When Chicago Sky head coach and general manager James Wade lured Candace Parker away from the team that drafted her, it sent shockwaves through the Chicago sports landscape. Months have gone by and the talk of Parker’s homecoming is still ongoing. With the Sky’s season starting today, it is time to set aside offseason chatter and focus on the on-court product.
Chicago is about to vie for its first championship in the franchise’s history. Adding Parker to a core of All-WNBA point guard Courtney Vandersloot and all-stars Allie Quigley and Diamond Deshields certainly helps elevate the chances of achieving that goal.
Now that the offseason is officially over, here are the main storylines fans should be paying attention to during this 32-game marathon.
The resurgence of Diamond DeShields
During media day, a reporter asked DeShields if there were any games circled on her calendar heading into the season.
“Yeah, I got picked on when I was down,” said DeShields, referring to when she battled multiple lower body injuries in 2020. “I kind of got kicked when I was down and I definitely took note of it so stay tuned.”
The last time the WNBA saw a fully healthy Diamond DeShields, she went to her first all-star game in 2019 and became only the tenth player in league history to average at least 24 points, five rebounds, and two assists per game in one playoffs. She has everything a player needs to become a superstar. If DeShields and the team had stayed healthy last year, Chicago might have had enough talent to make a deep playoff run without the addition of Candace Parker.
After leaving the Wubble early, DeShields used the offseason to get stronger and was unrestricted in training camp. She also took a lot of contact in the first two preseason games versus the Indiana Fever, getting to the line 15 times in 48 minutes of action.
DeShields has put the league on notice. No one will be surprised if she regains her status amongst WNBA royalty.
Chicago is re-energized on the defensive front
Since 2019, the Sky have surrendered the third-most points in the paint to opponents. Adding the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Parker surely helps alleviate thepressure on that side of the ball, but the front court will also be rejuvenated defensively by having Azurá Stevens back in the lineup.The 6’6” forward was seventh in the WNBA in block percentage (one slot behind Parker) last season before she left the Wubble after dealing with an osteochondral defect in her left knee.
Going back to Parker, one of the underrated aspects of her game is how infrequently she fouls players when they test her at the rim. Cheyenne Parker, who played 24.9 minutes per game for the Sky last season, and Stevens both were in the bottom ten in personal fouls committed per game. Parker’s maturity on the defensive end of the floor will keep the pace moving which is exactly how James Wade would like to keep it.
The duo to look out for this season will be DeShields and rising combo forward Kahleah Copper. When asked on media day what to expect from her and Copper defensively this season, DeShields said one word: “chaos.”
Defense has been the main focus in training camp and if the team ends up being a slightly above-average defensive unit, teams won’t be able to match Chicago’s offensive firepower.
Staying healthy through 32 games
Chicago’s 5-2 start had its fanbase believing it was ready to win a championship in 2020. Even as DeShields was working her way back to full health, the Sky led the league in points per game (88.7) and offensive rating (104.9).
The wheels fell off once DeShields and Stevens left the bubble, but Chicago used the offseason to rebound from its difficulties staying healthy. Vandersloot and Quigley both uncharacteristically had some time off before the start of the WNBA season after leading UMMC Ekaterinburg through an undefeated overseas campaign. Stefanie Dolson, whose 18.2 minutes per game last year were her lowest total since her rookie year, has reportedly lost 28 pounds this offseason and appears to be in great shape.
To ensure the team doesn’t peak too early, Wade is also planning on managing Stevens’s minutes at the beginning of the year.
“[Stevens] is coming along,” said Wade during a press conference on April 30. “She’s good and we have something set up for her where we don’t overextend her as far as minutes are concerned. You’ll probably see some limitations as far as minutes [go]but probably not anything you wouldn’t notice like 20 minutes. We just don’t want to get her in the 30s early but at some point she will get there.”
The team has all the talent it needs to win the Finals this year. Even with one glaring hole looming over it (addressed in the next section), Chicago will be a tough out in the playoffs if it manages to stay healthy throughout 2021.
Who is going to back up Sloot early on?
One of the biggest question marks the team faces heading into the season is whether Chicago can keep the offense afloat when All-World point guard Courtney Vandersloot is off the floor. In the Wubble, the Sky had an offensive rating of 9.3 when Vandersloot was on the floor but it plummeted to -18.7 when she took a seat.
If the Sky are going to contend this season, they are going to need 19-year-old first round pick Shyla Heal to lead the second unit at some point this year. Heal, who has played professional basketball in Australia before she could legally drive a car, might be more pro-ready than a lot of experts are predicting. Her off-ball movement is advanced for someone her age and she can create space for herself with a step-back jumper that should translate well to the WNBA early on.
However, Heal hasn’t participated in the team’s training camp due to complications with her visa. Right now, it appears recently acquired guard Stephanie Watts will lead the second unit during the first couple weeks of the season, but she also hasn’t had time to learn Wade’s system. There’s also a chance the Sky re-sign guard Brittany Boyd after she was released on May 13.
Whoever Wade decides to hand the offense over to will have one job: make sure the ship doesn’t sink when Vandersloot is off of the floor.
Kahleah Copper entering the starting/closing lineup
Copper was one of the bright spots of the Wubble last season and had a coming out party in her second year under Wade. She upped her points per game total from 6.7 in 2019 to 14.8 in 2020 while filling in for DeShields.
After establishing herself as one of the Sky’s more reliable finishers at the rim and showcasing her ability to switch on defense, Wade might look to insert Copper into his closing lineups and move three-time all-star Allie Quigley to the bench.We saw this on occasion last year but it might be more frequent as Copper continues to impress in training camp.
Let’s not forget who Quigley is: she is one of the greatest shooters in basketball history and was voted the best pure shooter in the WNBA’s GM survey this year. With the distribution of wealth on offense, Chicago might see Quigley’s most efficient season to date since she joined the team in 2013. There will be occasions when she closes games, but Copper has earned the right to be a part of this conversation.
Bonus storyline: Candace Parker’s MVP odds
I managed to get this far without extensively bringing up Parker but it’s impossible to resist the intrigue of the former MVP adding yet another award to her inventory of accolades.
The MVP is a narrative-based award and Parker’s homecoming will be eaten up by award voters in the way Joey Chesnut devours hot dogs. Right now, DraftKings has her MVP odds set at +800. Gamblers should place their bets now before Parker’s play drops those odds.