Above the Clouds: Sky Starring In “A Tale of Two Teams”

Chris Pennant has covered the Chicago Sky since 2015. Follow his “Above the Clouds” column each Thursday to follow the Sky throughout the WNBA season.

By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)

You can forgive the Chicago Sky if they’re not exactly thrilled about their upcoming two-game road trip.

The Sky have played three games at home and won all three, including Tuesday’s victory over the Phoenix Mercury, and they’ve lost both road games on their schedule. Where they have succeeded at home by shooting well and rebounding the ball, they have been unable to do either on the road.

The Sky are better than last year and have shown signs they are capable of making the playoffs, but they’ll have to figure out a way to win away from Wintrust Arena.

Slooty out of her slump?

Courtney Vandersloot registered a typically understated performance against Phoenix. She scored 10 of her 17 points in the second half to go along with eight assists, and closed the game out with a breathtaking layup over the outstretched arm of Brittney Griner.

Tuesday’s game aside, Vandersloot has started slowly this season. She’s averaging 9.8 points and eight assists on 40 percent shooting after five games, compared to 11.6 points and six assists on 51 percent shooting over the first five contests last year. Granted, the Sky are 3-2 this year as opposed to 1-4 in the same span last season, but Vandersloot has shot only 27 percent from the field in the two losses and she’s averaging nearly one more turnover per game than last season. Her free throw rate (12.8) and true shooting percentage (49.4) are also career lows.

Vandersloot’s passing and control of the game drives the Sky; if she plays well, they are tough to beat. If Tuesday was an indication of her season to come, they will go far.

Defense still questionable

Before the start of the season, Sky head coach James Wade noted the team’s poor defense over the past years, but said he wasn’t going to increase the team’s focus on defense as their roster didn’t really fit that idea. Wade’s philosophy has produced mixed results so far. The Sky are eighth in points allowed per game and ninth in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), better than 2018. They’re also middle of the pack in defensive rebounds (fourth) and defensive rebounding percentage (sixth). However, they are dead last in opponent PPG off turnovers (20.0) and second-chance points (14.8).

The dirty little secret of the Sky’s defensive struggles? Their starting backcourt of Vandersloot and Allie Quigley are not great at maneuvering through screens or defending quicker guards, which allows easy midrange jumpers or shots in the paint for the opposition. Of the 34 WNBA players averaging 27 minutes or more, Quigley and Vandersloot are last and second to last in defensive rating. Quigley ranks 33rd for plus-minus in the same group, with Vandersloot one spot ahead.

Plus-minus is skewed somewhat because of the Sky’s lopsided road losses and, in particular, their dreadful scoring in the middle quarters. Chicago is minus-33 in second and third quarter points and have been outscored 104-59 in those two periods in their losses.

Cheyenne Parker has been a bright spot for Chicago’s defense. Parker is top-10 in the W in offensive, defensive and total rebounding percentage, and 19th in defensive rating (of players averaging at least 14 MPG). She and Stefanie Dolson combined to hold Griner to her season average of 16 points, but DeWanna Bonner (28 points, 12 boards, six assists) had a field day against Chicago’s defense.

Napheesa Collier memorably cut up Chicago in their opening game and the Mystics shot 50 percent against them, so Bonner’s big game isn’t an outlier. Wade and his coaching staff must figure out a way to utilize his team’s skillset to make up for his team’s defensive shortcomings.

Trying to do more with less

The Sky received some bad news in advance of the road trip. Rookie forward Katie Lou Samuelson sustained a broken wrist in the June 9 win over Seattle. According to the Sun-Times’ Madeline Kenney, Samuelson will be in a cast at least three weeks and there is no timetable for her return to action.

The Sky used their injury hardship exception and re-signed Victoria Macaulay, who was cut in preseason. This gives them ten active players on the roster. Jamierra Faulkner is still rehabbing from ACL surgery and Astou Ndour is in Spain for the Eurobasket tournament.

However, they won’t be facing the best of the league on the trip. The New York Liberty lost their first four games before defeating Las Vegas and Minnesota last week, and the Indiana Fever lost their last two at home to Phoenix and Seattle, whom the Sky have already beaten.

Wade was upbeat after the win against the Mercury, saying to Kenney afterward, “We want to be a team that’s hard to play against. We want to be a winning team.” So far, the Sky have been tough at home. Now they need to prove themselves on the road.

Chicago faces Indiana on June 15 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Beast of the Week: After opening the season with a scoreless game, Diamond DeShields has posted 20 or more points in three of the last four games. Her three-point shooting stroke looks much better than last season, and her 45.8 percent shooting confirms this (32.8% in 2018).

Until next week, keep your head above the clouds.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and WNBA.com

Chris Pennant covers professional basketball for WARR Media
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