Somebody Step Up: The Chicago Sky’s New Era Shouldn’t be Overlooked

In an offseason where many considered the Sky might be falling in Chicago, those within the organization didn’t believe in this potential Armageddon. In the opening five games of the 2023 season, the Chicago Sky have grabbed three wins with a fully retooled roster.

The 2021 champs lost much of their core with the departures of Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot, and Allie Quigley; Azurá Stevens left for Los Angeles, and Emma Meesseman has remained overseas, leaving the keys of the franchise to Kahleah Copper.

Dealing with that much turnover often leads to a team stripped down to the studs, entering a full rebuild. But, the WNBA’s last dual-hatted head coach/GM, James Wade, had other ideas.

Wade pushed to structure deals that would allow his team to remain in contention, bringing in high-powered scorer Marina Mabrey in a four-team trade, before she signed a three-year extension with the Sky. Courtney Williams signed a one-year deal during free agency, and second-year guard Rebekah Gardner re-signed with the team for this season. Izzy Harrison, who is currently out while recovering from surgery to repair a torn left meniscus, signed with Chicago during the offseason after four seasons with the Dallas Wings.

The new-look Sky started the season with two consecutive wins over the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury. Chicago then dropped their home opener against the Washington Mystics, a game they lost by only two points, prior to bouncing back to get their first home win of the season against Dallas.

Facilitation and finding the right person on offense has been a focal point for Wade and his players. To this point in the season, the Sky have averaged 20.4 assists per game (APG), a mark good for third-best in the league.

“It takes the pressure off any one person feeling like they have to do it all,” Mabrey said. “I know that my teammates are going to pass to me when I’m open, so whenever I see somebody step up, I’m going to make that pass right away. It makes it a lot easier to play the game.”

Defensive strength and effort is another primary focus for Chicago, hoping to crowd the opposing team’s primary scorer into settling for difficult shots. In the Sky’s recent win against Dallas, Wings’ star Arike Ogunbowale was the game’s leading scorer, hitting in bunches early on—6-for-12 from the field and 2-for-5 from three in the first half. Wade spoke to adjustments that the team made at halftime in order to make life a bit more difficult for Ogunbowale.

“We looked at film at halftime, looking at spots where she was catching the ball and how she was able to get downhill. So, we tried to shift our defense a little bit to where she felt more crowded.”

In that second half, the Sky held Ogunbowale to a mere 3-for-13 from the field, helping the Sky squeak out a 94-88 victory.

Unfortunately, injuries have become an issue in Sky town. Alongside Harrison, Gardner and Morgan Bertsch have missed the past two games, leaving Chicago to play with nine players as Ruthy Hebard is also not available while out on maternity leave.

Gardner brings a little bit of everything in the guard spot off the bench, especially on the defensive end of the floor. In only three games this season, she has six total steals and is averaging 3.7 rebounds per game (RPG), a strong number in the backcourt position. She will be out indefinitely while recovering from a successful foot surgery, the team announced on Thursday and reported by Annie Costabile of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Bertsch brings a strong presence surrounding the rim, which the team needs in the forward spot due to the absence of Harrison. Bertsch started the first three games in the frontcourt, prior to missing the past two contests due to the ankle injury. Forward Sika Koné—who was brought in just prior to the season after being waived by the New York Liberty—helps bring frontcourt energy off the bench.

“I’ve liked Sika for a long time, I knew that (energy) was something that she can always provide, you will see it as the season goes on,” Wade said. “She’s probably one of the most high-octane players that you can have.”

As Koné joined the team once training camp was over, she is still getting used to the system and learning on the fly during game action. “Her not really having consistent practice with us…she’s just playing, just hooping,” Wade said. “Our vets—Courtney (Williams), Kah, Marina, Dana (Evans), and Elizabeth (Williams)—they do a really good job of coaching her in the game.” 

In only two games in a Sky uniform, Koné is contributing 8.0 points per game (PPG) and 7.0 RPG in only 18.6 minutes per game (MPG).

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After the win against Dallas, Chicago couldn’t get their fourth win of the season in Atlanta, losing to the Dream by 18 points. A lapse in defense and focusing more on the offensive side hindered the Sky’s ability to stop opposing buckets from flowing in at a pace they couldn’t keep up with. 

“This is the first game where I thought we didn’t have the same effort,” Wade said after the loss to Atlanta. “I thought our offense affected our defense. Our team can’t be that way, we can’t find success in that. Because someone may have a (high scoring game), that can’t be who they are now. Who they are has to start on the defensive end.” 

The group’s success seems to hinge on their defensive ability, where they have shown strength in all games prior to the Dream loss. Chicago is holding their opponents to a 38.9 percent field goal percentage and 32.3 percent three-point percentage, according to HerHoopStats. Both numbers are the third-best opposing shooting rates in the league.

The Sky have shown that they are looking to contend in the W. There will likely be more ups and downs as the new-look group continues to jell and work through injury-shortened rotations. However, in the early season, Chicago has proven its ability to compete with any team in the league.

Copper has seen success in the early going, averaging 14.6 PPG and 5.0 RPG, drawing the opposition to cater their game plans to center around her. Should the Sky see an upward trajectory and push for a top-four playoff seed, Copper can be a candidate for the league’s Most Valuable Player award.

The Sky look to bounce back defensively in a tough test against the star-studded Liberty on Friday, June 2 at Wintrust Arena, in Courtney Vandersloot’s return to Chicago.

Stats as of 6/2/23 and, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of WNBA Stats.

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