February 17, 2023 

Chicago Sky notebook: Team shows unity during player introductions

James Wade: 'I'm not f***ing planning on losing'

Over the last few weeks, all of the talk in Skytown has been centered around one grave motif: loss. Whether it has been discussing the mass embargo of the team’s draft picks or its superstars bolting in free agency, the discourse has had little to do with the latest additions the Chicago Sky have brought into the fold.

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As it has always been since head coach/general manager James Wade came into the picture in late 2018, all expectations for how the team will perform in the upcoming season are projections from other people. The talk of replacing former franchise stalwarts in Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley is something the team isn’t fretting with training camp just a couple months away.

“For me, personally, I don’t feel no pressure,” Courtney Williams said. “I don’t feel no pressure at all. I feel we all tie our shoes the same way. We are put in a position where we could do what we do, we’re going to excel. I’m a star too, [Isabelle Harrison] is a star too. I think if you put us in a position, we’re gonna excel and we’re gonna be Chicago stars too. That’s how it go.”

Former Dallas Wings guard Marina Mabrey, whose future contributions to the Sky have largely been overshadowed by what the Sky gave up to get her, has also already bought into what the team has preached over the last few years.

“I feel like the Sky’s the limit for this team.”

Here are some notes that came out of the Sky’s media availabilities over the last two days.

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James Wade explains price for Marina Mabrey

When teams could start negotiating with players in free agency, Wade’s first flight was to go see Mabrey. The value he saw in what she could bring to the Sky made bringing in a combo guard like her a top priority.

That desire, however, came at the expense of the majority of the team’s future draft assets. The front office traded away the No. 5 pick in the 2023 draft, its 2024 first round pick and the rights to swap 2025 first round picks with the Dallas Wings in a four-team trade that landed Mabrey in Chicago. It’s a move that has been heavily criticized by fans given how deep the talent pool is in the 2024 and 2025 drafts.

Wade explained the price for Mabrey came at a time where the market shifted after the league saw some of its superstars move on from their previous teams to play with established talent. It takes time for young players in the league to adjust to the speed and physicality of the game–time that a roster headlined by Kahleah Copper doesn’t have to wait around on. The certainty of bringing in a player like Mabrey, who is only 26 years old and has flirted with getting an all-star nod in her stint in Dallas, was more valuable than the possibility of bringing in a potential franchise cornerstone.

“If I gave you two choices today: you can speak with our [2023] and [2024] draft pick every day or you can speak with Marina Mabrey, who would you speak with?” Wade said. “I know what she does and what brings to the table so that’s what we’re going to rock with. I understand that the ’23 and ’24 draft picks could be great players but I’m not fucking planning on losing.”

Wade has a point. As The Next previously wrote about in the aftermath of the trade, the Sky’s 26-10 record hurts their chances at getting in next year’s draft lottery. The trade is still risky given that Kahleah Copper has only one year remaining on her current deal but preparing to lose the superstar instead of having the confidence to retain her isn’t a pair of goggles Wade is going to don anytime soon.

New players excited for fresh starts in Chicago

One of Wade’s biggest strengths as a general manager and coach is the effort he puts in to making sure the players he wants on his roster feel valued. It’s clear that was a contributing factor to the team being able to land its new talent following the Sky’s media sessions over the last two days.

After unable to bring back its core in 2022, the Sky quickly pivoted and signed Elizabeth Williams, Alanna Smith, Isabelle Harrison and Courtney Williams. All of them expressed their excitement about coming into a situation where they can relish in expanded roles.

Elizabeth Williams, who played the fewest minutes per game of her career since her rookie year last season with the Washington Mystics, said getting a chance to anchor the backline of the Sky’s defense was a big factor in her choosing Chicago.

“My season with the Mystics didn’t really go as planned or expected,” Williams said. “I felt like I had a lot more to show and to give but that’s kind of the nature of the beast in the W. Sometimes it’s just about where you land and where you fit and I think in Chicago there was a big opportunity for me to have that bigger role and show my impact.”

Per PBP Stats, Elizabeth Williams recorded the fifth-most blocks at the rim in the WNBA over the last three seasons. She is primed for a bounce back year in 2023. The price of $135,000 a year for one of the more underrated rim protectors in the league has a chance to pay dividends for Chicago and Williams is up for the task.

The same can be said for Harrison, who also saw her role diminish last year when playing for Dallas. The 6-foot-3 forward signed a two-year deal with the Sky after being “sold” on the Chicago experience during last year’s all-star game at Wintrust Arena. Harrison, who is a Jordan athlete, said she hadn’t spent a ton of time during previous years to explore Chicago given the quick turnaround for in-season travel. She has already felt the love in the Windy City and received a welcome text from Copper upon her arrival.

Harrison made it clear she is here to help this team win now after all of the chatter around the Sky retooling. As far as her and the team are concerned, the last iteration of the Sky is a thing of the past.

“Whoever made a decision to leave, that is on them and I’m glad it opened up the door for me and [Courtney Williams] to come in and do something special and new in Chicago,” Harrison said. “Like [Courtney Williams] said, we play against these guys all the time and whoever might have whatever named attached to them…we still know how to play and I’ve played against every player in the league and done well.”

Smith is the most intriguing player the Sky have signed this offseason. After being drafted by the Phoenix Mercury in 2019 and appearing in only nine games with the Fever last season, Smith’s market started to blow up after she put all of the pieces together with her overseas team in Poland. As of Feb. 15, the former eighth overall pick is averaging 22.3 points, 9.7 rebounds on 65.0% shooting in 30.0 minutes of action per game in Poland’s EBLK domestic league.

Smith said she was talking to multiple teams when the Sky came in late in the race for her services last week. After hearing Wade’s pitch, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity on joining him in an offense that values bigs who can stretch the floor.

“When Chicago came into the mix, it was a whirlwind,” Smith said. “I really like the message that James had and I like the look of Chicago as a team as well. The personnel they have is awesome and the city is great too.”

Smith has a chance to start in a Sky front court that just lost Emma Meesseman, Candace Parker and Azurá Stevens. She has only converted 20.6% of her 106 three-point opportunities in the WNBA so far but if she comes anything close to being the shooter she was at Stanford in 2019 (39.7 3P% on 5.7 attempts), Smith is a prime candidate to be an integral part of the Sky’s offense.

Courtney Williams brought the most energy during the team’s media availabilities. The 2021 all-star expressed her excitement for trying to help this team stay at the top of the proverbial totem pole and carve out a role in an offense that is going to play fast.

Her fight and grit next to Copper already seem like it will be must-see TV after she discussed what went into her coming to Chicago.

“Kah hit me and was like, ‘Yo, I need a killer at the wing spot with me. I already know how you get after it,’” Williams said. “I asked her a couple questions about the city and little things but when it came down to it…she hungry, I’m hungry. When you bring players together that got that same mentality, it’s gonna be special so…that’s all I needed to hear and I was sold.”

Written by James Kay

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