Season Preview: Chicago, You Have Our Attention

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The Chicago Sky have a legitimate chance to win the 2020 WNBA title. Let’s start there. My biggest recurring nightmare, after all, features a buried lede. 

We’re not operating in that cliched aspirational sphere teams tend to occupy before a season begins. The one where “anything is possible if you just put your mind to it,” all 12 teams are tied for first place, and smiles abound. No. We’re operating in reality. An odd, altered reality, but reality nonetheless. 

The Sky wholeheartedly believe they have the pieces to reach the WNBA’s mountaintop, and you’d be a fool to doubt them. This bunch makes Romeo and Juliet appear to lack chemistry. Their energy is infectious. It’s hard to imagine a group having more fun at work. 

That camaraderie should translate onto the IMG Academy courts in a season where depth and continuity will be paramount. At times, this season may feel like a sprint, not a marathon. Teams adding but a few pieces to an established core hold a distinct advantage over those trying to acclimate a handful of new players. Veterans used to shouldering heavy workloads will see a decline in minutes as coaches attempt to keep everyone fresh and healthy. There will be no hiding at the end of the bench in the Wubble

That’s where this conversation gets interesting. Everyone is familiar with Chicago’s Fab Four – Courtney Vandersloot, Diamond DeShields, Stefanie Dolson, and Allie Quigley. All four appear on the first page of Positive Residual’s new Estimated Contribution metric. Other advanced stats hold them in a similar regard. 

Swell. Four players aren’t enough to take Chicago to the promised land. That’s where the electric supporting cast assembled by coach and general manager James Wade steps in. If the Sky wish to eradicate the rotten stench left behind by Hamby’s Heave, Azurá Stevens, Cheyenne Parker, Ruthy Hebard, Kahleah Copper, Gabby Williams, and Stella Johnson must step up. 

Stevens undoubtedly has the highest upside of the group and figures to join Chicago’s core four come crunch time. The Sky engaged in a Husky exchange back in February, bringing Stevens north. She’s feeling healthy after a foot injury derailed her sophomore campaign and expectations could not be higher

Chicago needs Stevens most on the defensive end. The Sky ranked ninth in defensive rating as opposed to second in offense last season. They allowed more paint points than any other team and ceded the most shots inside five feet by a wide margin. If Chicago wants to make the jump, it must become stingier around the hoop. 

In a highly promising rookie season, Stevens ranked in the league’s 93rd percentile in block percentage. Her length is well-documented and her instincts are way sharper than your average 24-year-old tends to display. Stevens can handle herself on the perimeter, a must for anyone playing the four in the modern WNBA. 

“Obviously, I am six-foot-five,” said Stevens, “so I try to use that to my advantage lengthwise guarding perimeter guards if we’re switching.” 

Offensively, the fit is easy to envision. In Dallas, Stevens proved she could operate down low and hit the three. Players capable of popping behind the arc and rolling to the hoop after setting ball-screens are invaluable. Though Dearica Hamby plays more five than four, she’s a fairly accurate comparison for the type of player Stevens could be in Chicago. 

 

There’s something so creative, sly, and canny in how Stevens plays the game. She’ll fit swimmingly into a system that features tons of movement and off-ball actions, and encourages improvisation. Chicago ranked atop the league in pace of play last season. Similarly to Hamby, Stevens glides down the floor with purpose off misses and turnovers. 

Plenty of people are discussing Stevens in the lead up to opening day. Few are discussing Cheyenne Parker. That’s a bummer because Parker is a treasure and her impact is immense. Would it surprise you to learn that Parker finished 10th in blocks last season while playing fewer minutes than the nine people ahead of her? Or that she was prominently featured in many of Chicago’s most effective three-person lineups last season? Or that she can do things like this?

With an increased role comes increased expectation, and for Parker to truly excel in 2020 she must improve defending in space. 

 

If you are going to hang back in the paint defending the pick and roll, you have to move your feet when the opposing guard comes rumbling towards you. Here, Parker gets caught flat-footed, swiping at a target that has no intention of becoming stationary. In the second possession above, Parker’s attempt at a closeout is cursory; the minute she arrives, she’s been beaten. 

If Parker is able to make these fixes, she’ll form a fascinating frontcourt duo with Stevens while Dolson rests. Excluding those who played under 100 minutes, Parker and Stevens finished top ten in block percentage in 2018. Suddenly, those looks inside five feet seem a lot more daunting. 

Here’s one of my favorite Chicago Sky possessions from 2019:

 

First, we notice the wonderful energy of Kahleah Copper. She forces Lexie Brown to the baseline, completely erasing her path to the basket. Brown realizes this and kicks the rock to Temi Fagbenle, who goes to work on Parker. This ends quite poorly for Minnesota as Parker blocks the stuffing out of Fagbenle’s attempt. 

