The Impact of the Chicago Sky’s Other Wings.

On Tuesday I briefly discussed the Chicago Sky’s all-star wing, Diamond DeShields, and what to look for from her this year. Matt Ellentuck had a great piece on her in his newsletter as well. DeShields has the talent to be a top 10 player in the WNBA, but so far this year she has been battling a knee issue which has somewhat limited her.

With DeShields not at 100%, both Gabby Williams and Kahleah Copper have shown the impact they can have for the Sky, and the struggles the Sky will have if neither play well.  Copper is 6’1” and has excellent straight line speed and the burst to get to the rim even against opponents playing her to drive. Gabby Williams is 6’ and more of a fluid athlete who has enough of a burst to put pressure on the rim and use her passing to set up her teammates. Both players have been limited in the WNBA by their lack of an outside shot, to varying degrees.

Both show the peril and promise of drafting wings who can not shoot 3s. At the college and high school level, wings with the size and athleticism of Copper and Williams are able to have success and dominate without being able to shoot. They are just so much bigger and more athletic than their competition, that someone like Gabby Williams can go her final 3 years at Uconn, take only 1 three pointer the entire time, and still be effective.

In the WNBA, that does not work nearly as well. The WNBA is the first time in these player’s careers that they have had to consistently play against women who are as big and as athletic as they are. The good news for the Sky is that both players have clearly worked to expand their range.  The bad news is that working hard at shooting does not always translate into sustained success.

However, a wing who can shoot 3s, like Ariel Atkins, is a force multiplier for her team. They can defend 3 or 4 positions, and cause fits to the other team trying to matchup with their size and strength. So it makes sense teams continue to draft them high, see almost every Liberty draft pick after Sabrina Ionescue.

Copper is only at 20% so far this year from 3, but she has shown in the past more shooting ability. For someone with the speed of Copper, willingness to shoot is almost as important as the actual results. She can sometimes beat an opponent to the rim who is sagging off. Making them take a step or two closer is only going to help. So far in this young season she is up from 2.8 attempts from 3 per 36 minutes to 4.9 attempts. Keeping that willingness to fire will only help her game, though of course seeing a few more go in would be nice.

Williams opened the season 4 for 7 from 3 through 2 games, but then threw up an 0 for 6 stinker last night and is now shooting 30% from 3. If she can settle into the low to mid 30s, that would be a huge step for her game, as she shot 17% from 3 in 2019. With a functional three point shot, she becomes an excellent second side shot creator, with the ability to attack a closeout and make the next pass. To play with the Sky starters Williams needs to be a threat off ball, cause both DeShields and Vandersloot deserve to have the ball in their hands. So far a marked improvement over prior seasons.

Both players ability to shoot becomes even more important in the playoffs. In the playoffs, spot up shooters are easier to scout as teams prepare for a specific opponent and they dial into the shooters. People rightly focused on the shooting of the Mystics, but the other aspect of their success was in the finals they were putting 4 players out there who could all attack a closeout, and either finish at the rim or make the next pass. Cloud, Toliver, Meesseman and Delle Donne were all more than just shooters. For all the value of a Shekinna Stricklen type shooter, her inability to punish a hard closeout does limit her impact in those moments.

Looking beyond 2020, The Sky will have big decisions to make after the 2021 season. Copper already got paid, a deal I am so far happy I did not criticize, though it looked like a lot of money for a backup wing at the time. However, Williams and DeShields are on their rookie contracts through the 2021 season. A wing like Gabby Williams who can shoot, if the shooting is truly improved, is a player teams are going to covet. She would be a great fit next to any superstar in the league. While a max contract for someone who may not have the upside to be a primary shot creator on a playoff team is a lot to swallow, she very well may get one. How the Sky juggle their pieces will be something to watch.

2020 WNBA Season Preview: Chicago Sky

While no player is guaranteed to be playing this year until the season actually tips off in Bradenton, Florida, we are getting a sense of what the rosters will look like.  Renee Montgomery, Jonquel Jones, Kristi Toliver, Chiney Ogwumike, and Natasha Cloud are prominent players who have announced they will not be playing this year.

