January 13, 2024
2024 WNBA free agency preview: Chicago Sky
As the Sky search for a starting point guard, will they promote their own talent, or pick up a free agent?
The dawn of the new calendar year means that WNBA free agency is approaching. Three years removed from a championship, the eighth-place Chicago Sky hired a new general manager, Jeff Pagliocca, and head coach, Teresa Weatherspoon, this offseason. This free agency period will be vital to restoring the Sky’s championship aspirations.
From Jan. 11 to Jan. 20, WNBA teams can offer qualifying offers to reserve and restricted free agent players. On Jan. 21, unrestricted free agents can start talking with teams before officially being able to sign contracts on Feb. 1. The Chicago Sky have an estimated $511,448 in available salary cap room.
The Chicago Sky have significant decisions regarding their starting five and overall bench depth. They have five players signed to the 2024 roster. Three-time All-Star Kahleah Copper, Marina Mabrey, Isabelle Harrison, Elizabeth Williams and Dana Evans are all under contract and set to return to the Chicago Sky for the 2024 season.
Two starters from last year are unrestricted free agents: Courtney Williams and Alanna Smith. Reserve team free agents this year include Rebekah Gardner, Robyn Parks and Morgan Bertsch. Ruthy Hebard is the team’s lone restricted free agent. Sika Koné and Li Yueru are both unprotected players, meaning they are without any base salary protection. The Chicago Sky have the 13th pick in the 2024 draft after trading multiple first-round picks to the Dallas Wings for Mabrey.
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After a lopsided loss to the eventual champion Las Vegas Aces in the first round of the WNBA playoffs, a crucial offseason for the Chicago Sky began. The first order of business was figuring out what to do with the vacant general manager and head coach positions. The two positions had been combined into one under the previous leadership of James Wade. This offseason the Sky decided to separate them, opting to go after a WNBA legend for the head coach position and stay in house for the general manager position.
On Oct. 12, the Sky named Weatherspoon, a Hall of Famer, as the franchise’s new head coach. Soon after, on Oct. 31, the Sky announced Pagliocca as the team’s new general manager. Working in tandem, Weatherspoon and Pagliocca are trying to instill a culture of toughness. “We want to out tough people. We want them to feel us,” Pagliocca said after his hiring. Under Weatherspoon, the team aims to defend at a high and ferocious level. The goal is to construct a roster of tough, competitive players who want to be coached hard. With strong reputations as player development gurus, Pagliocca and Weatherspoon hope the Sky can be a destination for players looking to continue to improve their game.
Biggest roster needs
Before jumping into the biggest needs on the roster, it is helpful to discuss what the 2023 Chicago Sky did well. Although they were middle of the pack in points per game and opponent’s points per game, the team stood out statistically in several key categories.
Defensively, the Sky were third in the league in blocks per game, at 4.5. Elizabeth Williams and Smith deserve most of the credit for that, as they both ranked in the top seven in the league in blocks. Additionally, Chicago was the best in the league at defending the three-point line, ranking first in the percentage of the opponents’ points from three and the opponents’ 3-point rate.
Offensively, the Sky moved the ball well and shot the 3 at an elite percentage. The Sky ranked fourth in the league in assists per game, at 20.5. Courtney Williams finished fourth in the league in assists per game, at 6.3. The Sky ranked third in the league in 3-point percentage and fourth in 3-pointers made. The addition of Mabrey and the increased 3-point shooting of Copper and Smith morphed the Sky into a legit 3-point shooting team, even after the departure of legend Allie Quigley. Mabrey set a new single-season franchise record in made threes, at 89. Overall, the Sky shot the ball well, ranking third in effective field goal percentage.
That was the good side of the 2023 season on the court; now it is time to get to the bad. Defensively, the Sky were one of the worst defensive-rebounding teams in the league. The Sky ranked 11th out of 12 teams in defensive rebounds per game and defensive rebound rate. The Sky ranked 11th in the rate of offensive rebounds given up to the opponent and 10th in the opponent’s offensive rebounds per game. Although they defended the 3-point shot well, the Sky ranked 11th in both opponents’ field goals and 2-point percentages. The Sky also gave up the second-most assists per game in the league.
Offensively, the Sky got to the free-throw line less than any other team in the WNBA. They scored the lowest number of points from the charity stripe in the league, and ranked dead last in free throws made and attempted. Only 14.7% of the Sky’s points came at the free-throw line, the worst mark in the league. Opponents fouled Chicago at the lowest rate in the league as well.
Looking ahead to free agency, the Chicago Sky must address their defensive rebounding woes. They can add size to their frontcourt to assist in this area and find a way to put more pressure on opposing defenses. A team with Copper should not finish dead last in trips to the free-throw line. Look for the Sky to incorporate an attacking guard into the mix.
Defensively, the Sky need more help at guard. A huge reason why the offensive and defensive rebound numbers are as high as they are is that Elizabeth Williams and Smith often had to rotate to contest the shot, leaving the Sky susceptible to offensive rebounds. More defensive resistance at the guard position would help the back end. It would also help remove the defensive load from Copper, who often guards the other team’s best guard player. Gardner, who missed all but two games last season due to a foot injury, would fill this role nicely.
