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Meet the WNBA’s best-kept secret — for now

Tiffany Hayes of the underestimated Atlanta Dream isn’t a Batman or Robin. She’s just damn good.

SB Nation illustration by Tyson Whiting

You’ve probably never heard of Tiffany Hayes — and she knows it. Even within the WNBA, she doesn’t command the attention her play deserves.

“I wouldn’t mind being Batman, but Robin is something that I’m just used to. That’s the role I’ve been playing my whole life,” says the 28-year-old shooting guard. “Maybe that’s why I’m always underrated and getting looked over.”

In high school, “Tip”, as her friends called her, was on the best team in the state. College scouts came to see her teammates and became enamored with her all-around game. At UConn, she won two national titles alongside Maya Moore and Tina Charles, whose shadows loomed so large that Hayes fell to the second round of the WNBA Draft. Now she’s with the Atlanta Dream, a team written off year in and year out due to their lack of starpower.

That hasn’t stopped them this year, though. They earned the No. 2 seed and a double bye, and now are locked in a 1-1 series with the Washington Mystics for a chance to reach the WNBA Finals.

Hayes, the eternal sidekick, has become the team’s centerpiece, but she still can’t seem to shake her Robin status. Her stats aren’t as gaudy as peers like Liz Cambage and Breanna Stewart and she’s not an endless highlight reel like Diana Taurasi or Delle Donne, though Hayes’ mean left-right cross has been known to break Skylar Diggins’ ankles.

The same trait that made the Dream such an unlikely threat also makes Hayes one of the league’s best kept secrets: balance. Now that they’re finally center stage, it’s becoming obvious to the rest of the league that she’s the perfect star for a team without stars. Instead of a signature move or otherworldly skill, Hayes’ biggest strength is not having a weakness.

Tiffany Hayes (center) admits she’s “used to” playing the sidekick role despite producing like a star.
NBAE/Getty Images

The day Tiffany Hayes found out she hadn’t been selected for the 2018 WNBA All-Star Team, she made SportsCenter thanks to this half-court buzzer beater. She’d been an all-star in 2017 and set a goal to repeat that honor in 2018, but was the only top-20 scorer in the league to miss out.

“I’m not going to make it a goal of mine again,” she says now. “Just going to do whatever my team needs me to do to get wins, and if it happens it happens. If it doesn’t, then I won’t be hurt about it.”

Her snub added insult to injury for the Dream, who were predicted to be a non-factor in preseason rankings (the league’s own site picked them to finish ninth). They missed the playoffs in 2017, which led to them hiring a new coach in Nicki Collen and a new general manager, Chris Sienko, as well as making a number of roster changes.

As it turned out, the most important moment in the team’s transformation happened the season prior. Early in 2017, Angel McCoughtry, the team’s only Olympian and all-star, announced she was sitting out the WNBA season to rest. McCoughtry’s absence meant Hayes, the player so used to being overshadowed, had no choice but to get in the mix. That shift continued to impact her play even after McCoughtry returned at the beginning of this season.

“She got more comfortable being assertive,” says Amber Smith, an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky who was also on Hayes’ high school team. “She can guard your best player and she can drop 30, but now she’s actually making those kinds of plays more often.”

When describing how exactly Hayes has elevated her play — and what exactly makes her play distinctive in the first place — it’s tough not to resort to cliches. She’s the team’s leading scorer at just over 17 points per game and a threat on both ends of the floor, but the Dream aren’t exactly an offensive powerhouse. Despite their standout season, few picked them to advance to the WNBA Finals, especially with McCoughtry out again, this time with torn knee ligaments.

But those who’ve watched Hayes play her whole life insist we must look beyond the numbers to those oft-lauded intangibles.

“When it comes to stars, we generally overindex for the things they do well, and we underplay their deficiencies,” says Rashad Tyler, an assistant coach with the Winter Haven High School Blue Devils (Hayes’ former team), and her former trainer. “But with a player like Tiffany, I’m aware of the lack of deficiencies. She’s going to make a good team great. Your defense is going to get a little bit better, your passing is going to get a little bit better. It’s easy for me to understand why you win with players like her.”

Hayes is a hard worker without being a basketball obsessive (look for her at Dave and Buster’s on Wednesdays, when it’s half-price). She’s serious and even workmanlike: Collen calls her a “cog,” and ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson says she’s the Dream’s “motor.” But when necessary, she can serve up flash and passion as easily as she steps back to facilitate for others.

“I think she’s more or less a casualty of the general overlook of the WNBA,” Tyler says. “Most of its stars were established long before they got to the league. Is some of the lack of appreciation for her because of her lack of publicity prior to going pro? Because it couldn’t be her game.”