I’m intrigued to see how Wade utilizes Copper’s skill set in 2020. Staggering DeShields and allowing her extended run with bench units makes a ton of sense, as she’s the best pure scorer on the team. If Copper is able to hold her own as the first person off the bench, it would allow Wade way more rotational flexibility. Copper needs to rediscover her 2018 shooting stroke when she shot over 37 percent from behind the arc. We know she’ll bring defensive hustle and her winning personality. 

“I think it’s just bringing my swag and just bringing that confidence to the team,” said Copper.

Can you imagine a better atmosphere for Chicago’s rookies, Hebard and Johnson, to have entered into? 

“It’s been pretty fun so far,” said Hebard. “I have a great team and they’re all super nice and understanding that I’m a rookie, so it’s been really fun.”

Somehow, Hebard keeps flying under the radar. Wade was overjoyed when she remained available at No. 8 overall in the 2020 WNBA Draft. It’s not hard to see what fueled that reaction. Hebard’s new teammates are equally exuberant about her presence. 

“Man, I love Ruthy,” said Parker. “I love her. Just everything that she brings to the team is great. I love her personality and how she’s picking up very fast on plays [and]the lingo.” 

Hebard’s efficiency was off the charts at Oregon. In 2018-19, she ranked second in the nation in field goal percentage (66.7%) and fourth in effective field goal percentage, per Her Hoop Stats. Before play was suspended in 2019-20, she ranked second (68.5%) and sixth in the same categories. She benefited from playing alongside the country’s best pick and roll partner. Now she goes to work with the best passer in the WNBA. 

“It’s awesome,” Hebard said when I asked her what it’s like running the pick and roll with Vandersloot. “It’s just so fluid. Sometimes, just like [with]Sabrina [Ionescu] it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, here comes the ball!’ Her passing and her timing are just so impeccable. It’s cool to see and to be a part of.” 

While Hebard figures to get plenty of reps with Vandersloot in the future, developing her timing with DeShields is priority number one for 2020. 

Jantel Lavender recently underwent surgery on her left foot and is not with the team in Florida. Therefore, let’s imagine Hebard or Stevens taking her place in the clip above. Here we have DeShields playing primary creator with Chicago’s bench unit, as discussed earlier. Lavender sets a screen on Shenise Johnson, forcing Candice Dupree to switch onto DeShields. Initially, Johnson sticks with the rolling Lavender. Then, DeShields makes a slick pass to Parker at the top of the key. This distracts Johnson, who loses track of Lavender. Parker recognizes it immediately and fires a dart to Lavender for the easy two. A thing of beauty. 

Chicago’s second rookie, Stella Johnson, had a slightly more circuitous path to Chicago. The 29th overall pick was waived by Phoenix in May but stayed primed for action. Late in June, the Sky’s newly acquired backup point guard, Sydney Colson, tested positive for COVID-19. Days later, Johnson’s agent received a call from Chicago. 

“I was just shocked,” said Johnson. “I told my mom, she was really happy. Just shocked still to be here.” 

The unique reality of this season means Johnson may see the floor for meaningful minutes. That’s exciting. Not only did Johnson lead the nation in points per game in 2019-20 with 24.8, but she also nabbed 2.9 steals per game, placing her in the nation’s 99th percentile, per Her Hoop Stats. 

“She seems to have WNBA toughness,” said Wade. “She’s really strong for a guard and she’s efficient for her usage rate.” 

At this point, you may be wondering where Gabby Williams fits into all of this. To that, I’d say, “you and me both!” Williams’s versatility is often the first thing discussed when her name comes up. Will we see her at the backup point guard position as she has played in the past? If Johnson and Copper take those reigns, where can she be most effectively utilized? 

While her fit on this roster may not become clear until Sunday afternoon, her importance in the locker room is immense. It’s a privilege hearing Williams speak on the social justice initiatives the league has undertaken, as well as the recent formation of a Social Justice Council. Instead of wasting your time with a few speculative paragraphs on her defensive switchability and how that impacts Chicago’s ceiling (in short: I don’t know yet), let’s hear from Williams herself:

“I think my biggest thing is I’m just happy that the league has my back. I feel very comfortable speaking on what I want to speak on. My one critique for the league is: A lot of this is performative and I want to see the league do more things that are more than just putting names on shirts, more than just putting names on the court. I think that’s what’s great about this council is that the league now has to listen to the players on what kind of actions to take versus just what kind of things are we going to show, because the awareness is only half the battle. It’s less than half the battle. Now it’s, ‘what kinds of actions are we taking?’” 

The Sky are working with By The Hand and will be partnering with numerous other charities throughout the 2020 season. 

On-court, what will make 2020 a success for Chicago? The goal should be to nab a top-two seed, eliminating any chance of knockout game heartbreak. I believe that will happen. From there, things get hazier. Seattle poses the biggest threat to Chicago’s championship aspirations. If Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart are healthy and producing at their 2018 rates, it’s hard to envision the Sky topping the Storm. 

Then again, we know better than to doubt Chicago. 

Said Kahleah Copper, “Yeah, I think this team top to bottom is probably the best.” 

 

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