By Jameelah Johnson
Don’t let her unassuming plays – a block against your favorite dominating big, a bullet pass to a cutting guard through traffic, a midrange jumper that’s money from the corner – fool you, Atlanta Dream’s Jessica Breland may be one of the quieter players on the court, but her impact is undeniably felt on both ends.
Taking a look at the numbers, this has been Breland’s best season in total rebounds per game, blocks per game, assists per game and steals per game since her 2014 All-Star season with the Chicago Sky. Heading into Friday’s game against the Phoenix Mercury, she ranked third in the WNBA in blocks, averaging 1.9 per game and fifth in rebounds with 8.1 per game. Breland grabbed her 1,000th career rebound and became the 20th player on the WNBA’s list for total blocks. She received her first Player of the Week honor after she led the Eastern Conference in rebounding with 9.3 rebounds per game and blocks at 2.67 per game and also ranked sixth in scoring and finished fifth in field goal percentage at 54.1 percent. She helped the Dream go 3-0 that week.
Head coach Nicki Collen has reiterated that adding Breland to the roster was an obvious choice. She has praised her defensive abilities – rebounding and blocking shots. Collen labeled her as the “glue” of the team, a term I would later hear Breland use to describe herself as well.
It’s Sunday afternoon after a commanding win over a soaring Seattle squad and I waited for the Dream players to finish a meet and greet/autograph signing session with fans. Breland sat at the end of the table, smiling ear to ear as the array of fans happily greeted her, getting photos and more signed. She posted eight points with eight boards and three steals while helping guard both Breanna Stewart and Natasha Howard. Once the players were done, they didn’t have much time as they’d need to run to catch a flight later that evening. I had to grab her as fast as I could. She was made aware that we would be walking and talking, so I introduced myself and off we went.
Breland’s history is one of triumphs, strength and a ferocious passion. Minor injuries were deemed just that when she was diagnosed with something significantly more serious, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer, in 2009. Breland spent six months undergoing chemotherapy.
“My life kinda been that way, facing obstacles and overcoming them. It’s just another phase of my life coming here with the Dream,” Breland said.
Breland credits Collen and teammate Renee Montgomery with being critical in her decision to come to Atlanta.
“I believed in Nicki when she came to me and said she wanted me here,” Breland said.
Getting Lost In McCammish
“I think…is there an elevator? ” I asked Breland with a hint of hesitation. We were attempting to go to the locker room using a route with which I was unfamiliar. “I think it’s this way, yup!” said a more confident Breland. She was right. This redirection reflected how she also operates on the court in this Atlanta system. She’s not the boastful leader who makes sure she’s heard by all, she’s more of the calculated piece that quietly brings it all together. “I guess I could be called a glue player. I basically do what the team needs me to do. If they need me to rebound, get a steal, get a block. Whatever it takes for us to get that W.”
“That’s still going for you?” Breland questioned as she motioned towards my phone. We had stopped right outside of the locker room and my screen fell black. She was concerned that my phone had stopped recording. I quickly replied, “Yea, I’m good,” but thought about it and asked her to hold on for a second as I double checked. Breland didn’t have much time, she did have that flight to catch, but she wanted to ensure I was getting what I needed. Much like she is in games, making sure her teammates are set, Breland didn’t rush me even though she could have, she patiently waited as I got my phone and questions regrouped. Collen said Breland can be too quiet sometimes, to which Breland chuckled and said, “Yea, I get it. I get that a lot. I mean, I like to observe.” Along with the thoughtful side is the side the fans may not get to see as much, she can get her quips in if you’re paying close enough attention.
“We have a whole lot of jokesters with Renee and Brittney. I would say I’m more calm, I’m the quiet jokester. You’ll laugh if you really, you have to listen to me.”
With her seventh year as a professional soon coming to an end, it’s a wonder what more Breland can work on but she sees something in this Dream team.
“We came together really quickly,” Breland said. “Our chemistry is crazy. Our energy out there is crazy…This season kinda forced you to grow, fast. Our season is so short now. Playing, playing, playing. Not really practicing.”
With such fast turnarounds, it could be a lot on players but Breland sees it as a positive.
“For me this year, what I’m learning the most is things are not going to be pretty,” Breland said. “We mess things up but we also get at it. I’m so used to things being perfect or I’m kinda an OCD person. I’m learning how to still operate in chaos. I think it carries on into my personal life as well. This season, I was thinking about that the other day, how much it’s helping me to become a better person.”