long, grueling season comes to an end with optimism for the future. From an opposing perspective, Los Angeles’ Sparks coach Derek Fisher said “a healthy Tiffany is good for the league.”

“She’s so resilient to do what she did (at this point in the season),” said Williams, who oozed respect for Hayes during their first season as teammates. “Everybody saw what she can do when she’s in her bag.”

Hayes did it all over a two-game stretch. She scored in bunches in the third quarter against Indiana that allowed the Dream to establish a lead, then a productive first half against the Sparks.

Hayes also got nifty with putting defenders in the spin cycle for a layup, and she came off of a screen for a one-footed pullup shot that fell through and sent those attending at Gateway Center Arena into a roar.

“I was feeling myself on that one. It felt good going in,” Hayes said. “That was a little different.”

Hayes’ path to an end-of-season breakout didn’t come without a few bumps and hurdles. She sat out the 2020 season for COVID-19 concerns, but also took the time for a much-needed break. The lifestyle of a professional women’s basketball player involves a year-round responsibility of playing the sport. The breaks are few and far between, and Hayes admitted that she needed to rest. A moment of stillness rejuvenated Hayes, and she won a championship in Spain before returning to Atlanta ahead of the 2021 campaign.

Hayes threw on the Dream uniform after missing training camp, and well, looked like Hayes. She led the team in scoring and was snubbed for an All-Star bid, an omission that had many scratching their heads, including Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer. Then, Hayes’ bad break came with a torn MCL. She went down along with many others, and the Dream’s slide continued without an answer to stop the bleeding.

At season’s end, Hayes felt healthy once the Dream weren’t playing for a playoff spot. As a veteran, she could’ve hung it up, but instead has brought some of her better performances as a Dream player.

“I had the hot hand, and my teammates knew it,” Hayes said. “They kept coming back to me. It feels good in a tough, long season. That goes to show you that we will fight no matter what.”

After Tuesday’s win over Indiana, Hayes took a second to reflect. She soaked in the emotions of a rough season, but also the other eight that have comprised a career in Atlanta. Her future with the organization is unknown as a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent, according to a salary-cap breakdown by Her Hoop Stats, but a connection remains between Hayes and the Dream.

She signed a long-term extension in 2018 and hits free agency for the first time in quite a while. All indications point to a desire for Hayes to continue in Atlanta, but the Dream enter the offseason without a general manager and a new ownership group leading the rebuild.

“It’s emotional. I’ve been here since the beginning. I’ve never been on another team. I want to fight for this organization and whoever is beside me at the time,” Hayes said. “Especially with what we stand for. All of the things we’ve been through and what we came together to do as a team.

“This Dream jersey means a lot. It’s more than basketball, and I’m glad to be here.”