Jones in particular will have a big impact on the actual season, as she was the second best player in the W last year and was an integral part of how the Connecticut Sun played. But that is for the Sun preview piece, coming in a couple of weeks.

The Chicago Sky for now have 10 players, with the news of Jantel Lavender’s surgery on her foot. I will be updating my season preview pieces as we go to reflect changes, though I will clearly mark where updates happened based on new info. 

The Sky were unlucky to not move on and play in the semifinals against the Washington Mystics. The Aces were good, but that was a 50/50 game. In hindsight some seem to view the Aces as the clearcut second best team in the WNBA last year, but I can’t get there, given they scraped by the Sky. The WNBA should revisit their playoff structure, since this would have been a wonderful matchup to have a best of 5, or at least best of 3, series.

The Sky going into a normal season would have needed some luck to make the semifinals. But given the rosters as they stand, they have a chance at making the finals. Even with the news that Jantel Lavender is missing the season with a foot injury, they have more continuity than any other team, while they have a young player in Diamond DeShields who has the opportunity to be a top 5 player in the WNBA.

Roster Breakdown:

Notable additions: Azurá Stevens

Notable losses: Astou Ndou, Jantel Lavender (injury)

1st round draft pick: Ruthy Hebard

Guards: Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Stella Johnson, 

Wings: Diamond DeShields, Gabby Williams, Kahleah Copper

Bigs: Stefanie Dolson, Azurá Stevens, Ruthy Hebard, Cheyenne Parker.

Stella Johnson is a player I am excited to see this year. A silver lining of this year’s playing situation is getting to see so many young players make rosters. Hopefully Ruthy Hebard gets some playing time, to see how she does finishing against WNBA length and holds up on the defensive end.

Playing Time breakdown:

Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley are the starting back court. They need to keep up their offensive output, and for Quigley ensure that they are not too liable on defense, to make this team work. But they are the steady, consistent part of the team. Watching two players who are married to each other play at such a high level is one reason the WNBA is an amazing league to watch.

Diamond DeShields is the biggest swing player for this team. At her peak, she has top 5 in the WNBA level talent. She, like many athletic wings, including both of her teammates Gabby Williams and Kahleah Copper, have to figure out how to maximize their games when their opponents are nearly as athletic.

For Diamond, she already has a functional 3 point shot, is the most devastating transition player in the W, and has a decent handle. Year 3 is time for her to tighten her handle, improve her playmaking for others, and take the next step. 

Gabby Williams as backup point guard will probably not be tried again, but the Sky getting something out of her would be great for their eventual championship aspirations. Williams was drafted fourth behind DeShields, and has not lived up to her draft spot yet. Her issue is mainly her shot has not developed. 

She plays a position of need in modern basketball, as an athletic 5’11” wing, but is not dynamic enough to function as the one non-shooting player on the floor. This is a big year, since if she does not show improvement, the Sky will have a tough decision to make as to what kind of contract to offer her. 

Stefanie Dolson is a fine option at center. While she is definitely a tier below the upper tier of WNBA centers, she is good enough to play on a team that nearly beat Liz Cambage and the Aces. While cutting down on her foul rate would help, she is a stretch 5 who provides decent rim protection, better than her block numbers would indicate.

The four is the most open position on this team. A healthy Azurá Stevens would be my choice, as her shooting would help create acres of space for DeShields and Vandersloot to attack the basket with Dolson also spacing the floor. She can also provide more rim protection than the other options, though she may be a bit overtaxed chasing some fours. 

Diamond Deshields should get some time as a small ball 4 next to Kahleah Copper. Plenty of matchups should present themselves where she has more than enough size and athleticism to hold her own on defense, and good luck to a more traditional four forced to defend Copper or DeShields.

Cheyenne Parker has made some strides to expand her game out to the three point line, but I am not convinced she will be effective enough against starters, though James Wade starting her would not be a surprise. Parker showing improving passing would help, as she can get tunnel vision when she catches the ball, and teams might take advantage by trapping Vandersloot in the pick and roll and forcing Parker to make plays 4 on 3 at the three point line.

The Sky should be aiming for the finals, as things stand. Semifinals are a realistic goal, anything less than a top 4 finish would be a bit of a disappointment. Four of their starters are set and this will be the third year they have played together, something that should help in such a compressed season.