June 14, 2023 

Chicago Sky Notebook: Alanna Smith’s career year, new additions join at the right time

Taylor Soule, Khaalia Hillsman offer much-needed support to busy starting lineup

It’s been a mixed bag for the Chicago Sky over the last two weeks.

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On one side of the coin, the Sky pushed a star-studded New York Liberty team to the brink in their first matchup of the season before pulling off a 19-point comeback at Barclays Center two days later. On the other side of it, the team followed the win by dropping its last two games and looked fatigued after the injury bug has pestered them from the onset of the season.

Standing at 5-5 ahead of their bout against the Indiana Fever, the Sky will try to return to their preseason mantra of creating havoc on the defensive end and turning it into offense. While Chicago has only scored 0.829 points per possession in the half court (10th-worst mark in the league), it has been a formidable opponent when they are disrupting other teams’ flow on offense. They lead the WNBA with 1.34 points per possession after a turnover which would be the highest total since 2018 if the season ended today, per Inpredictable’s database.

A part of returning to their peak form comes from starting games with the same energy they play with late in contests.

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“We have to make sure we come out with a sense of urgency,” Sky head coach/general manager James Wade said after the team’s loss to the Sparks. “We’re not the type of team that can allow the game to come to us. We have to go get it.”

Here are a few notes from the last couple of weeks in Skytown.

Alanna Smith is in the midst of a career year

As former Sky wing, Anneli Maley told The Next before the season, “The Alanna [Smith] you see now is not the Alanna you would have seen before.”

Alanna Smith has been everything Chicago hoped she would be when the franchise guaranteed her a spot on the roster during free agency. After not getting consistent minutes in her stints with the Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever, Smith is having a career year in a role that unlocks the best elements of her game. She’s averaging 10.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks while knocking down 41.2% of her 3.4 3-point attempts per game.

Chicago lost a lot of its stretchability from its bigs this past offseason, but Smith has been able to fill the void the previous iteration of the frontcourt left behind. Whether she is trailing in transition or popping out to the perimeter in two-player actions, Smith has provided the Sky the spacing they need to reach their full potential in the half-court. She has shot 42.5% on 40 catch-and-shoot attempts this season and leads the Sky with a 66.9 true shooting percentage.

Smith has provided a spark to the Sky’s offense, but she has worked well alongside Elizabeth Williams when the two have shared the floor together. Before their loss to the Aces, the Sky had a 92.5 defensive rating in 169 minutes when Williams and Smith were on the court, per Positive Residual’s database. The loss of Isabelle Harrison was a tough pill to swallow when the news came out she wouldn’t be suiting up any time soon, but Smith has done everything the team has asked of her so far (and more).

Reinforcements are coming at the right time

The Sky have been forced to play with a short rotation after losing Harrison, Morgan Bertsch and Rebekah Gardner for an extended period of time. Since Smith replaced Bertsch in the starting lineup on May 28, Chicago has played its starting unit more than any other team in the WNBA out of necessity. For a group like Chicago that heavily relies on its hyperactivity on the defensive end, that current formula could lead to late-season burnout.

Thankfully for the Sky, reinforcements have arrived at a crucial time. The team recently announced it has brought in 2023 third-round pick Taylor Soule and former Texas A&M standout Khaalia Hillsman on hardship contracts. After Chicago played four games in a span of eight days, adding two players to bolster their depth will help alleviate the starters’ heavy usage as of late.

Hillsman, who went to Whitney Young High School, was working out in Chicago when her agent told her the Sky were interested in her services. Wade said he had seen Hillsman play in Turkey and added Dana Evans gave her stamp of approval when he asked about the 6’5 center.

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‘‘This means so much to me. My family is in shambles right now,’’ Hillsman said before the Sky’s loss to the Aces on June 11. ‘‘I’m just trying to seize this opportunity. I want to come in and help the team as much as I can…not just for me, not just for my teammates, not just for my coach but for my family.

‘‘This is a really big deal to me, playing for my hometown, being from Chicago.’’

The Sky also have a familiarity with Soule, who they scouted before the Minnesota Lynx drafted her eight picks before Chicago had its next selection. She was finishing up an assignment for her master’s program when she got the call saying her services were needed in Chicago. Soule fits the mold of a high-energy player Chicago has valued since they went to work carving out a new identity this past offseason.

Other notes

  • According to the Chicago Sun-Times, former NBA All-Star Dwyane Wade is interested in investing in the Sky. Chicago reportedly sold 10% of the franchise at an $85 million valuation last week and could be looking to add to its investor group again.
  • Dwyane also made an appearance at the Sky’s practice and took a picture with the team.
  • The first return for fan voting in this year’s all-star game was announced yesterday. Kahleah Copper has accrued the 15th-most votes (12,861) list, while Marina Mabrey (5,509) is 26th among players.

Written by James Kay

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