- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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The old saying is, if you really want people to learn something, ask them to teach it. Washington's Ivory Latta would give this aphorism her whole-hearted endorsement.
Of course, you could say that Latta does everything "whole-heartedly," or she doesn't do it at all. But even Latta, the font of positive thinking, had her moments of doubt in the past several months as she transitioned to not just being a player, but also a coach.
The Mystics guard became an assistant for her alma mater, North Carolina, last fall. Did that give her a different perspective of the sport?
"Absolutely, because some of the same things they were doing at Carolina, I knew I was sometimes still doing in games," Latta said of mistakes she'd see in young players. "When coach [Mike Thibault] was getting on me about something, I didn't understand it as well ... until after I was getting on my players about it.
"It was like, 'Wow, same situation, but different levels.' Not to say I was still making college mistakes, but it was that some similar things happen no matter what level you're playing. It just opened my eyes and made me realize that I've learned a lot about myself."
She pretty much had to do that considering everything that has occurred in Chapel Hill in the past year.
There was the arrival of an all-star class of freshmen who didn't have coach Sylvia Hatchell around very much as she battled leukemia. The Tar Heels had a season with the peaks and valleys expected of a young team. They made it all the way to the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight, which reasonably put visions of a future Final Four in their heads. But then came the departure of the most acclaimed of those rookies, Diamond DeShields, when the season was over.
"Whew. There were times I thought, 'I don't know if this is for me,'" Latta said of some of the twists and turns of her first season in coaching. "I know God doesn't put more on us than we can bear, but I found myself asking on some nights, 'What is going on?'
"And there's not much time to recover from it, because when [the college] season is over, I have to think immediately about the WNBA. There is still a lot I don't understand about coaching, and I didn't have [Hatchell] right there to really walk me through some things. It was tough."
So is she returning for more with the Tar Heels in 2014-15?
"I'm going back, absolutely. I love those players, I love Coach Hatchell," Latta said. "It would be silly of me to leave when I didn't give her an opportunity to really mentor me. I talk to her four or five times a week; she's on the go, and I'm constantly telling her to rest. But that lady, she is strong. She's not going to slow down for anybody."
Hatchell, who said she is feeling very good physically, is eager to work daily with Latta this fall after her WNBA season ends.
"I hate I wasn't with her last year," Hatchell said of having to spend most of her time away from the team as she recovered. "That's one of the greatest things about being back, is that I get to work with Ivory. She's one of those people, she just makes me feel good to be around her.
"The thing about Ivory, there is no way you can measure the passion that that kid has when she plays. She loves the game, and she's such a great leader, always encouraging her teammates. Nobody has a bigger heart than Ivory Latta does."
Hatchell said that's a key part of why Latta took so well to being a coach, and that assistant Andrew Calder -- who filled in as UNC's head coach with Hatchell out -- was very thankful to have Latta around last year when everyone's spirits needed a boost.
Hatchell said she told Latta that she was sure coaching would make her a better WNBA player.
"It always helps to see things from the other side," Hatchell said. "There's no doubt she's matured a lot in how she views the game. Coaching has impacted her decision-making, especially being a point guard.
"But I also think it's helped physically, because she didn't play year-round. It was the first time she took a break, and I think it was good for her. Her body was kind of beat-up."
Latta is looking forward to work with the Tar Heels again. She said that while DeShields' decision to transfer to Tennessee was very disappointing, now it's full-speed ahead for the players who remain in Carolina blue.
"I think they are going to do great," Latta said. "I can see it in how they communicate. They send me texts about their workouts. A lot of them may have been overshadowed by Diamond, who's definitely a great player. But they get an opportunity to step up and show what they can do.
"I know they are hearing a lot of things about what kind of team they will be, and they are hungry. I'm excited; it gives me goose bumps to think about it."
But she compartmentalizes that, because her primary focus this summer is on the Mystics. In her second season in Washington, Latta is again the team's top scorer (12.4 PPG) as well as its primary playmaker. And she's doing it with an altered cast from the one that made the playoffs last season, losing in the conference semifinals to Atlanta.
Two starters from 2013, Crystal Langhorne and Matee Ajavon, were traded. Another part-time starter, Michelle Snow, isn't playing in the WNBA this season. Tayler Hill, the Mystics' top draft pick in 2013, had a baby earlier this year and just returned to action, playing in her first game this season Tuesday.
Langhorne's departure, in particular, was a big gap to fill, and Thibault knew that it wouldn't all be done by one person. He also knew that Latta was the right traffic cop to get the new-look Mystics running in the right direction in 2014. Even though it was going to take a while to happen.
Which has been the case. Washington is 14-15, but that's good enough for second place in the logjammed, who-knows-how-it-will-end Eastern Conference as we near the conclusion of the regular season.
"As a coach, you have to pay more attention to detail, to scouting reports, to video, to all those things," Thibault said of how Latta's coaching work has impacted her play. "It gives you an appreciation for the work that is involved in getting a team ready to play.
"And because she's learned different things as a pro, as a college coach it gives her credibility to things she's teaching them. They know these are things she's used at the highest level. It helps her teach them because she's had to put that stuff in practice. She was always good about following scouting reports, but I think she's even more prepared coming on court. There is a recognition of, 'I get that.' And she can watch film better."
Latta and returning starters Monique Currie and Kia Vaughn have helped the Mystics blend in newcomers such as veteran guard Kara Lawson, who came via trade from Connecticut, as well as rookies Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson out of UConn.
And Latta is a one-woman cheering section for second-year WNBA player Emma Meesseman, the 21-year-old center from Belgium who's just starting to realize her potential for the Mystics.
"Oh, my goodness, the sky is the limit for her," Latta said. "Great player, great person. One thing about her, you have to tell her to be more selfish. It's hard for her to do."
Latta said consistency is one of the Mystics' biggest struggles this season, but with the personnel changes that was to be expected. Washington has five games left, all against Eastern Conference foes. The Mystics have a chance to solidify a playoff spot and even go into the postseason with a head of steam if they play well enough.
For Latta, this crucial, closing stretch of the regular season is another example of putting to use what she has learned on the sidelines.
"Being at Carolina with those young kids, it taught me to be more patient," she said. "I know as a point guard in this league, you have to be patient. We had a lot of new faces here, and at the beginning of this season I knew I had to be patient and wait for some things to play out.
"Everything is starting to come together, and I feel like we can peak at the right time. Now it seems like we're actually getting it."
Ivory Latta's one season as an assistant coach at North Carolina already has made her a more patient player and helped prime the guard for a bigger leadership role in Washington as the Mystics take aim at a playoff berth.