May 17, 2022 

How Rebekah Gardner fills the biggest hole on the Chicago Sky’s roster

Gardner looking like a mainstay in the Sky's rotation

Like most WNBA teams right now, the Chicago Sky are waiting for the mainstays on their roster to return from their overseas commitments. Kahleah Copper, Julie Allemand and Li Yueru are all making their way over as Chicago continue to grind out the start of the season without them. However, their absences might have been a blessing in disguise for the Sky.

As it waits for parts of its core to join the team, Chicago has been able to give some of its bench players significant minutes early on in 2022. Second-year guard Dana Evans has been a living and breathing heat check through three games, while Ruthy Hebard and Anneli Maley have had strong moments on the floor.

The biggest standout out of the bunch? 31-year-old rookie Rebekah Gardner. Yes, you read that correctly. Gardner played overseas ball for ten years after she went undrafted out of UCLA in 2012. She has been given one of the most important assignments for a Sky team with few holes to fill: Backing up 2021 Finals MVP Kahleah Copper. Through two games, the results of what Gardner could bring to the table in 2022 are promising.

Ability to score built for the WNBA

In her WNBA debut against the New York Liberty, Gardner could not be stopped when matched up one on one with a defender. She ended the night with 14 points on six of nine shooting and accumulated a positive-20 plus/minus. Her first step off the dribble was nearly impossible to keep up with. And she displayed that multiple times in her brief tenure with the Sky.

Gardner has looked like a way-too-early sixth woman of the year candidate because of the newfound space she has had at the rim. Ever since she graduated from UCLA, Gardner hasn’t played in a league that enforces the defensive three-second rule meant to clear driving lanes and increase spacing on the floor. Gardner has taken advantage of it early on.

“That is something we paid attention to,” said Wade when asked about how the rule differences overseas and in the WNBA have positively impacted Gardner’s play. “There were a lot of times when she would penetrate and there would be three people down low. She would still get layups and I thought, ‘Oh, she is definitely going to be able to get a layup in the WNBA.’ She’s so explosive and quick.”

Gardner has proven she can do more than score, but her ability to attack in isolation or off the dribble is going to give a spark to the second unit once Copper returns. There is no “carbon copy of Kah,” but those two having similar mindsets as scorers on the floor at all times makes Gardner’s fit on this team even more obvious.

Creating opportunities at the wing

While Gardner has mostly played off the ball during her time with the Sky, she has experience being the primary ball handler for her teams.

“In the past, I have been the creator,” said Gardner. “So it’s kind of different having a creator for me where Sloot is going to find me for a lot of open threes. I love catch and shoot threes in the corner, so I’m comfortable with both [roles].”

Early on, it looks like Gardner will be able to do both admirably well.

Having two wings that can go downhill and run the pick and roll fits the mold of a James Wade-led team. In 2021, Copper and Diamond DeShields accounted for 35.9% of the Sky’s plays as a pick and role ball handler, according to Synergy Sports Tech. With DeShields being traded to Phoenix in a sign-and-trade deal this past offseason, there was a vacancy behind Copper for someone to assume some of the PnR responsibilities.

Enter Rebekah Gardner.

In two games, the (WNBA) rookie has shown strong instincts as a facilitator. Here’s a good example of this against the Lynx.

On this play, Hebard sets a pick for Gardner on the right wing. Gardner gets the mismatch on Minnesota’s Jessica Shepard, who overcommits to stopping Hebard on the roll. Gardner sees this immediately and uses her quickness to get to the rim before Shepard can recover. Gardner and Hebard could see more minutes together once Copper and Allemand come into town. Opponents are going to have to respect Gardner’s first step, which could free up Hebard (or other bigs that run this play with her) on the roll.

Gardner’s feel and speed fits team’s ideology

In 2021, the Sky’s coaching staff decided to move DeShields, who was making her way back to the court after beating multiple benign tumors, to the bench where she backed up Copper and Allie Quigley. However, the blueprint Wade had rolling with two athletic wings who can torch teams in transition is a model worth exploring again.

According to Synergy Sports Tech, the pairing of Courtney Vandersloot and Candace Parker leading the break last season resulted in the Sky scoring the third-most points in transition last year. Even without DeShields, who was first in the WNBA in fast break points per game in 2019 and was 11th in that category in 2021, Chicago has Gardner to replicate some of that production.

“Any team that likes to run is perfect for me,” said Gardner. “I’ll be running around the floor every time. Almost like a wide receiver. It’s nice to have a point guard who looks for that, so you will be seeing a lot of [getting out on the break] too.”

Based on the WNBA’s lineup data, Gardner and Vandersloot have only played 38 minutes together. But even a missed opportunity at the rim like this shows the former Bruin fits well next to Vandersloot. When Copper takes a seat, Gardner can match her speed without a drop-off for a team that had the quickest possessions rate after a defensive rebound in 2021.

Every team under Wade has pushed the pace. Gardner has a chance to excel in his system after waiting years to get her opportunity in the WNBA. All it takes is one and Gardner has found her footing as a huge piece to the Sky’s aspirations to repeat as champions.

Written by James Kay

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