February 6, 2024 

Kahleah Copper traded to Phoenix Mercury: Turbulent free agency continues for Chicago Sky         

Trading Copper is the Sky's equivalent of waving the white flag this free agency

On Friday of the recent USAB camp in Brooklyn, Chicago Sky head coach Teresa Weatherspoon was spotted sitting next to Sky general manager Jeff Pagliocca. As Kahleah Copper and many of the WNBA’s best players ran up and down the court, executives from almost the entire league sat beside Weatherspoon, but she didn’t engage. Instead, Weatherspoon looked furious as she avoided those around her. Perhaps she already knew what the rest of the world would soon find out — the Chicago Sky were trading superstar Copper.

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By Tuesday morning, Kahleah Copper had officially been traded to the Phoenix Mercury in exchange for the 2024 third overall pick, a 2025 second-round pick, a 2026 first-round pick, rights to swap second-round picks in 2026, and Mercury forwards Brianna Turner and Michaela Onyenwere. The Sky also sent second-year forward Morgan Bertsch to the Mercury in the deal.

To say Kahleah Copper was the current face of the franchise is perhaps an understatement. She is coming off a career-best season with the Sky, averaging 18.7 points and 4.4 rebounds per game as the leader of a group that narrowly snuck into the playoffs with an 18–22 record after its former Head Coach and General Manager, James Wade, abruptly departed midway through the season.

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Kahleah Copper exits the franchise ranked fourth all-time in points scored (2,677), as well as fourth in field goals made (990), fifth in minutes played (5,260), fifth in rebounds (799), and eighth in assists (313). She was the only player on the Sky’s roster last season named an All-Star and one of two remaining players from the 2021 championship team. Copper was also the only Sky player recently named to the 2024 Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament roster, solidifying her position as one of the best basketball players in the world.

This past September, the Sky announced Copper had signed a multi-year contract extension with the team. Five months ago, all signs pointed toward Copper staying in Chicago long-term. “Chicago has been everything I could’ve asked for and more over the past seven seasons,” Copper said in the team media press release when the extension was announced. “This is where I’ve grown as a player, as a person, and where I’m proud to say I’ve become one with this community … I’m ready and excited to grow and build on my legacy here and give this city, our fans, my teammates, coaches, and the entire Sky organization everything I have to bring another championship back home.”

At the time, Chicago Sky Principal Owner Michael Alter relayed a similar sentiment and stated, “We know Kahleah’s skill, leadership, drive, competitive spirit, passion, and energy will help fuel a winning culture in Chicago for years to come.”

Copper was also a vital component of the Sky’s current marketing strategy. For the first time since 2019, the team had revived its Homegrown YouTube series, with provided an intimate deep dive into the journey of Sky players off of the court. The Sky was in the middle of a multi-part feature on Copper, which included visits to her hometown of Philadephia. Five days ago, the Sky released episode four of the “Homegrown: Kahleah Copper” web series. Now, just like that, Copper is gone.

One major reason why this trade has sent shockwaves throughout the league is simply because nobody saw it coming. After the beginning days of free agency, where the Sky swung and missed on nearly every big-name free agent on the market, it became clear the Sky was headed toward a major rebuild.

Still, the team lacked the tools in today’s league to rebuild expeditiously. The Sky are nearly out of draft capital after the Marina Mabrey trade, and with no major update on the construction of a new practice facility, are currently falling behind in the WNBA’s practice facility arms race.

Copper was a key part of bringing in new leadership

Kahleah Copper was initially traded to the Sky in 2017 as part of the deal that brought Elena Delle Donne to the Washington Mystics. In Chicago, Copper worked her way from reserve player to top two-way wing in the league. A 3x WNBA All-Star, Copper was integral in propelling Chicago to its first championship in 2021 and was named the 2021 WNBA Finals MVP.

After signing a multi-year extension near the end of last season, Copper played a vital role in filling the team’s two vacant leadership positions — Head Coach and General Manager. Copper sat alongside new Head Coach Teresa Weatherspoon at her introductory press conference and gushed about an early meeting she had with the Hall of Famer.

“We connected over energy,” Copper said. “I’ve never had a coach that could really match my energy, and that was just something that really hit me.”

At the time, all signs pointed toward an exciting, competitive direction for the Sky.

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Shortly after the Sky hired Weatherspoon, they hired a new general manager. After finally separating the head coach and general manager positions, Sky decided to stay in-house and hire player development specialist Jeff Pagliocca. There was little doubt Pagliocca’s existing relationship with Copper was significant to his hiring, as Copper credited Pagliocca for her development into an All-star player and spoke extremely highly of the first-time general manager.

In addition to Copper’s belief that, first and foremost, Pagliocca “can recognize talent,” she also believed Chicago would become a destination for free agents because “I can go to Chicago, and I know that I’ll get better. I know that my game will progress. I know that I’ll evolve.”

Copper said she believed this was where Chicago would have an advantage in recruitment compared to other teams in the league, but the Sky’s early free agency strikeout would prove just how wrong Copper was.

After the hiring of Weatherspoon and Pagliocca, the messaging from team leadership was clear: the Sky were going to compete in the upcoming year. They would be tough-minded and show grit, but most of all, there was a belief that they would put together a roster capable of bringing a championship back to Chicago. But with a blockbuster trade that saw their best all-around player sent to the very team they defeated to win a championship in 2021, the truth is the Sky is in the midst of a significant multi-year rebuild.