As free agency begins, the guard position is the team’s most significant question mark. This team must decide whether to re-sign Courtney Williams, promote fourth-year guard Evans to the starting role or sign a free agent.
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Who will they bring back?
The Chicago Sky will soon decide whether they want to bring back guard Courtney Williams and forward Smith from last year’s team. Both unrestricted free agents were thrust into unexpected roles and exceeded expectations.
Last season Smith started in place of Harrison, who tore her left meniscus and missed the entire campaign. Smith put up career highs in points, rebounds, blocks, steals, and minutes. She was also one of three WNBA players this season, along with Elizabeth Williams and the Atlanta Dream’s Cheyenne Parker, to average more than one steal and one block in under 30 minutes per game. Smith finished third in voting for the Most Improved Player.
It is hard to envision Smith returning to the Sky, as the asking price may just be too much. The return of Harrison from injury will pave the way for her to share the starting frontcourt with Elizabeth Williams. After the year Smith had, not only will she most likely get a pay increase, but she is also deserving of a starting role in this league—both of which she is likely to get with another franchise.
Courtney Williams has played shooting guard historically but was asked to be the team’s starting point guard last season. She responded by averaging a career-high 6.3 assists per game and recording two triple-doubles. Again, the decision of whether or not to bring back Courtney Williams to play point guard looms large over the franchise. She played about as well as the Sky could have hoped for last year, yet the team still struggled to make the playoffs and may choose to go in a different direction under new leadership.
The Sky are in a prime position to bring back Rebekah Gardner to bolster the defensive tenacity at guard. She is a reserved player, which gives her last team exclusive negotiating rights if she receives a qualifying offer. Gardner missed all but two games last year, and her presence was needed on the defensive end. She aligns with the tough, defensive-minded team Weatherspoon is building.
Koné, an unprotected player, is another the Sky could target to bring back this season. The 20-year-old is still developing her game but showed glimpses of the raw talent near the end of last season. Koné provides the size, length and motor to be disruptive defensively and important depth for the frontcourt. The Sky must also decide whether they want to re-sign center Li Yueru, who could provide valuable size and frontcourt depth at 6’7.
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Dream free-agent acquisitions
Addressing the point guard position and adding size to the front court should be at the top of the Chicago Sky’s to-do list as free agency begins. Luckily, there are options. Right now, it is anyone’s guess whether the Sky will re-sign Courtney Williams, promote Evans to the starting role or signs a free-agent guard.
Veterans Skylar Diggins-Smith and Natasha Cloud would be ideal acquisitions if the Sky go the free-agent route. Cloud is more of a traditional point guard and was fifth in assists per game last year, just behind Courtney Williams. Cloud prides herself on defense, having averaged a steal per game throughout her career, and would bring championship pedigree and an attacking mindset to both ends of the floor.
After sitting out all of the 2023 season, Diggins-Smith’s style of play would be a perfect fit with Weatherspoon’s vision for a tough-minded team. An attacking point guard out of Notre Dame, in her last WNBA season, Diggins-Smith was top three in scoring at 19.7 points per game and top 10 in steals and assists in the WNBA. If the Sky do not intend to sign Courtney Williams, signing Diggins-Smith should be priority No. 1.
Another veteran name to keep an eye out for at the point guard position is Layshia Clarendon, who uses all pronouns. They struggled with injuries at times last season, but when they were healthy, they were impactful. Clarendon can still stuff the stat sheet. In 24 games last year, Clarendon shot 45% from three and averaged over a steal per game. He scored 30 points in the second-to-last game of the season.
In terms of frontcourt size and depth, Kalani Brown should be at the top of the Sky’s frontcourt free agency list. Her price should be within reach, as she was on a hardship contract last year with the Dallas Wings. Brown played a vital role in the Wings’ advancing to the second round of the playoffs. In just 16 minutes per game, Brown averaged 7.8 points and 4.5 rebounds. Brown’s 6’7 frame would address some of the defensive rebounding issues that plagued the Sky last season.
Unrestricted free agents Kiah Stokes and Nia Coffey are two viable options to address the depth and size of the frontcourt. Stokes averaged six rebounds a game and provides valuable size and championship experience. After playing 31 games last year, Northwestern graduate Coffey is coming off a season-ending hand injury. Last year for the Dream she was able to stuff the stat sheet and average over a block and five rebounds a game.
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After hiring a new general manager and head coach, many questions about the Chicago Sky remain. Who will be the starting point guard next season? Who will play alongside Harrison and Elizabeth Williams in the frontcourt? Will the Sky address their defensive rebounding struggles? How will they get to the free-throw line more often? Will they bring back Courtney Williams, Smith or Gardner?
The point guard position is the team’s largest question mark as free agency begins. Whoever the Sky decide to go with will be representative of Coach Weatherspoon’s vision for the team. As the beginning of free agency approaches, the new chapter of Sky basketball starts now.
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.