Hayes and college coach Geno Auriemma at a Team USA practice. Auriemma said Hayes was “maybe the easiest recruit that I’ve ever, ever, ever had.”
NBAE/Getty Images

Basketball was a family affair for Hayes growing up in Lakeland, Florida. She shot hoops with her brother in the driveway and loved playing with the boys, but it was her mom who pushed her to reach her WNBA potential. Jenny Hayes played basketball through high school and college, and still coaches at Lakeland Senior High School. Whenever her elder son, eight years Tiffany’s senior, praised Tiffany’s ability, Jenny would issue a stern warning:

“I told [him], don’t mess with me until she’s ready,” Jenny recalls. “Once I start working with her, I’m not gonna treat her like a kid, I’m gonna treat her like an adult.”

Tiffany was deemed ready when she was around 10, so Jenny started a youth team and she coached her daughter through middle school. Tiffany’s talent was obvious — ”She would come to my high school practice, and pretty much out shoot some of my high school kids,” Jenny remembers — but her mom made sure to develop her work ethic. Jenny showed up to practice early, so Tiffany had to be at practice early. Since they were both at the gym anyway, drills inevitably followed. To this day, Tiffany still hears her mother’s voice in her head every time she gets the ball, shouting “Look up!”

After practice came homework, and then a pre-bed routine of sit-ups and push-ups. “She would say, ‘Ma, are you serious?’” says Jenny, laughing (Tiffany insists now that the pushes to practice and work out never bothered her).

Her mom would tell her about all the other millions of girls trying to get where she wanted to go: the WNBA. They were all going to practice, but the ones who did extra work were the ones who’d actually make it. Plus, Tiffany needed to be twice as good as everyone else so no one could accuse Jenny of favoritism.

By the time Tiffany was in high school, letters from colleges started coming, so many that they didn’t fit in their mailbox. Even as state titles, the Florida Miss Basketball title, McDonald’s All-American honors, and more proof of her skill flooded in, her actual game was hiding in plain sight. During Hayes’ senior year, her high school coach LeDawn Gibson told The Ledger she had one critique of Hayes’ play: sometimes she was too unselfish.

But when legendary UConn coach Geno Auriemma saw Hayes, he knew she possessed something unique. It was the perfect match.

“It wouldn’t be a stretch for me to say that Tiffany Hayes was maybe the easiest recruit that I’ve ever, ever, ever had,” Auriemma writes in an email.

The year she started college was the same year Elena Delle Donne rocked the women’s college hoops world by electing to leave UConn before even playing a game. Without Delle Donne, Hayes was her class’ best player, even though she knows that wasn’t the plan. She was a four-year starter and won two titles, but she’s still not etched in UConn lore the way her more famous teammates are. On the team’s Wikipedia page, her name appears exactly once, in passing.

“Right away as a freshman, she showed all the things that she’s showing now, and that doesn’t happen very often,” Auriemma writes. “But the whole four years she was here, she was kinda under the radar.”

In retrospect, the fact that she wasn’t able to win a championship for the team as its star (in 2011 and 2012, the team lost in the Final Four) ultimately impacted her WNBA draft selection. Hayes remembers sitting in the ESPN studios, located a stone’s throw from her vaunted alma mater, bewildered as the first round of the 2012 WNBA Draft passed her by. She was ultimately picked No. 14 by the Dream, which she now says is a blessing in disguise because Atlanta is the closest WNBA city to her family. Eight of the players picked ahead of her no longer play in the WNBA.

“She played with so many great players [at UConn] and when she was drafted in the WNBA, I thought someone had a steal,” Auriemma writes. “Somebody got her and they probably don’t even know what they’ve got.”

Hayes and the Atlanta Dream continue to disrupt the WNBA’s hierarchy.
NBAE/Getty Images

Defining Hayes’ place in the WNBA’s hierarchy is like how figuring out how the Dream fit in the league’s postseason: neither resembles the competition. The Dream’ style isn’t always pretty -- they have the WNBA’s best defense and its third-worst offense.

“They’re not a hot offensive machine that space the floor and pass well and all that stuff that people love to watch.” Robinson says. “But the disrespect has to stop because they’re winning. They’re beating your pretty little team.”

Tiffany Hayes and the Dream don’t need to be famous. They just want to be respected. And whether that recognition ultimately comes, Hayes will keep playing. Her goal isn’t to be Batman or Robin, but to refine her own game into the stuff of basketball history books.

Or, as she puts it: “You don’t have to be a household name to be considered good and to get what you deserve.”

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