In February the Chicago Sky traded their 2019 first round pick, Katie Lou Samuelson, and a 2021 first round pick to the Dallas Wings for forward Azurá Stevens. The swap was completed not only to appease the unhappy Samuelson, but also to nab a versatile post player in Stevens that Sky head coach and general manager James Wade coveted.
“With her size and skill set, she fills a hole that we are currently lacking in and need to reach the next level,” Wade said after the trade.
Stevens, now in her third year, brings versatility on both ends of the court, and adds a new dimension to Chicago’s already-impressive front court.
Last year in Dallas Stevens only played in nine games due to a nagging foot injury that wound up requiring surgery. Fans and experts alike wonder if she will return to form after missing nearly a year of basketball. But Wade is confident she will exceed all expectations.
“We do a lot of player development with her,” Wade said. “We do a lot of film study specifically, individually, and a lot with her. We did a lot of film study of her before, and we felt that it should be a seamless transition.”
“The only thing we were worried about was probably the fatigue factor, and her getting adapted to playing in a 40-minute game, because she hasn’t really played in a year and a half.”
Wade is counting on Stevens’ competitiveness.
“She’s a player,” he said. “The WNBA is about talent, and if you have talent, then that’s going to help you. We’re not worried about incorporating her, we’re just worried about her getting her body right. We think our offense will complement her and she will complement our offense.”
Is Stevens the missing piece to Chicago’s championship puzzle? We sat down to talk with her.
How has training camp gone for you so far with your new team?
It’s been good. Obviously, it’s been an adjustment period getting to know the plays and the players that I’m playing with more. I feel like every day I’ve gelled with them a lot better. Each day we’ve gotten better as a team. Even myself just getting to know this system more. Overall, it’s been a really good camp.
What’s been the toughest thing to adjust to?
I’d say for my personal self, my pace. Because I’m obviously coming back from an injury, it can be feeling like I’ve missed a bunch of time and I want to get it back in one possession. I think just letting the game come to myself has been the toughest thing, personally.
Do you feel comfortable practicing on your surgically-repaired foot?
Yeah, 100 percent. I feel really good. I finished my PT before I came here. Even just being here, Meghan [Lockerby] and even James have been really good. We’ve been in a lot of open communication about how I’m feeling day-to-day. I’m just listening to my body. I feel great. When I’m on the court I don’t think about my foot at all, which is a really good feeling.
Have you changed the way that you take care of your body since last season?
Oh yeah [laughs]! Surgery definitely helped me be more in touch with my body and what it needs instead of doing what other people think is right or what other people are doing. It helped me to really understand my body more. So, I definitely have a better sense of what I need after each practice, what I need to recover, and what I need to do to feel right and ready for each game and practice. So, I definitely feel a lot more on top of things in that sense.
Were you surprised that you were traded to Chicago in February, and what was your reaction once you heard the news?
Yeah, I was really surprised. I was not expecting it at all – like, at all. I can’t really say that I was upset that I was. I was really looking forward to being with this team. That speaks to that side of it, Honestly, a lot of people know me and Gabby (Williams, former teammate at UConn) are really, really close. So, the thought of us being back together was awesome. I knew of most of the players on the team.
It’s actually funny because in my rookie year when we used to play against Chicago I would go out to eat with them after the game. I got to know some of them through that as well, just because of me and Gabby, So, I was excited, honestly. I didn’t really know James, but one of the first conversations we had I just knew it was going to be an awesome experience being a part of this team. I didn’t shed any tears leaving. It was just smooth sailing, happiness moving forward. In all seriousness, since I’ve been here I’ve really felt like part of a family, which has been a really good feeling.
Just watching you guys it seems like the camaraderie is off the court as much as on the court. Did you feel immediately welcomed by your new teammates?
Immediately. Obviously, I didn’t get to see them until we started training in Chicago a little bit before coming, but we were doing Zoom calls leading up to it. I don’t know, I just felt really comfortable with everyone on the team, which is really great. And then some of the conversations we had was about what happened with George Floyd. They were real conversations. I’m not really the type of person to open up to a lot of people until I’m comfortable, but I felt so comfortable with this team that I was opening up to them. We shared special moments even before we started playing. Even now, being here we obviously get to spend a lot of time together. It’s just fun being here with this team. For all of us it was a hard decision thinking about coming to the bubble in the middle of a pandemic, but being able to do it with people you call your family is special.
For fans in Chicago who aren’t familiar with your game how would you describe what you bring to this team?
I think I bring a lot of different aspects to the team. I’m a versatile player, so I can post you up, I can face you up, I can play on the perimeter, I can bring the ball up – even though I won’t need to be doing that with (point guard Courtney Vandersloot) Sloot here [laughs]! In all seriousness, I’m a versatile post player. That’s one way that I like to characterize my game. I’m just a mismatch for a lot of post players and teams in general. Defensively I can affect the game, too. Rebounds, I bring that to the table, blocked shots, steals, deflections, and even just altering shots. That’s something that I’ve grown to become better in – defensively having the same mindset as offensively. I’m just looking to add to the team in any way that I can, but that’s a little bit of my game for fans.
In doing my research I saw that you shot 31 percent from three in your rookie year. I was not aware that you can shoot the three as well. Is that something that you’ve been allowed to do in practice?
Oh yeah. James lets all of us play our game, which I love. He doesn’t want to put anyone in a box, and I think it’s a beautiful thing. I think it allows us to explore and display our passion and love for the game out on the court and what we can do. It’s hard to do that when you have a coach that restricts you, and it’s kind of frustrating. We love this game and put a lot of time into it. In a way it’s art for us to get out there and play freely, and that’s what he allows us to do. I’ve been able to just play my game in practice, which has been really fun.
Did coach Wade tell you that you would be starting at the four when the season starts?
No. I’m not sure what’s going to happen with everything. I’m just waiting to see how it pans out.
Does it matter to you?
I mean, no. I approach the game the same if I’m coming in or I’m starting. I’m going to be dialed in either way.
Do you feel that you have something to prove after the way last season in Dallas went for you?
I don’t know. Not really. I’m just approaching the game as coming in and picking back up where I left off. Obviously last year was really frustrating because I was injured. I wasn’t able to play the game the way that I know I can play. It’s not really anything to prove to the fans. It’s just for me to prove to myself that I can work my way back to where I was before and get back to where I was at. I don’t feel a pressure to prove anything. I’m just really, really looking forward to being back out on the court and doing what I love to do – and doing it in a healthy way – not while I’m injured.
What are your personal goals for your first season with the Sky?
I think it’s almost like picking back up where I left off with my rookie year. Just coming out with a fire and passion that I had that year and really just displaying what I can do. Last year was just difficult obviously because I was injured. I was not able to focus on basketball the way that I wanted to. Now that I’m healthy and feeling good I’m just looking to come out and pick back up where I left off.