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New faces help lead Atlanta Dream to top of Eastern Conference

After playing backup point guard in Indiana, Layshia Clarendon is starting for Atlanta and averaging 13.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG, and 2.7 APG. Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

ATLANTA -- Layshia Clarendon's reaction to being traded from Indiana, a team that made the WNBA Finals last year, to Atlanta, a team that fell short of the playoffs? It was about what you'd expect.

"I was upset and hurt," Clarendon said of the move that came in May, shortly before this season started. "One of my first questions was, 'Who'd you trade me for?' "

That's when it got worse. She found out she'd been dealt for a 2017 draft pick.

"And my second question was, 'What pick? A first-round?' " Clarendon said. "And it was like, 'No, second-round.' So I was really offended. But I know money, a lot of things go into it. I got to experience what it's like to be a professional when you're a commodity.

"Actually, though, I do think [Indiana] cared about me. So after I could process the emotions, and knew my world was going to change in 24 hours, I was able to take a step back and realize, 'Oh, this is going to be a really good fit. I have a chance to be a starter.' "

Clarendon relayed all this while smiling, which tells you how the trade has gone for her and the Dream: very well. Atlanta is off to a much better start -- leading the Eastern Conference at 7-3 -- than most of us (hand raised) thought would be the case for 2016.

Even Atlanta star Angel McCoughtry acknowledges that she wasn't sure what this season was going to be like for the Dream.

"I didn't know what we had, because there were all the trades and new people," McCoughtry said. "But I just came in optimistic. The greatest thing about us is the chemistry that has come forth with this team."

Admittedly, "chemistry" is not really a term you'd think of a whole lot in relation to the Dream in the past. But watching them play now, it really seems to fit. McCoughtry, in her eighth WNBA season and one of the league's best players, remains the hub the team is built around. She's second in the league in scoring (20.3 PPG). Tiffany Hayes, in her fifth year with Atlanta, also has become a pillar for the Dream, averaging 15.0 PPG and 4.3 RPG.

But two of the new faces in Atlanta -- guard Clarendon and forward Elizabeth Williams -- are clearly helping a lot.

In February, Williams also was traded to Atlanta for a draft pick: the No. 4 overall selection this year, which was Minnesota guard Rachel Banham. Williams had been the No. 4 selection in 2015 by Connecticut, and played in 21 games last year before a knee injury ended her season.

The Sun didn't see the best of Williams, but so far it looks like the Dream are getting that. She is averaging 11.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and a league-leading 2.5 blocks. Williams had her best overall game of the season Sunday in a 93-87 victory over Connecticut, getting 20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and three blocks against her former team.

"Elizabeth is doing everything I expected her to do," Dream coach Michael Cooper said. "That's one reason that we were -- I don't want to call it a daring trade -- but why we were willing to give up [this year's No. 4] pick for her."

When Cooper was coaching at Southern Cal, he recruited Williams, who is from Virginia Beach, Virginia. She ended up at Duke; there she was a tremendous defensive player, but didn't appear to fully blossom on both ends of the court. That's what we might be seeing now from Williams, who turns 23 this month.

"It was hard playing backup point guard in Indiana. Just naturally, I'm a leader. Being in the game, I'm getting to talk to people, I'm getting to make the right pass, just being involved. ... I'm super happy." Layshia Clarendon

At 6 feet, 3 inches, she has what can best be called a kind of smooth athleticism that is showing itself on offense and defense. Plus, she's feeling good physically. And with veteran forward Sancho Lyttle away from the Dream for now with the Spanish national team trying to qualify for the Olympics, Williams' presence is all the more crucial for Atlanta.

"I feel really good," Williams said. "I got time to rest at the end of [last] WNBA season and before going overseas. Then I kind of got my legs under me overseas.

"Shot-blocking has been huge for me ever since I started playing basketball, and it's one of the things Coop talked to me about when I came here. The team has been welcoming, I'm finding my rhythm offensively, and I'm feeling healthy. It's kind of all of those things combined that have helped."

Williams' agent had told her that Atlanta had been interested in her for the 2015 draft, but she was long gone by the time the Dream picked at No. 10. Atlanta could have chosen UConn center Kiah Stokes in that slot, but instead went with Iowa point guard Samantha Logic while Stokes dropped to New York at No. 11.

Logic played just four games for the Dream before being traded to San Antonio as a rookie; she isn't in the WNBA this year. Atlanta got a 2016 second-round pick in exchange, which turned out to be Rachel Hollivay at No. 13 overall this year and she made the Atlanta roster.

So while the Dream might like a re-do to get Stokes, they do have the 6-foot-4 center Hollivay in exchange for Logic, who didn't work out for them at point guard. Neither did Shoni Schimmel, whom the Dream traded to New York in May for a 2017 second-round pick.

Clarendon, though, is fitting in great at that spot. She originally was the 2013 No. 9 pick out of California, and averaged 6.7 points and 2.0 assists last season for the Fever, who lost in five games to Minnesota in the WNBA Finals.

But playing behind Briann January in Indiana, Clarendon wasn't likely to get the keys to the car anytime soon the way she has in Atlanta.

"Elizabeth is doing everything I expected her to do. That's one reason that we were -- I don't want to call it a daring trade -- but why we were willing to give up [this year's No. 4] pick for her." Michael Cooper on trading for Elizabeth Williams

She has started nine of 10 games for the Dream, and is averaging 13.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG, and 2.7 APG. Clarendon has put on needed weight and muscle, which helps with taking contact to the basket.

"I feel like one of the bigger guards in the league now," she said. "Whereas before, I felt like a little nugget getting tossed around."

Her confidence seems to have soared, even in the most crucial times of games.

"It's where I shine, I think," Clarendon said. "It was hard playing backup point guard in Indiana. Just naturally, I'm a leader. Being in the game, I'm getting to talk to people, I'm getting to make the right pass, just being involved.

"After being here in Atlanta just a couple weeks, I already felt at home. I was like, 'Wow!' Now I couldn't imagine, this season, being anywhere else but here. I'm super happy."