April 17, 2021 

On a night of surprises, Chicago Sky also go against the grain

Chicago selected Shyla Heal and Natasha Mack in Thursday's WNBA Draft

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Photo credit: WNBA on Twitter

No one expected the 2021 WNBA Draft to unfold as it did—beyond the first two picks, anyway. Yet the Chicago Sky further subverted expectations by drafting Australian point guard Shyla Heal with the eighth pick and Oklahoma State forward Natasha Mack at No. 16.

While there were a number of promising young guards still on the board who could have filled Chicago’s need for a backup point guard to spell (and possibly succeed) Courtney Vandersloot, Heal was James Wade’s first choice. “I’ve been talking to Chicago for a little bit now,” she said in her draft night interview.

Heal’s highlight tape from the 2020 WNBL season shows she has the talent to succeed in the W, with moves that will elicit “ooohs” and “aaahs” from the Wintrust Center crowd (and possibly make them break out into Lil Wayne raps, if they are anything like Rashad Milligan, the creator of the video).

Heal’s 16.7 points per game were fifth-best in the WNBL and she has a handle suited toward working off screens, something Chicago utilizes extensively in its motion offense. She also sees and navigates double-teams well and can find the open player, either the screener cutting to the basket or the weak-side shooter on the arc. However, Heal’s percentages scream “volume shooter” (42.5% shooting on 299 attempts, 31.0% on threes) and she turned the ball over 41 times in 16 games.

Gabby Williams has handled backup point guard duties for the Sky in the past, with varying degrees of success. It will interesting to see if Heal shows enough composure to take over that role in her first season. Still, she should be ready to “come in and play 10 minutes a game,” which is Wade’s desire, according to the Chicago Sun-Times’ Annie Costabile.

Mack’s place on the Sky is more difficult to project. She averaged 19.8 points and 12.4 rebounds per game for the Cowgirls and led the NCAA in blocked shots (4.0 per game). Mack herself said on draft night that her strengths are hustle and rebounding: “that’s something I’ve always been good at since I was in the third grade.”

The problem for Mack is twofold: how she will adjust to the faster pace of the professional game and whether she can crack a loaded frontcourt. Chicago signed reigning WNBA Defensive Player of the Candace Parker in free agency, Azurá Stevens is returning from injury and Ruthy Hebard had a nice rookie campaign. Add in Stefanie Dolson and Astou Ndour, and it’s a mystery where Mack will be able to find minutes in the rotation.

Mack did address her offensive fit in the WNBA in her post-draft interview. When asked by The Next’s Howard Megdal how she would fit in a league moving toward stretch 4s and 5s, Mack said:

“What people don’t know is I’ve been really working on that. In college, you had to play a certain position where the coach wanted you to play, and so off the scenes I’ve really been working on that and trying to improve that as much as possible.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and the truncated college season precluded teams from seeing players in practice or open runs, so Mack’s ability to play a nontraditional big role remains to be seen. Based on her performance in Oklahoma State’s victory over Wake Forest in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, she has a nice touch in the midrange and goes to the offensive glass well.

The knocks on Mack? Despite the blocked shots, she’s not a shutdown defender. Texas’ Charli Collier and Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith both had their way against her in conference play this season, and Wake’s Christina Morra (18 points on 8-of-14 shooting) was also able to succeed against Mack in the paint. She also is a liability on defensive switches, so her greatest asset might end up a weakness at the pro level.

That being said, salary cap considerations are looming for Chicago. Only Parker, Stevens, Hebard and international signing Maria Conde are on the books through 2022. DeShields will likely command a max salary, especially if she finally has the superstar campaign her supporters have awaited since she broke into the league, and Copper’s stock is on the rise as well. They also have to contend with losing a number of players to Olympic training camp, including Ndour (Spain), Williams (France), Dolson and possibly DeShields, both of whom participated in Team USA’s minicamp in January.

Both Heal and Mack have areas of their game they need to improve in order to stick on the Sky roster, and they won’t have much time to prepare: the 2021 season kicks off in 28 days, with the possibility of preseason games before then. But it’s fitting for these rookies to have been chosen by Chicago, a team with championship aspirations looking to prove it belongs.

Written by Chris Pennant

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