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Chicago Sky players Stefanie Dolson (31), Cheyenne Parker (32), Diamond DeShields (1) and Courtney Vandersloot (22) look on during a game against the Washington Mystics on September 9, 2019. Photo credit: Domenic Allegra
Plenty of familiar faces began training camp with the Chicago Sky on Friday after a long delay, albeit in an unfamiliar place.
The lead-up to the 2020 season has been anything but consistent. An explosive free agency window was followed by months of questioning whether a WNBA season would — or should — happen amidst a global pandemic that has struck the United States harder than any other country. Even now, as most players have made their way to the league’s clean site in Bradenton, Florida, the season’s future is hazy.
Every team is searching for some semblance of stability, a hint of normalcy. The Sky are most likely to find it on their own roster.
Chicago was a turnover and a miracle heave away from advancing to the WNBA semifinals last year and now bring a stable roster into an abbreviated season where teams have less time than ever to gel. As a number of players around the league moved teams in free agency and via trade, general manager and head coach James Wade bet big on internal improvement.
“They’re coming off of a season where they’ve won, where they’ve even won a playoff game,” Wade said in June. “So that’s going to automatically give them confidence. Coming off the season before they had two lackluster seasons in terms of winning percentages. So they should come into the season with confidence, knowing what it takes to make a playoff run.”
Chicago retained most of its core during free agency, with seven of the Sky’s top eight minutes leaders returning this year.
Of course, continuity and consistency don’t tell the whole story—many teams lost key players in a busy WNBA free agency but also acquired talent in the process. And that’s not even to mention the Seattle Storm, who both return the most minutes in the league and welcome back future Hall of Famer Sue Bird and 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart from injury.
But Chicago may be in the best position in the league to get off to a hot start, which could mean a top playoff seed considering how little room for error a 22-game season leaves.
Both Stewart and Bird, who haven’t played since the 2018 Finals, will likely need time to adjust back to WNBA play. And the Indiana Fever, who return the second-most minutes, still have much to prove coming off of a 13-21 season with a new head coach at the helm. Other teams around the league will need to restructure around new, big-name arrivals and adjust for players sitting out the season.
The Sky, notably, do not have any players sitting out this year, although veteran forward Jantel Lavender was recently ruled out for the season following foot surgery and point guard Sydney Colson is in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19.
“That’s the blessing about our team: we came into this season already a cohesive unit,” Sky guard Diamond DeShields said. “We didn’t make too many roster changes. Obviously ‘Tel [Lavender] isn’t here and we added Z [Azurá Stevens] and Stella [Johnson] and Ruthie [Hebard], but as far as team cohesiveness we’re pretty solid there.”
Kahleah Copper and Gabby Williams also return to round out depth on the wing and in the back court. Either player could be due for a breakout year, but both stand to at least continue as defensive-minded plug-and-play contributors.
The only major question marks are in the front court, where Lavender’s injury and the departure of breakout forward Astou Ndour leave a gap to fill. Parker, who averaged the most minutes off the bench last year, is the logical candidate to start at the four. But the buzz around newcomer Stevens is palpable, and she’ll have an opportunity to make a significant impact in the front court.
“She plays hard, she’s coachable,” Wade said. “We’re happy to have her in our organization. We think that she’s going to be a Chicago Sky player for a long time to come. We don’t see her going anywhere.”
Stevens didn’t play much last year due to injury, but impressed the year prior as a rookie playing limited minutes. Her mobility and potential as a floor spacer should allow her to carve out her own niche in the Sky’s offense.
Like last season, Wade has opted not to set any public goals for his team in terms of postseason success. But Vandersloot made Chicago’s expectation clear after Saturday’s practice:
“We’re here to win a championship so I think that’s the motivation, that’s the mentality going forward.”