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2020 WNBA Season Preview: Why the Sky are poised for special season

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The WNBA season tips off Saturday at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and with it, a 22-game mad dash to a traditional eight-team postseason. Eventually, the hope is that a 2020 champion will be crowned.

Chicago fans have to like the Sky’s chances of ending up in that mix. Fresh off a breakout 2019 season, and bolstered by a blend of star, veteran and young talent alike, the Sky entered the “Wubble” as one of the more electrifying squads in the league. Add the fact that they’ll return most of the nucleus from a team that went 20-14 last season, and there’s a reason confidence, chemistry and hyper-focus define this group, even in an unprecedented 2020 season that will feature a breakneck game schedule.

“We’re gonna be in the running to win a championship,” Gabby Williams said last week at her media day press conference. “I think that’s the expectation we all have. We’re not thinking playoffs, we’re not thinking 20-win, whatever. We’re thinking about winning a championship.”

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So, how did we get here, and how do the Sky stack up entering the campaign? Here’s a quick primer to get you caught up before they open play Sunday at 2 p.m. CT with a primetime matchup against the Las Vegas Aces.

How last season went

And isn’t it perfect that the season is set to kick off against Vegas? It was the Aces, after all, that ended Chicago’s 2019 in about as soul-crushing fashion as you could script in the second round of the single-elimination phase of the playoffs. In case you’re feeling particularly masochistic on this fine Saturday morning...

 

That shot was the difference between a semifinal berth and the offseason. But don’t let a heartbreaking finale belie what was an awesome season for the Sky. In it *deep inhale* they vaulted from 13-21 in 2018 to 20-14 in 2019, made the playoffs for the first time since 2016, first-year coach James Wade took home Coach of the Year honors, Diamond DeShields made her first All-Star team at age 24, Allie Quigley made her third All-Star appearance in a row, and Courtney Vandersloot led the league in assists for the third consecutive season (breaking the W’s single-season assist record for the second straight year). This team is fun as hell, and there’s no reason that shouldn’t continue.

Offseason recap

In an offseason period that saw many of the W’s brightest stars change squads, the Sky kept their core mostly intact. Vandersloot, Quigley, two-time All-Star Stefanie Dolson and high-energy reserve wing Kahleah Copper all get fresh deals, and key contributors Williams and Cheyenne Parker return, as well. That cohesion year-to-year should pay major dividends, especially in a season as uneven as this one.

The team’s biggest additions came by way of draft and trade. With the No. 8 pick in the first round of the 2020 draft, the Sky selected forward Ruthy Hebard, who averaged 17.3 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.3 “stocks” per game on gaudy 68.5 percent field goal shooting in her senior season at Oregon. Her pick-and-roll chemistry with Sabrina Ionescu in college has many salivating at her fit alongside Vandersloot, one of the best point guards in the history of the game, and Hebard’s presence inside should help a team with questions in the frontcourt.

  

Months prior to the draft, the Sky parted ways with 2019 No. 4 pick Katie Lou Samuelson (7.6 mpg, 2.4 ppg in 20 games with Chicago) in a trade that returned forward Azurá Stevens from the Dallas Wings. Hampered by a foot injury, Stevens appeared in just nine games for Dallas in 2019, but now recovered, could be an X-factor up front; she earned All-Rookie honors after averaging 8.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in 2018. At media day, Wade and Stevens reported her feeling healthy, practicing regularly and gelling nicely with a team known for its chemistry.

Also on the trade front: The Sky jumped in to help facilitate a deal between the Wings and Phoenix Mercury centered around Skylar Diggins-Smith, with Chicago swapping promising young forward/center Astou Ndour for a 2021 first-round pick from Dallas (and, in turn, the cap flexibility needed to retain core pieces).

Sydney Colson, plucked from the Aces backcourt, represents the team’s biggest free agent signing. As of recent reports, Colson has yet to join the team in Bradenton after testing positive for the COVID-19 in June; she’ll need to produce two negative tests before traveling. The Sky also signed rookie guard Stella Johnson, who led the nation in scoring as a senior at Rider University, after Johnson was drafted No. 29 overall then released by the Mercury.

And crucially, the Sky enter the “Wubble” without last season’s leading rebounder (6.9 per game), forward Jantel Lavender. Lavender’s 2019 campaign was cut short after 23 contests following foot surgery in August 2019; another operation to address a fifth metatarsal fracture in her left foot in June 2020 will keep her out for this season as well. Lavender and Colson’s veteran leadership is evidently missed around the team, but resolve remains strong.

All of that adds up to an 11-player roster rolling into the opener. Ten until (health willing) Colson returns. In a season where games flow roughly every other day, keep an eye on how players handle recovery, both physical and mental, and Wade handles rotations.

Profile

Losing Lavender to injury and Ndour to trade stings for a Sky team that ranked in the middle of the league in both defensive rating and rebounding rate in 2019. Dolson — who’s “totally good” after testing positive for COVID-19 a few months back — Hebard, Parker and Stevens will rally to help fill that gap.

“The fact that we lost Jantel, she was a huge part of our team last year,” Dolson said on media day. “So I think all of us post players, we need to step up a little bit more because of that.”

The good news is, the Sky’s identity as an explosive offensive team remains unimpeachably intact. In 2019, the Sky boasted the second-best offensive rating (lol Mystics), assist rate, effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage in the W, and played at the quickest pace (99.5 possessions per game). And they still have the league leader in assists — by a mile — in Vandersloot, perhaps the W’s sharpest shooter in Quigley, and a budding, bucket-getting superstar in DeShields. Quite the engines, there, and with more-than-solid depth flanking them.

Most prognosticators peg the Sky as just outside the powerhouse tier inhabited by such squads as the Seattle Storm and Los Angeles Sparks. But in a shortened season flush with unknowable variables, and given the talent and continuity on the roster, Chicago can’t be counted out as a dark horse contender. DeShields taking another leap towards superstardom after averaging 16.2 points (8th in the W) on 25.1 percent usage (11th among starters, min. 5 games) in just her second season will be key to that mission.

“She has a generational talent as far as her athleticism, her feel for the game, and there’s some things you just really can’t teach and they naturally come to her,” Wade said on media day. “Now, it’s gonna be the relationship on the floor with her teammates, and using them to make her job easier, and just dominating as much with her athletic ability on both sides of the floor.”

What are Sky players doing to highlight social injustice?

Colson announced via social media weeks ago that she’ll be honoring Breonna Taylor, who was wrongfully shot and killed in March after three Louisville Metro Police officers entered her apartment executing a search warrant, on the back of her jersey. Colson also serves on the WNBA’s social justice council.

 

Wade penned a beautiful, gut-wrenching piece in The Players’ Tribune detailing his experiences with racism and the societal realities they underscore. It’s raw, poignant and well worth a read.

And Williams and Dolson, among others, highlighted a team-wide commitment to community engagement in Chicago in their media day comments. According to Williams, the Sky will be donating $10 for every point scored and $100 for every win to By The Hand, an organization which provides after-school programming for children who live in under-resourced neighborhoods in Chicago. Williams will also specifically be working with the Chicago Bond Fund, and Dolson with Brave Space Alliance, a Black-led, trans-led LGBTQ resource center on the South Side of Chicago.

“I think it’s great to, you know, have ‘Black Lives Matter’ written on the court, Breonna Taylor’s name, and all these things need to be shown. But they need to go beyond just awareness. It needs to go beyond performatives,” Williams said. “And us as a team, we all wanted to do something that felt personal and felt like we were taking action.”

 

Their season tips off Sunday at 2 p.m. CT. All signs point to it being a special one.