Above the Clouds: Sky Roll Through First Week in the ‘Wubble’

By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)

Recently, when Stefanie Dolson was asked if the Chicago Sky had revenge on their minds going into their season opener against Las Vegas, she instead voiced her team’s ultimate goal.

“I don’t think it’s specifically just for the Aces. I think they sparked it, but I think in general, we have a lot to prove to everyone,” said Dolson in a media session via Zoom.

The message was clear but subtle: the Sky are focused on the WNBA Finals. That mission is off to an excellent start after wins versus title contenders Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Washington. Even a difficult loss to rival Minnesota has not dampened any expectations the Sky have for this 2020 season, which Azura Stevens summed up simply last week:

“We’re winning the championship.”

Mastering the critics

The Sky started their season with four games in seven days from the WNBA’s contained bubble in Bradenton, Fla., and won three of them, a Herculean feat even considering Las Vegas and Washington were missing key starters. Even in the 83-81 loss to the Lynx, where the Sky had three chances to either tie or take the lead, the team was not happy with their effort.

“I don’t think we had to be there,” said head coach James Wade of the fourth-quarter rally against Minnesota that came up just short. “We’ve had two games where we’ve waited too long. We had the game for the taking, but I don’t think we would’ve deserved it.”

Wade didn’t use the compressed schedule as an excuse. Both the coach and the players understand everyone is dealing with the same limited rest time and know the eventual champion will have to grind their way to the finish line.

“That’s the beauty of this league: we don’t have time to dwell on missed opportunities and missed shots,” said Courtney Vandersloot after the loss to Minnesota. “We have to get ready for a really good Washington team.”

Chicago was indeed ready for Washington Saturday night. Even when the Mystics turned a nine-point deficit into a one-point lead with just over a minute left, Chicago regained the advantage after Cheyenne Parker converted a layup off a nifty pass from Diamond DeShields with six seconds left. Vandersloot then stole the ensuing Washington inbounds to seal the game.

It played out very similar to the opening win against Las Vegas, where Vandersloot scooted baseline to find Allie Quigley, who drained a sidestep three to take the lead. Gabby Williams then knocked the Aces’ inbounds pass into the hands of Dolson.

What’s been good?

Stevens and Parker: The Sky’s lone offseason trade sent square peg rookie Katie Lou Samuelson and Astou Ndour (pronounce that “DOO,” by the way) to Dallas for Stevens and it left some observers scratching their heads. However, “Z” has blossomed in Chicago’s pace-and-space offense, her 14 points and 5.8 rebounds per game are second on the team, and she’s shooting 47 percent from the arc.

At the opposite forward spot, Cheyenne Parker is on a mission for the Most Improved Player award, averaging career highs in nearly every statistical category while keeping on pace to take and make more threes than she’s made in the past two seasons combined. Parker’s infectious energy, which nearly brought the Sky back against the Lynx, has not waned: she totaled nine points, three boards, a steal and a block in that fourth quarter and drew a key charge against Napheesa Collier.

Gabby THREEliams: Williams finally has confidence in her jump shot. The third-year reserve dynamo started the season on a tear, shooting 44% from the arc and if you kick out her 0-6 night against the Lynx, she’s made eight of 12 treys on the season.

Williams remarked that she was finally able to work on what she wanted to work on while playing in France, which led me to believe she would be playing more on the wing, but Wade once again has her running the point and playing at the 4 in small lineups, as well as playing small forward. Parker and Stevens’ presence on the floor, as well as the penetration ability of Sloot, DeShields and Copper, has given Williams wiiiiiide open looks from the perimeter and she’s made them count.

Kah-BOOM: Look out for a friendly competition for that MIP award between Parker and her teammate Kahleah Copper. After signing a big extension in the off-season, Copper is proving Wade and the team right in having faith in her: she’s on pace for career highs across the board and she’s attacking the defensive glass much more.

Copper’s rebounding percentage is seventh in the league among guards who’ve played at least three games. Like everyone else on the roster, she’s taking and making more threes, and she’s been devastating on fast breaks and outlets.  

What’s worrying?

Defense: Those three close games have largely been the byproduct of two things: leaky defense and turnovers. Stevens has been slow off the mark when trying to stay with anyone slicing to the hoop, and she’s had a lot of trouble in the pick-and-roll. Vegas exploited this early, getting Carolyn Swords some easy looks, and Minnesota did the same with Napheesa Collier and Sylvia Fowles.

Chicago ranks near the bottom of the league in turnovers per game, and they can’t blame it on the uptempo offense: none of the four teams above them in pace (Vegas, Phoenix, LA, Connecticut) give the ball away more. Coincidentally, Vandersloot’s TO numbers are her lowest in five seasons, but as the Sky play for the best shot on almost every possession, players like Copper and Parker are looking to pass more, and they aren’t always accurate.

Need more freebies: For all their offensive prowess, the Sky finished 11th in the league in free throw rate last year and have similar trouble getting to the line this year. As of August 2, they’d shot one more free throw than the Liberty in 40 more minutes of game time. Ordinarily, Diamond DeShields would draw fouls with her acrobatic forays to the hoop, but she’s been limited by a balky right knee. Most troubling is Stevens’ lone free throw attempt in 113 minutes this season. In games where the three-pointer isn’t falling, the Sky will need to try and manufacture points from the charity stripe.

Going forward

“Everybody’s tired,” said Wade following last Thursday’s game.

“That’s what champions are made of, the team who will give a little bit more than the team they are playing against.” So it will go for all 12 teams in the W this season, as fatigue and injuries mount quickly during these dog days of August. The Sky’s first extended rest of the season ends Tuesday against Dallas, which starts a stretch of 10 games in 18 days.

Stef Dolson has only played one game and the team will most likely play it safe with her, putting the onus on Parker and Stevens to continue their solid play in the front-court. Wade will also have to figure out how to manage minutes as best he can while giving promising rookie Ruthy Hebard a chance for playing time (the team gets spark plug Sydney Colson back this week as well). If the Sky come out of their busiest stretch with six wins or more and minimal bumps and bruises, they should be in the position for a top-four seed in the playoffs and on beeline to the Semifinals.

Up next: Tonight vs. Wings, 5 pm CT (WCIU)

Until next time, keep your head above the clouds.

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