It is easy to read the topline data from the 2017 Chicago Sky season—a 12-22 record, no playoffs, bottom quarter of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency—and miss the unmistakable evidence that the next great Sky team started taking shape even before the season ended. Some rebuilding was inevitable after trading Elena Delle Donne, the face of the franchise, but injuries and an overseas tournament decimated the roster. This year, not only are they starting out with their foundation in place, last year’s brutal record helped them add missing pieces with two electric picks in the draft.
Stefanie Dolson, who headlined the Delle Donne trade, posted the best season of her career, and the extroverted, agile, sweet-shooting center seems to be growing into her role as the deal’s centerpiece. Joining her in a lineup that keyed an 8-4 stretch after a 3-12 start were Courtney Vandersloot, who returned midseason from overseas commitments and posted a league-leading assist percentage of 41.9—no surprise from the current active WNBA leader in the stat—and DePaul alumna Allie Quigley, who led the team in scoring and posted the best player efficiency rating of her career in 2017, making the All-Star team for the first time at the age of 31.
Once Vandersloot entered the starting lineup, the Sky competed with the very best in the league—routing the eventual champion Minnesota Lynx, winning on the road against playoff teams like New York, Los Angeles, and Connecticut, doing it with a transition offense that ranked second in the league in points per possession.
“I think we're all really excited for Sloot to get back,” Dolson said in a phone interview earlier this month. Unlike last season, Vandersloot is due back in time for the season opener May 19 in Indiana, before the Sky come home to face the Liberty on May 20. “I think we hit our stride towards the end of the season because we finally built that chemistry so I'm really looking forward to her getting back from overseas. And then, hopefully having that connection already and that chemistry, it'll just come back to us even quicker than it did last season.”
Meanwhile, general manager Amber Stocks gave head coach Amber Stocks an early 2018 present, trading Tamera Young and Imani McGee-Stafford to the Atlanta Dream for Jordan Hooper and the big prize, a 2018 draft pick that turned out to be a lottery selection. Between their own pick and that one, the Sky managed to select third and fourth in one of the deeper drafts in recent memory, adding a pair of athletic, versatile wings in Gabby Williams and Diamond DeShields, who fit perfectly with the up-tempo system Stocks runs.
Last season’s second-overall pick center Alaina Coates, a big, physical, yet fast center, will also make her WNBA debut after missing all of last season due to a severe ankle injury (the former South Carolina star had to use a rehab scooter at the draft). And with speedy backup point guard Jamierra Faulkner back after missing the 2017 season due to a knee injury, Stocks has a team with the kind of depth to adjust to different matchups and avoid the late-season slump that torpedoed their unlikely playoff push in the middle of last year.
“When you look at the five players [starting] plus Kahleah Copper, Cheyenne Parker, Alaina Coates, Alex Montgomery, Jordan Hooper, and Jamierra Faulkner, we have significant depth on our roster,” Stocks said in a phone interview. “If we could play a game in ten minutes, then yes, figuring out the best five players would be vital. However, it's forty minutes. And forty minutes in a condensed schedule with a lot of back to back or three or four games in a week. And therefore, figuring out the best ten-player rotation is going to work to our advantage.”
The identity starts with integrating Williams and DeShields into the team, something they Sky are doing consecutively—Williams joined them for the start of training camp, while DeShields is completing her season overseas, though expected back by the start of the regular campaign. Each of them provide significant defensive help—Williams plays well above her 5'11 frame thanks to an otherworldly leaping ability, with a block percentage north of two percent, and her quickness allows her to jump into passing lanes, topping three percent in steal percentage her senior year at Connecticut.
DeShields—daughter of onetime Chicago Cub Delino DeShields—has done much the same thing everywhere she's gone, both in collegiate stops at North Carolina and Tennessee, then overseas this past year. With her 6'1 height, she'll probably be guarding more opposing fours, but their interchangeability and ability to fit roles alongside Dolson's move to a more traditional five, along with continued firepower out of the backcourt pair of Quigley and Vandersloot should make for one of the league's most effective starting lineups.
“Gabby and Diamond are missing pieces to our entire roster,” Stocks put it simply. “They fit us.”
But it is beyond the starting five where the Sky could see even greater gains. Stocks pointed out that Coates scores extremely well on the run, a vital skill for Dolson's backup. While Dolson dominates in the halfcourt set, ranked eighth in the league in points per possession in those sets, that ranking drops to 46th in transition.
Stocks said she's expected Dolson to get more efficient around the basket, further playing to her strengths, but the presence of a center who shot better than 43 percent from three provides an opportunity for the Sky to stretch the floor at all times, giving both Vandersloot and Faulkner ample opportunity to slash and score or drive and kick to shooters. Copper and Montgomery both offer additional options for Stocks on the wing, Parker is another big body inside, and Hooper is a shooter who can spell Quigley.
It all makes for compelling basketball to watch, and there might be more fans doing so, now that the team has moved from the suburban Allstate Arena to the Wintrust Arena downtown.
The biggest takeaway from this roster is that it's easy to see precisely how everyone fits, a remarkable achievement itself in Stocks' second full season, including “players coming off our bench who would be starters on other teams”, as Stocks put it. The goals are more process-based, though reaching them will almost certainly mean a return to the playoffs: leading the league in pace, finishing in the top four in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The horizon, though, extends beyond this year.
“We're taking a long-term approach here,” Stocks said. “We're not just trying to win opening weekend, we want to win over the long haul. And again, not even just this season, but a big picture approach here, creating something that's built to last.”