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Led by the ‘new’ McCoughtry, Dream among best in WNBA

Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry, right, was the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Month in June and is in the top six in the WNBA in steals per game (3.5), scoring (19.8) and assists (5.0).

Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry, right, was the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Month in June and is in the top six in the WNBA in steals per game (3.5), scoring (19.8) and assists (5.0).

ATLANTA — Lori Ann is gone, dead, buried and unlamented.

In her time, she was a handful. Talented but tempestuous. Prone to fits of pique. Didn’t always play well with others. Tended to get competitiveness confused with ego.

Dream star Angel McCoughtry killed her. She had to for the good of the team, as well as her own well-being.

Lori Ann was a creation of convenience, the name McCoughtry hung on a fictitious alter ego she had manufactured to account for all the traits that seemed to get her into trouble. And Lori Ann, er, McCoughtry, was a busy mischief-maker during a tumultuous 2012 season.

Then it hit her, with the help of some counseling from a friend: “Wow, I’m Angel. I have no alter ego. Who I am on and off the court is who I am.

“If I get a tech (technical foul) or if I help somebody off the floor — that’s Angel.”

Taking responsibility for her personality, not foisting the flaws off on some figment of her imagination, has paid some early dividends. The all-Jekyll, no-Hyde approach might have a future.

The Dream are off to their best start in team history at 10-4. McCoughtry, June’s Player of the Month in the Eastern Conference, is among the top six in the WNBA in a well-rounded assortment of stats: first in steals (3.5 a game), second in scoring (19.8), fifth in assists (5.0). The angst and ugliness of a season ago has been replaced by a heavenly chorus singing Angel’s praises.

Maturity: that’s a word many have chosen to describe the change in the combo guard/forward. In her 26th year of life and fifth season since being the league’s No. 1 overall pick out of Louisville, she doesn’t disagree that she has done some late-stage growing up.

“I’ve learned that sometimes you got to keep your mouth shut and play ball,” she said. “I’ve been through a lot of things and they helped me grow up as a player. I’m just very humbled to be back on the floor.”

Dream coach Fred Williams sees McCoughtry’s upgraded assist average through 131 games — nearly double her career average — as evidence of a new, improved, all-grown-up approach.

“She’s been there with the scoring title issue last year (she lead the league with 21.4 points a game). I think she’s thinking more overall team, distributing the ball and making everyone better,” he said.

Not everyone has noted a total transformation. This from Indiana Fever coach Lin Dunn last week: “Angel’s a great offensive player. She has the potential to be a great defensive player. I think the thing that she needs to do as she grows up as a player is play the whole game.

“That’s an area where she’s got to mature. If she doesn’t get the call, she can’t stay down at the other end and pout. That’s when we’ll know that Angel McCoughtry’s become a total player. ... She’s made progress, but there’s still progress to make.”

Last season fell apart for her after coming back to Atlanta from winning Olympic gold in London. McCoughtry’s relationship with Dream coach Marynell Meadors blew up in a mutually destructive blast, the coach being fired and the player being suspended for a couple games. McCoughtry had already missed games with a reported sprained knee and two others for reasons listed only as personal.

“When I was suspended,” she said, “I was very depressed. For a week I didn’t shower or anything. It really made me miss the game. I felt like I let my teammates down and I never want to let them down again.”

McCoughtry won the scoring title but so damaged was her reputation that the media voting for All-WNBA didn’t include her on either the first or second teams.

“That humbled her, made her re-evaluate things. She said, ‘I’ll just come back stronger next year,’ ” Williams said.

There is little rest for top-level women players. McCoughtry went almost directly from the Dream to her Turkish league team, Fenerbahce. There she won a championship, beating a team that included Dream teammate Sancho Lyttle in the final, while playing before a noisy, emotionally committed audience. While in Istanbul, she paid particular attention to how Fenerbahce — and New York Liberty — guard Cappie Pondexter blended her teammates into the mix.

When she returned, McCoughtry had another model to study. The Dream signed Le’coe Willingham, a complementary piece to two WNBA titles, to bolster the bench and provide a sense of championship direction.

The 31-year-old newbie, who only had known McCoughtry by her spotty image, has enjoyed the first-hand view.

“I told her, ‘I want people talking about you at the end of the season with one word: Wow!’ ” Willingham said. “You see her expanding her game — her stat line is full every night — and it is wonderful when you have a player who is so dangerous in so many ways.

“You don’t want the (nonsense) to overshadow what type of player you are. She’s a great person, a sweetheart and not a lot of people get to see that side of her.”

As McCoughtry has put her new mindset into practice, the Dream have prospered. Her coach said she is much better equipped now to deal with downturns, better able to control her volatile competitive will, although that has yet to be tested during what thus far has been a literal dream season.

McCoughtry finds herself playing for a coach she enjoys, one who was still coaching her even when she was away in Turkey, peppering her with weekly inspirational text messages. Williams has tapped into McCoughtry’s need for very specific instruction, both on the practice court and in the film room. (“I’m more of a visual learner,” she said.)

“He would do anything for every girl on this team. When you feel that way about a coach, you want to give it your all for him every day,” McCoughtry said.

She insists this team has the kind of talent and cohesion that can lead back to the WNBA Finals and perhaps to an elusive title.

And, meanwhile, Lori Ann lies silent in her tomb.