April 22, 2022 

Chicago Sky training camp diary: Day 5

Sky forward Imani McGee-Stafford: I felt like my normal self today

DEERFIELD, IL. — One thing I have learned in my four years covering the Chicago Sky is that to fully understand the brilliance of Courtney Vandersloot, you cannot simply peep at the box score.

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Take this play from Game One of the last year’s WNBA finals for example.

The Sky’s initial action is disrupted so Vandersloot passes to Stef Dolson at the top of the arc. Dolson tries to find Candace Parker in the post but Brittney Griner uses her length to push Parker’s momentum towards the left elbow, giving her the upper hand in the matchup. Kahleah Copper also isn’t an ideal space to free herself off the ball.

While Dolson looks and tries to feed the ball to those two, Vandersloot realizes there’s an open lane to the rim with Griner covering Parker almost all the way out to the perimeter. She motions Diamond DeShields to move deep into the right corner so Skylar Diggins-Smith is further away from the wing. Vandersloot then back-cuts behind Shey Peddy, where Dolson finds her before she finishes with a reverse layup. Without motioning DeShields two seconds before Vandersloot cuts, Diggins-Smith would be able to disrupt her at the rim.

These are the little details that make Vandersloot the best point guard in the league. Today, she had another moment that only someone as psychotically competitive as her would pull off.

Chicago was practicing a drill called, “35 seconds” where the defense has to get…wait for it…35 seconds worth of stops before they are back on offense. If the offensive team scores, the clock resets to 35 seconds. If there is an offensive rebound, the clock also resets. For the defense, if they force a turnover, three seconds go off the clock.

Before this drill today, Vandersloot asked assistant coach Emre Vatansever how much time the defense would get if they got a steal. He told her three seconds and, like the sicko she is, Vandersloot asked, “But we have to get complete control of the ball before it counts as a steal, right?” The coaching staff nodded in agreement with the parameters she outlined.

Moments later, Vandersloot tipped a pass intended for one of her teammates on the right wing. The ball started to bounce towards the sideline. The three-time all-star ran over to the ball and ran next to it as it headed outbounds to take seconds off the possession. Before it could be called dead, Vandersloot picked it up. James Wade, who has run this drill with his team a lot since he became the Sky’s head coach, saw what his point guard tried to do and added seconds back on the clock.

Of course, Vandersloot light-heartedly pushed back on what I believe was a 1.7-second difference between her picking the ball up immediately and her trying to get even the slightest advantage over the offense. This is what makes Courtney Vandersloot one of one. Moments like these constantly remind me why Wade calls her the best point guard in the world.

Here are some other notes from Day Five of the Sky’s training camp.

Imani McGee-Stafford’s reignited passion for basketball

A lot has changed for Imani McGee-Stafford since she was drafted by the Sky in 2016. The last time she was in a WNBA uniform, she averaged 11.9 minutes per game for the Dallas Wings in 2019. McGee-Stafford took time off of basketball shortly after that and (virtually) attended law school at Southwestern Law University in Los Angeles. She is still in school and her finals won’t be done before the season begins on May 6.

However, McGee-Stafford has been ready to return to basketball. She has focused on getting back into basketball shape over the last few months while back home in LA. After her two-year hiatus from the game, she felt now was the right time to get back on the hardwood.

“I definitely enjoyed the break from ball,” said McGee-Stafford. “I think it reinvigorated my love for this, and I didn’t think I would miss the game as much as I did. Just being at [Athletes Unlimited] and at camp, I feel like a rookie again. I’m happy to be here and everything else is out of my control.”

It took some time for McGee-Stafford to get back into the shape she is now. The 6-foot-7 center lost 30 pounds in the offseason and played in the inaugural season of Athletes Unlimited. It was then that she realized she needed to adjust how she was working out to get back to the WNBA.

She focused on conditioning and agility workouts to the point where she feels close to her normal self again.

“When I got to Athletes Unlimited, I found out I was slow as hell,” said McGee-Stafford laughing. “I’ve always been able to jump higher and be quick. I’ve never been a banger, that’s not my game. At Athletes Unlimited, they were scoring over me and I was like, ‘Woah, I’m slow.’ I’ve never been slow in my life.”

McGee-Stafford’s path to cracking the Sky’s opening night roster is complicated—which has little to do with her performance at camp. Since she has played at least three years in the league, she is set to make $72,141 this year if she is one of the 11 players Chicago will roll with at the start of the season. If the Sky were to sign a player on a veteran minimum contract, they will mathematically be over the cap unless the front office finds a way to free up space. Wade could also opt to not bring back all of the players remaining from last year’s roster but at the moment Chicago is in a position to add two more players.

However, with a few Sky players overseas, McGee-Stafford will most likely play in Monday’s preseason game against the Wings at Wintrust Arena. The Sky will have a better idea of who they have in her when she is able to take the floor.

“I know it’s a tight roster and that it would be easier to grab a rookie since I am a vet min,” said McGee-Stafford. “But I’m trying to compete every day and be the player they expect me to be. I’m trying to bring that presence, knowing the plays, helping out other players and making sure I do my job in all aspects. Hopefully, that’ll land me one.”

Two years removed from the WNBA, Kathleen Doyle showing vast improvement

Over the past two seasons, former Indiana Fever guard Kathleen Doyle has dealt with the tough reality of being a fringe player in the WNBA. Life overseas in Poland and Turkey has been taxing for her while she waits for her next shot at the next level.

“Anyone who plays full seasons overseas and stays sane, I am proud of them,” said Doyle. “It’s a grind every day but I try to take it one day at a time. It definitely gets easier once you get a WNBA contract because that keeps you motivated. Every day I walk into this gym, I am so grateful for this opportunity.”

Make no mistake: Doyle isn’t here just to take part in practice against the starters. In her four days in camp, she has been one of the most active defenders on the floor. Doyle’s advanced understanding of how to use different defensive angles to her advantage was what made her a standout at Iowa coming out of the 2020 draft. Her rugged tenacity on that end hasn’t waned since she last played in the WNBA.

However, the most notable part of Doyle’s improvement has been her confidence as a ball-handler and shooter. She was somewhat of a project as an offensive player coming out of Iowa (though she did improve year-to-year with the Hawkeyes which made her a WNBA prospect to begin with). The way she has led the break coming off steals is what intrigued Wade to bring her into the fold in the first place.

“I’ve always liked her pace,” said Wade on the first day of training camp. “Her shot has also improved a lot and she’s shooting with intention. There’s no hesitation. She catches and shoots it. That’s something I really like and the fact that she is tough as nails. It’s really good to see her play both guard spots.”

The Sky are back in Deerfield on Sunday after taking tomorrow off.

Written by James Kay

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