July 29, 2020
Azurá Stevens, Gabby Williams resume connection with Chicago
The Sky get their second win on the back of a familiar duo
Welcome to The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited and photographed by our young, diverse staff, dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives and projections about the game we love.
Subscribe to make sure this vital work, creating a pipeline of young, diverse media professionals to write, edit and photograph the great game, continues and grows. Subscriptions include some exclusive content, but the reason for subscriptions is a simple one: making sure our writers and editors creating 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage get paid to do it.
PALMETTO, FL- JULY 28: Courtney Vandersloot #22 of the Chicago Sky handles the ball against the Los Angeles Sparks on July 28, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida.
Azurá Stevens stared down her teammate Gabby Williams while she sprinted up the floor in transition during Tuesday night’s 98-76 win over the Sparks.
Newly reunited, the two hadn’t connected yet on an assist in the WNBA. But the third-year forward knew her former UConn teammate well enough to expect the incoming pocket pass.
Stevens jogged back down the court smiling like a kid playing pickup with her friends, rather than somebody who’d just put her team up 17 over a championship contender in the Los Angeles Sparks.
“I think Gabby’s like a sister to me so that play was pretty special,” Stevens said in a post-game presser. “Just her hitting me on that cut. And I love playing with her. I’ve missed the couple years that I wasn’t playing with her.
The once-again teammates helped lift the Sky on both ends of the floor Tuesday night. Stevens finished with 21 points, eight rebounds, four assists, a steal and two blocks. Williams also stuffed the stat sheet with 11 points, five assists, five rebounds and four steals. The duo shot a combined 7-of-eleven from deep.
Stevens, who arrived from the Dallas Wings in exchange for 2019 Chicago first-round draft pick Katie Lou Samuelson and a 2021 first-round draft pick, has fit right in on the Sky.
“We play so well together,” Stevens said. “We really do have genuine team chemistry. And I think on this level that’s really important because a lot of teams don’t have that.”
The third-year forward scored 12 points in her Sky debut and impressed again in Tuesday night’s game. Stevens helped stem the Sparks’ various runs in the second half after her slow start shooting the ball. Even as she continues to find her spots inside, her effectiveness around the perimeter has translated immediately.
“Again, I just credit it to this organization for believing in me as a player, something I didn’t have in a different organization,” Stevens said. “And just accepting me for the player that I am.”
Many expected Stevens, who didn’t shy away from shooting her rookie year, to stretch the floor for the Sky. But the jump shot has always been the looming question mark for Williams, who only made seven threes in 33 games last season. Williams continues to look aggressive both shooting the ball and on offense in general.
“She’s complete,” head coach and general manager James Wade said after the game. “This is something that we expected from her.”
Wade said that the Sky are now seeing the benefits from playing Williams at the point last season. Even if Williams’ three-point shooting (four-for-seven on the season) doesn’t remain this sharp, her confidence on offense has turned her into a much more defined weapon.
Although Williams’ skill in the halfcourt has helped elevate Chicago’s offense, it’s transition play that continues to make the Sky dangerous.
Chicago’s three starting guards — Kahleah Copper, Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot — all finished with 11 or more points in the win. Copper scored 14 of her 19 points in the paint and Vandersloot dished out 10 assists with zero turnovers. Quigley bounced back from a tough game shooting the ball and scored 11 points on 50% shooting from the field.
“It’s something that plays to our advantage,” Wade said. “We want to be aggressive and play at a great pace and that’s just something that’s embedded in us so we were happy with the results tonight.”
The Sky are at their best when they’re slinging the ball around in their turbo-charged attack. Los Angeles was able to crawl back into the game in the first half when Chicago slowed down and stopped moving the ball.
Players like Copper and Williams can be dangerous in one-on-one matchups, but they’re at their best when they can attack off-balance defenders and force the defense to either collapse or give up the easy bucket. Chicago will continue to try and run teams out of the gym, but they’ll need to avoid settling into bad habits in the half court.
Chicago announces Sky Takes Action campaign
Chicago announced its Sky Takes Action campaign ahead of tip off, a donation campaign that will benefit organizations in the Chicagoland area working locally in the field of community empowerment.
Sky players will donate $10 for every point team scored, $100 for every win and $50 for any loss throughout the season. The donations will be distributed to By the Hand Club for Kids, BYP100, The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), Firehouse Community Arts Center of Chicago and Future Ties. Sky players will be donating an additional $1,060 following Tuesday night’s game.
“Sky Takes Action is just something we came up with as a team, a way that we wanted to dedicate this season to fighting for justice and playing for something bigger than ourselves,” Stevens said after the game.
Stevens, along with other players across the league, has prefaced media availability demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency room technician who was killed by Louisville police in March. The Louisville Metro Police Department has since fired one of the officers, Brett Hankison. Myles Cosgrove and Jon Mattingly, who were also involved in the case, have been reassigned.
“We knew we were going to come in the bubble and we didn’t want playing to be a distraction,” Wade said. “We wanted it to be that we were playing for something. And playing for this is so much more meaningful than wins and losses.”
Sky forward Cheyenne Parker said that the purpose of the initiative is not only to raise money for Chicago organizations, but to also get Sky fans active and involved. Fans can donate to the cause through the team’s website, and the Sky also plan to auction personal items and fan experiences.
“We’re going to keep on speaking on it, we’re going to keep on doing things to make people more aware,” Wade said. “Now that we have this platform that everybody’s eyes are on us, we’re going to make sure our voices are heard, especially for the people who don’t have the same voice as we do.”
The Sky are of course still without Jantel Lavender, who is out for the season following surgery on her foot. But they also played Tuesday night without another one of their bigs.
Stefanie Dolson missed Chicago’s game against the Sparks with an ankle injury — a precautionary scratch for a bone bruise, according to Wade. The head coach said she will spend the next six or seven days in a boot to help with recovery, with steps to be taken from there.
While the Sky managed Los Angeles’ bigs without their starting center, they’ll need Dolson down the stretch against the massive front lines of the league. Without Dolson, the Sky relied on Williams at the four for long stretches of play. Although Williams held her own, Chicago is precariously thin in the front court without Dolson.
In the back court, Wade confirmed that guard Sydney Colson, who tested positive for COVID-19 in June, has had one negative test. She’ll need to test negative again before she’ll be able to travel to Bradenton, FL. where she will need to quarantine before joining the team for good. The Sky have so far relied on a versatile back court of Copper, DeShields, Quigley and Williams to handle the ball when Vandersloot sits.
As for Chicago’s star guard Diamond DeShields, Wade and his staff are still taking things a day at a time.
“We’re listening to her body and we’re listening to her,” Wade said. “Believe me, we have an All-WNBA player, you don’t want her on the sideline.”
DeShields scored nine points on three-for-nine shooting Tuesday night. Wade left the third-year guard in during garbage time, although DeShields did play during key stretches of the game as well.
“Everything is going to depend on how her body responds and how it keeps getting better,” Wade said. “We saw how she improved from 14 minutes to 24 minutes, but you can tell she’s not her explosive self yet. But she’s getting there, she’s getting there. We just have to hold down the fort until she’s back to herself.”