May 3, 2022
2022 WNBA season preview: Chicago Sky
Four questions the Sky have to answer in 2022
For the first time in the history of the franchise, the Chicago Sky will enter the 2022 season as the reigning champions. They pulled off one of the most surprising runs in league history after overcoming a chaotic 2021 season. The Sky got the end result they were looking for but the journey to get there was difficult. With a fresh start in 2022, the team is bringing in continuity it didn’t quite have last year.
“I definitely think so,” said Candace Parker when asked if this team feels like it has something to prove. “For me personally, I talked with Sloot and Allie [Quigley] about how I haven’t been myself just with injuries and things like that. I wasn’t able to show them who I am so I think in terms of us knowing each other now going into the season, there is going to be growing pains but we are excited about the possibility.”
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The possibilities Parker is referring to are endless. The Sky brought in 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman in the offseason (which marks the third former Finals MVP on the roster) and are going into the season with a clean(ish) bill of health. Chicago is going into the year as the prohibitive favorites to repeat as champions with a battle tested roster. Here are four questions they will have to answer as they try to prove last year wasn’t a fluke.
Who is going to backup Kahleah Copper?
Since James Wade arrived in Chicago, the biggest void the Sky have tried to fill was finding a reliable backup for Courtney Vandersloot. Last year, they found that in Dana Evans and added former Fever guard Julie Allemand in the offseason. Now they have to figure out who is going to backup 2021 Finals MVP Kahleah Copper.
In the inception of free agency, the Sky moved quickly to address their lack of depth at the wing. They signed Crystal Bradford to a one-year, $62,000 contract before she suffered a right foot injury that will sideline her for the first half of 2022. Chicago released her shortly afterwards and have been searching for Bradford’s replacement since.
After planning on having Bradford be a key piece in their second unit, Wade has looked outside the box to find Copper’s backup. The Sky signed Kaela Davis, Rebekah Gardner and Sparkle Taylor to the roster to compete in training camp. Davis and Gardner have been overseas while Taylor has been the only pure three to practice the last two weeks. Now that Davis has arrived, it seems like it is going to be a two-person race to see who will occupy the backup spot behind Copper.
Davis has more WNBA experience than Taylor. She played for the Dallas Wings from 2017-2019 and had a short-lived stint with the Atlanta Dream in 2020 where she played two minutes. She referred to not being in the league last summer as a “blessing” because she has been able to work on all facets of her game.
“Every coach I talked to talked about shooting the three better overall and on the move,” said Davis, who is a career 32.3% three-point shooter. “We went through attacking the rim better and honestly trying to improve on everything you can possibly think of. I feel like I covered a lot last summer.”
Taylor attended the Sky’s camp last season and almost made the roster, according to Wade. However, she hasn’t played in the league and spent last summer working on her game. Last week, Wade told The Next he likes the improvement Taylor has made throughout camp along with her score-first mentality.
Whoever comes out of camp on the roster will most likely need to give Chicago 10-15 minutes a game when Copper eventually returns from playing in Spain. The Sky ideally won’t use two months during the season to find a backup point guard like they did in 2021. Copper has been the energizer bunny for this team since she ran away with the starting job at the three in 2020. That said, it will be important to keep her fresh come playoff time. Having a dependable backup for her will be vital for this team.
With a loaded roster, who will close for the Sky?
To say the Sky have an embarrassment of riches somehow feels like an understatement.
By the end of the regular season last year, it was apparent that a lineup of Vandersloot-Quigley-Copper-Parker-Stevens was going to take this team as far as it could go. That group outscored opponents 28.3 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. It was the front office’s priority to run back that same core heading into 2022 and surround it with complementary talent (which they did successfully).
Outside of retaining Vandersloot, Quigley and Copper, the Sky brought in 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman. The former Washington Mystic has looked phenomenal at training camp. Meesseman and Vandersloot have developed a well-oiled two-woman game since they teamed up overseas for UMMC Ekaterinburg four years ago. It has translated to the WNBA based on what the media has seen in spurts at training camp.
One quick reminder about the game of basketball: each team can only play five players at a time. With six players worth being on the floor at the same time, the question remains: who will start and close for this team throughout the season? Based on how Wade has managed this team in the past, he will probably go with the hot hand and alter the closing lineups depending on the matchup. However, if Meesseman plays at the elite level she displayed in camp so far and Stevens remains healthy, figuring out the front court rotation at the end of games will be tricky.
Stevens doesn’t think it will be problem.
“We don’t have a bunch of egos on this team,” said Stevens. “We have pretty solid people and I think we had the same thing last year. It was kind of the same situation with Allie and Diamond [DeShields] and they both handled it well. Everybody was bought into us winning and that’s more important.”
Having “too many good players” to feed minutes to is a problem any coach would take on compared to the alternative. Nevertheless, it will be fascinating to see how Wade deploys his closing lineups with five players who have been named to all-star games at some point in their careers and a healthy Stevens, who proved the past two seasons she is a franchise building block.
Can the Sky stay healthy throughout the entire season?
Chicago was plagued by inconsistency last season but it was mostly due to the injury bug rearing its head in the first half of the year. Stevens was on a minutes restriction, Quigley battled a hamstring injury after the season opener and Parker missed eight games with a sprained ankle. Vandersloot is still managing a right foot injury, but that hasn’t stopped her explosiveness in camp so far.
Chicago has a lot of depth to work with behind their veterans but they are going to need to their younger players to step up if the Sky hope to make it through the regular season. The early signs of that in training camp are convincing. Dana Evans has clearly taken a leap since she was traded to the Sky halfway through the season. Julie Allemand is coming to the team late, but will also serve as a backup to Vanderquigs.
Evans, whose shot-making and zero to 100 speed has stood out in training camp, believe she is up to the task after showcasing her improvement from last year.
“It’s hard when you don’t see the results,” said Evans. “Sometimes they don’t happen right away. Sometimes it takes a year. Sometimes it takes two years. For me, I just try to tell myself to trust the process and I am feeling myself getting so much better. Not even just offensively — but defensively too. It’s like night and day.”
What is the ceiling of the Sky?
If healthy, I have a difficult time envisioning this group losing a five-game series to most of the other teams in the WNBA. Even as other coaching staffs try to finalize their rosters, the only team I could see contending with Chicago right now is the Connecticut Sun. Losing a perimeter pest in Briann January will hurt their defense but adding Courtney Williams‘ ability as a half court scorer helps make up some of that difference. There were times in last year’s semi-finals between the Sky and Sun where Connecticut needed someone to step up offensively and Williams is not shy about being the focal point of an offense for stretches.
Chicago simply has less questions to answer than other teams around the league. They turned Stef Dolson and Lexie Brown into Meesseman and Allemand while keeping the band together for at least one more summer tour. After the highs and lows of 2021, this team isn’t setting any limits on itself.
“The main thing is we are trying to build a championship again,” said Quigley on the second day of camp. “We won last year but we want more. We want to be even better than last year so that’s the goal.”