Late in shootaround last week in Westchester, as Chicago Sky coach Amber Stocks prepared for that night's game against the New York Liberty, she ran five trusted players through a late-game scenario—five seconds to get a three off an inbounding play.
Naturally, Stefanie Dolson, the team's all star center, was on the court. So was their newest centerpiece, Diamond DeShields, the third pick in this year's draft. The veteran backcourt, Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot, were there as well.
And the fifth player? Well, that would be Cheyenne Parker, all 6'4" of her, who may well be having the best season of them all at age 25, after struggling to get regular playing time in each of her first three WNBA seasons.
“One thing about Amber, she's very blunt,” Parker said, standing near the County Center court after that shootaround ended. “She was very clear. She said, you know, you're going to have a lot more minutes coming, so realize that it can either be a lot more chances to mess up and have turnovers, but it's also a chance for you to do well and be better. I looked at that as a focus to be better.”
Parker's emergence this season has been a critical part of the Sky's evolution, a perfect marriage of player talent, system and opportunity. On a team with established stars and superlative rookies, Parker leads the team in player efficiency rating (a catch-all stat measuring value) at 21.3 through July 5, a rating that places her sixteenth in the entire league, ahead of Maya Moore, Skyler Diggins-Smith and Tina Charles. Her true shooting percentage of .609 ranks just behind the sharpshooting Quigley, while her defensive rebounding percentage of 25.8 is sixth in the league.
If that array of stats sounds like a player that's hard to define, that's because she is—both due to what she can do on the floor and the way Stocks' system utilizes even the biggest players on the floor.
During the time Dolson missed with a strained tendon, Parker was the team's primary option at the center spot. But her best role, where she's excelled, is in lineups alongside Dolson or rookie center Alaina Coates, with those two playing the five and Parker operating out of the high post at the four, where she's facile enough to force defenses to account for her jump shots, athletic enough to drive to the rim or crash the boards, and perceptive enough to find teammates with the right pass.
“Cheyenne Parker is not a four, she's not a five, she's just a player,” Stocks said. “Cheyenne Parker, to me, is an ideal forward in that she has the finesse, but more importantly, she has the grit. And she plays so tough.”
The grit has always been there, from the moment former Sky general manager Pokey Chatman made Parker the fifth overall pick in the 2015 WNBA Draft, following a collegiate career at High Point and Middle Tennessee. Still, it took refinement for Parker to earn more regular court time from Stocks, a process she took to another level this offseason while playing in Poland.
She'd spend the long days abroad looking at film from last season, trying to process what she needed to do within the Sky sets to earn the time she believed she was ready to capitalize on. And it didn't hurt that with Wisla Krakow she was a primary offensive option, sinking 48.3 percent of her threes.
“I would say that the biggest help with that is confidence,” Parker said. “Being over there, in Poland, it was important for me to score, so wherever I was on the court, I had to make sure I was confident in taking the shot. With that, I tried to carry that over into this season—just realize it's the same game and it's the same ball and it's the same basket.”
Parker's taken a sprinkling of threes so far for the Sky—it's virtually a prerequisite for Stocks, who takes justified pride in an ability to turn virtually any player into an effective three-point shooter—but where she's most effective is that free throw line extended spot. Last season, she attempted six shots there all season, and made just one of them. So far in 2018, she's taken 12 already, making six.
And that has a carryover effect—defenders have to respect that shot, giving Parker easier access to drive to the hoop, where both her efficiency and attempts per game are up, while also opening more passing lanes. This has led to Parker making what both she and Stocks call “the better pass”—her turnover percentage has dropped from 19.8 last year to just 12.9 this season.
It's effectively given Stocks three different frontcourts to choose from. DeShields is the constant. But with Dolson at the five, the Sky have the ability to deploy a lineup where all five players can shoot from anywhere. With Coates in the game, they can focus more on crashing the boards and getting points on putbacks. Gabby Williams complements either player, and can defend out to the perimeter on rangier fours.
And Parker has the physicality to matchup against teams that deploy multiple bigs.
Getting Parker to that next level of defending is where Stocks is training her focus right now. Stocks noted that during Dolson's absence, the Sky saw their defensive rating plummet. And while Parker is making the smarter pass, Stocks wants her to make it more offense.
“The next step for Cheyenne's offensively is again going to be to anticipate the rotations and get up into the next action,” Stocks said. “Defensively, anticipate and get into it quicker. Extend her ability to guard on the perimeter.”
Parker doesn't doubt her game is headed in that direction. She said these three years, averaging fewer than 15 minutes per game in each, in and out of the team's rotations, were tough on her emotionally.
“I questioned my own confidence,” Parker said. “But I just tried to continue to believe. I'm very spiritual, so I continue to give it to God and pray on it and I worked hard. I continue to work hard and work on my game. I knew it was going to come, so I wasn't really much concerned about when it would come, because everything is in God's time, so I just continued to work hard and I knew the time was going to come eventually.”
This winter she told friends and family that she felt her time had come. And now that it has—Stocks, rightly, plugged her for sixth woman of the year honors—both player and coach alike see a straight path to stardom ahead.
"I think Stefanie showed us just how special post players can be,” Stocks said. “Tina Charles is another example. I think that Cheyenne Parker has that capability to be an All Star in this league. She puts in the work, she studies the game—I mean, loves to play basketball; so passionate about the game. And on top of that, she's extremely coachable. She wants to get better. She's a great teammate. She has all the tools and on top of that, she's just really really skilled and really talented. And I think that she has the potential to be an impact player as well as an All Star.”