When the Chicago Sky took Oregon forward Ruthy Hebard with their eighth pick in April’s draft, much was made of the easygoing All-American returning to her birth city.
Adopted as a newborn and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, she became a Duck and lead the NCAA in offensive efficiency her senior year, averaging an astonishing 65.1 percent.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the WNBA into a one-location scenario for the season, Hebard’s homecoming has been put on hold. But if the first week of training camp is an indication, she will be a favorite in the Windy City.
At Oregon she averaged 16.4 points and nine rebounds per game, but at 6-4, she is considered an undersized post in the WNBA. The other knock on Hebard is her shooting from distance. In an era where post players are drilling three’s, she has more of a throwback game, as she didn’t take a single three-point shot in her Duck career. She also shot a modest 68 percent from the free throw line.
Chicago Sky head coach James Wade sees great potential in Hebard.
“She’s beating players for offensive rebounds, she’s getting behind players in pick-and-rolls, so she’s doing the things more that we saw on the college level and she’s doing it at a high level because she’s doing it against our post players,” he said.
“We like the progress that she’s made, but we understand that she’s a rookie and she’s going to have to play through those mistakes.”
Hebard will get more minutes than she might have otherwise, as veteran forward Jantel Lavender had season-ending foot surgery a few weeks ago.
“It’s a good opportunity for (Hebard),” Wade said. “We think she’s ready for that challenge.”
While all business on court, Hebard is a warm presence outside of the lines, and her new teammates appreciate her.
“I love Ruthy,” forward Cheyenne Parker said. “Everything that she brings to the team is great. I love her personality and how she is picking up very, very fast on the plays, the lingo, and the team camaraderie. Ruthy is doing a really great job. She’s going to fit into this system really well. She’s got a great attitude and she continues to get better every day.”
Hebard said her teammates have made the adjustment from college to professional basketball a lot easier.
“Stefanie [Dolson] has been a huge help to me on and off the court, so has Diamond [DeShields],” Hebard said. “Diamond is a great person and since day one she’s been nice, helping me out, and picking me up, so I’m really happy that I’m her teammate.”
“I have a great team. They’re all super-nice and understanding that I’m a rookie.”
The most important bond on her new squad may be with its floor leader, All-Star point guard Courtney Vandersloot. Both athletes are elite pick-and-roll players and could make life hard on opposing defenses. In addition, Hebard and Vandersloot both played under Oregon coach Kelly Graves.
“It’s nice to have Courtney to talk to,” Hebard said. “She tells stories about coach Graves, so we talk about that. She’s one of the best point guards I’ve played with. It’s fun to do the pick-and-roll with her. It’s easy to play with her.”
Wade has been encouraging Hebard to go with the flow of the game.
“At first I was just overthinking and coach and Courtney said, ‘Don’t think so much, just play,’ and every day I’ve gotten better just playing and understanding the offense and defense,” Hebard said. “I know once I just started to play my game, it’s been much smoother.”
She knows she will have to get stronger in transitioning to the pros.
“It’s definitely different from college,” she said. “The girls are better rebounders and stronger rebounders, so I definitely want to work on that and make it my strong suit in this season.”
Hebard is also working on her game on the opposite end of the court.
“I’m improving on low post moves – being patient with the ball, up and unders, pivoting, shimmies, and stuff like that,” she said. “It’s something I need to work on at this level because the girls are so smart and so big and strong.”
Her college teammates – No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu and No. 2 Satou Sabally – may have been chosen before her in thedraft, but Hebard has the best chance of winning in the WNBA, as she joins a squad with most of its players back.
“Everyone is super-focused and determined,” Hebard said of her teammates. “I think every single player on the Sky is an athlete and also a competitor, so, coming into a competitive atmosphere makes you want to be better.”
“It makes you hungry for winning the scrimmage, winning the practice, winning the whole thing. So, it’s fun to be on a team that cares about you, loves you from the start, and is also competitive and wants you to be a part of the success we’re about to have.”
Hebard is determined to make her mark.
“I just want to go in and be the best I can be at whatever they need me to do. I want to make an impact.”