As the WNBA prepares to play a shortened game slate in a quarantine situation for the first time in sports history, one team is looking to avenge a 2019 season that ended in heartbreak.
After a stellar regular season, the Chicago Sky were eliminated from last year’s playoff quarterfinals in the most crushing way. With seconds left in the game, Courtney Vandersloot’s ill-advised pass was intercepted by Las Vegas Aces forward Dearica Hamby, who heaved an improbable half-court swisher to send the Midwest team home. That game set the tone for the Chicago offseason: redemption.
The Sky enter the year at almost full-strength, with just two out: Jantel Lavender, who had foot surgery a few weeks ago, and Sydney Colson, who is not with the team after testing positive for COVID-19. What they do have is seven returners, three dymanic newcomers, and a lot of chemistry.
The remedy to replace Lavender’s scoring and rebounding output has seemingly been in the works for a while. In February, Chicago traded last year’s first-round pick, Katie Lou Samuelson, and a 2021 first round pick to Dallas for Azura Stevens. Two months later they selected forward Ruthy Hebard of Oregon with the eighth overall pick in the draft. Hebard is the Pac-12’s all-time leader in career field-goal percentage with an efficient 65.1 percent average.
Adding Hebard and Stevens not only helps to make up for the loss of Lavender, but it gives Chicago additional size to a front court that already boasts Cheyenne Parker and Stefanie Dolson. The Sky then signed rookie Stella Johnson from Rider University to handle the back-up point guard position until Colson returns.
As good as Hebard is, she still has to become acclimated to the pro game. Fourth-year Stevens has experience and will be ready to contribute right away.
“She’s been great,” coach James Wade said of Stevens. “The coaches love her, her teammates love her, she has a beautiful personality, she plays hard, she’s coachable, and we’re happy to have her in our organization. We think she’s going to be a Chicago Sky player for a long time to come. We don’t see her going anywhere.”
Wade said his young wing players – Kahleah Copper, Diamond DeShields, and Gabby Williams – have made big strides over the offseason. Each has the ability to create off the dribble and get their own shot, which is invaluable in big game situations. Williams, in particular, has improved her long-range shooting. After averaging 17.1 percent from three last year, Williams played in France, where she averaged 34.4 percent from long distance.
“She’s been knocking down shots at a great rate,” Wade said. “We see her as a fulltime guard, but she’s going to be doing everything for us. We expect a good year from her where she has a lot of responsibility.”
A 22-game season favors the veteran back-court of Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, who were also teammates in Russia over the winter. Chicago has the right mix of veteran leadership, youth, athleticism, and size to make a strong run at the WNBA title. With numerous high profile players sitting out the season, the opportunity for the Sky to win their first championship is closer than it’s ever been.
“We had a really good opportunity last year that was maybe cut a little short,” Vandersloot said. “We’re here to win a championship. That’s the motivation and that’s the mentality going forward.”
DeShields is also hungry.
“Last year left us all with a sour taste in our mouths,” she said. “If we get to the Finals it’s not enough just to play in the Finals. We want to win everything.”