Where do the Sky stand after the trade?

If you approach the trade from the viewpoint of a multi-year rebuild, with the Sky being years away from competing for a championship, the Sky may have improved by trading Copper. Before Tuesday’s trade, the Sky announced they had signed guard Diamond DeShields to a one-year deal. Of course, DeShields is no Kahleah Copper and missed all last year due to injury, but the fan favorite should ease into Copper’s starting role quite nicely. In her last full season, DeShields averaged 13.1 points, 3.2 assists, and 3.8 rebounds in 25 minutes of play. As the Sky’s 2018 third overall pick, Chicago has always thought highly of DeShields’ ceiling, and we can expect to see her minutes increase significantly this season.

In addition to DeShields, the Sky received forwards Breanna Turner and Michaela Onyenwere from the Mercury.  The Sky needed depth in the frontcourt, especially after failing to re-sign Alanna Smith and trading Bertsch, and the two should help address this. Turner enters her sixth season and averaged 3.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.3 assists a game for the Mercury last year. She is known for doing all the dirty work necessary for team success, and was named to the All-Defensive First Team in back-to-back seasons (2020–21), averaging 1.6 blocks and 0.9 steals across her second and third seasons in the league. 

Onyenwere enters her fourth season and averaged 8.9 points, 3,7 rebounds, and 1.3 assists last year. The prevailing feeling is that Onyenwere’s best basketball is ahead of her. She had a standout rookie season with the Liberty, earning 2021 WNBA Rookie of the Year, 2021 AP Rookie of the Year, and WNBA All-Rookie Team honors. Ironically, Onyenwere ends up on the Sky after being traded from the Liberty to Phoenix as part of the Mabrey deal.

However, the most impactful aspect of the Kahleah Copper trade was the draft haul the Sky got in return. Recall the team’s lack of draft capital, especially in this year’s loaded draft, the Sky had before making this trade. The Mabrey trade had essentially handicapped them from using the draft to facilitate a quick rebuild; they gave up a 2023 first-round draft pick, a 2024 first-round draft pick, plus three more draft picks. With the departure of Copper, Mabrey is now the highest-paid Sky player, at $208,000 a year, per Her Hoop Stats.

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In total, the Sky received four draft picks for Copper, getting back some of the picks they dealt away in the Mabrey trade and then some. The Sky received the third overall pick in 2024, a second-round pick in 2025, a first-round pick in 2026, and the right to swap second-round picks in 2026 with the Mercury.

For a team undergoing a major rebuild, the number three pick in the upcoming draft is extremely valuable. Even if you have to part ways with the current face of the franchise to obtain it, the Sky are banking on drafting a new one in April. With the third and 13th overall picks in the upcoming 2024 WNBA Draft, Sky fans may want to start watching UConn or Tennessee college basketball games.

Photo of Chicago Sky guard <a rel=
Chicago Sky guard Marina Mabrey (4) during the WNBA game between the Chicago Sky and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on September 10, 2023. (Photo Credit: Chris Poss)

Are the Sky setting up Weatherspoon to fail?

When Weatherspoon was introduced as the Sky’s new head coach, Co-owner and Operating Chairman Natalie Rawlinson said of the looming General Manager decision that, “We do things our own way here at the Sky, and we do things differently.”

After the free agency period the Sky have had thus far, the Sky’s organizational approach to doing things “differently” should be under heavy scrutiny.

The Sky took a different approach when they allowed James Wade to assume both Head Coach and General Manager positions for five years, enabling him the immense power to trade away the future of the franchise for a player who had yet to make an All-Star team. Wade also signed Mabrey to a 3-year contract extension, seemingly on a quest to prove he could bring the best out of Mabrey after the trade happened. That approach backfired when Wade bolted to the NBA in the middle of last season.

This year, the Sky took a different approach when they hired a legendary WNBA player to become their head coach before hiring a general manager. The Sky took a different approach when they hired a first-time in-house general manager based largely on an extremely close relationship with the team’s former star player.

Then, the Sky took a different approach when, after months of messaging from team leaders that the Sky were not rebuilding and were here to compete for championships, they suddenly pivoted and traded away their franchise player for a haul of draft picks.

The disastrous free agency period left the Sky with no choice but to focus on draft capital and trade Kahleah Copper, if nothing else but out of respect for her career. Copper is in her prime. The current team leadership likely cares about her too much to not give her a chance to compete for a title elsewhere.

But the roster’s current state after the Copper trade does not bold well for Weatherspoon’s overall success. The roster, as constructed, is quite possibly one of the worst in the league. And the Sky knows it. Trading Copper was their equivalent of waving the white flag.

Time will tell if the Sky will provide Coach Weatherspoon with the resources and support necessary for her success. One thing is for sure, however: the Sky’s unwavering commitment to doing things “differently” this go around has all but completely backfired.

The Next’s Jackie Powell contributed reporting to this story.

Written by Monique Newton

Monique Newton is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Northwestern University. She covers the Chicago Sky for The Next and has lived in Chicago since 2019. An Oberlin College graduate, Monique is a 2x Division III National Track and Field Champion.

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