When the WNBA made the Chicago Sky the first independently owned franchise in the league, they hoped that the Sky could tap into the potentially lucrative Chicago market. For the team’s first six seasons that did not happen. While the talent on the team improved, the squad failed to make the playoffs in every season. In their seventh season, 2012, that may well change. In fact, barring significant injury, it should change.
Early in their existence, the Sky clearly decided to build through the draft. Their lack of success on the court gave them a perennial ticket to the draft lottery, where they used a succession of high draft picks to form an excellent core to their team. Some stuck in Chicago -- most notably, Sylvia Fowles, the No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft and perhaps one of the best centers in the game; Epiphanny Prince, the No. 4 pick in 2010, an explosive shooting guard who left Rutgers a year early and arrived in Chicago as a rookie with a year of European professional experience under her belt; and last year's No. 3 pick Courtney Vandersloot, a mid-major point guard whose scoring and passing set all-time NCAA records. Others became trade bait, among them, 2009's No. 3 pick Kristi Toliver, now with the Los Angeles Sparks; 2007's third pick Armintie Price, now filling the wing in Atlanta; and Candice Dupree, taken with the No. 6 overall pick in 2006 and now thriving with the Phoenix Mercury.
Last year, hopes for a turnaround ran high with the arrival of new coach Pokey Chatman. Things started out well enough, as a healthy Fowles produced a season worthy of MVP consideration, and the Sky spent much of the season hovering around the .500 mark, still in playoff contention in a tougher-than-ever Eastern Conference. But Vandersloot, who had started out strong, came to learn that the physicality and pace of the professional game is quite a bit different from what she had known in college, and ultimately, the wheels fell off the bus in September, as the Sky dropped five in a row to eliminate themselves. yet again, from the postseason..
This year, the Sky adopted a different approach, opting for experience over youth. Though they drew the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft in the lottery, they traded that pick to Seattle in return for All-Star and 10-year veteran Swin Cash, 6-0 forward Le’coe Willingham, a do-it-all reliever, and a second-round draft choice, which they used to select Temple's Shey Peddy.
They then signed veteran free agents Ruth Riley, a 6-5 center and one-time WNBA Finals MVP, and the league's all-time assists leader Ticha Penicheiro, who owns 2,560 dishes to date.
While all four players are in the waning years of their careers, they are all still capable of playing at an elite level. Three of the four have been All-Stars and, most importantly, all four have championship rings. It’s that winning experience that the team hopes will get them over the hump and into the playoffs because despite their rather dismal history, this is a team with plenty of talent.
Reinforcements in the Post
The strength of the team lies in the post. When the 2008 draft was held, the prize was Candace Parker. The Sky finished second in the draft lottery and “settled” for Sylvia Fowles. While Parker has been all that was advertised when she was healthy, she has battled injuries for the past two seasons and lost time to childbirth in her second year in the league.
Fowles, meanwhile, can make a strong case for being the league’s top player. She is coming off a season where she averaged 20 points, 10.2 rebounds and two blocks a game. She led the league in field-goal percentage (59.1 percent), blocks (2.0 per game) and efficiency (24.5), finished second in rebounding (10.2 rpg) and third in scoring (20 ppg) and was named WNBA Defensive Player of the Year.
Last season, Fowles put up her numbers without the benefit of a strong power forward against defenses that felt free to double and even triple-team her at will. That will not be the case this year as Fowles, just 26 and not yet at her physical peak, will now have the benefit of Riley and Willingham joining her in the post and forcing opposing defenses to pick their poison. The result: a very strong post game both offensively and defensively.
The Sky have tried similar experiments in the past, using 6-5 center Michelle Snow (now with the Washington Mystics) and 6-3 forward Cathrine Kraayeveld (now with the Atlanta Dream) to back up Fowles in the post, with mixed results. In Kraayeveld's case, the Sky used her as a reliever, covering for Fowles when injured (as has too often been the case) or giving her a few minutes of rest, rather than starting alongside her. Snow, on the other hand, did start alongside Fowles, but underachieved expectations, contributing on the boards (6.3 rbg) but averaging just 5.9 points in more than 24 minutes per game.
It's difficult to say whether the 6-5 Irish center will fare any better. Riley has never been a prolific scorer as a pro, but her production has eroded from a peak of 11.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game with Detroit in 2004 to just 5.6 points and 3.8 boards playing only 19 minutes per game last season as a starter for the Silver Stars.
For her part, Fowles told Full Court recently that she is looking forward to playing with Riley, who is expected to provide relief at the five-spot, in addition to starting alongside Fowles at power forward.
"I can't wait," Fowles stated. "She should take a lot of the pressure off of me, because teams will have to defend her too. And if they don't, she can make them pay."
Firepower on the Wing
This year's edition of the Sky will have two players who can score from the wing. Swin Cash has averaged less than double figures in points only once in her 10-year career and averaged 13.3 points per game last season in Seattle. She doesn’t boast the three-point shot that perimeter players usually have, knocking down just 28.5 percent of her long-ball attempts last season, but her athleticism and versatility, as well as her ability to choose between spotting up for a mid-range jumper or posting up and driving the lane, make her a match-up problem for most teams. As an added plus, Cash hits the boards in earnest, averaging 6.9 rebounds per game last year, and was also good for two assists. Beyond her numbers, Cash will fit quite naturally into a role as the team’s on-court leader.
At the shooting guard, third-year player Epiphanny Prince may be poised to make the jump to WNBA stardom. Her scoring average jumped four points to 13.6 per game last season after Chatman restored her to her natural position as a two-guard from the point where departed coach Steven Key had placed her, and Prince has the talent to make a similar improvement this year.
Prince will be the team’s main three-point threat, an area that has been and continues to be a weakness for the Sky. A decent, albeit uninspring, 37.3-percent long-range shooter last season, Prince will be counted on to hit enough treys to keep teams from collapsing on Fowles and taking away Cash’s drives. She could help the Sky significantly if she improves her three-point consistency.
Cash and Prince will be backed up by fourth-year pro Tamera Young. Young has started 47 of her 75 games since joining the Sky (with a brief hiatus in Atlanta) in 2009, but she will be coming off the bench this season, barring an injury to Cash or Prince. Young is no three-point shooter, knocking down just 14.3 percent of her attempts from beyond the arc last season, but she was good for 7.9 points in 24 minutes per game last year. However, she improved her field-goal shooting average to 42.5 percent last season from a career average of just .371, and if she can do the same this year, she will not hurt the team when she is on the floor.
Perfection at the Point
At point guard, Chicago coach Pokey Chatman has a close to perfect situation. Second-year point guard Courtney Vandersloot was forced into the starting rotation as a rookie by an injury to Dominque Canty; she responded with a solid rookie year that included the predictable rookie errors. This season she will have not only the advantage of a year’s experience but also the league’s all-time assist leader, Penicheiro, backing her up and mentoring her.
Penicheiro, who will turn 38 next month, is not only one of the flashiest players around, she is one of the smartest. She is a classic pass-first point guard, who still averaged a league-best 4.8 assists per game last year with the Sparks, but contributed just six points per game on average. Still, while scoring is not her first instinct, her shooting percentages were better than ever last season; she can score off the drive (48.6 percent last year) or knock down a rare three (41.7 percent on 15-of-36 from the arc), making a defender pay for underestimating her. Her minutes have dwindled over the years, down to 23.7 minutes per game last season, and she has slowed a bit, giving up ground on defense to younger, speedier guards. But she can still explode for big games, and she has a lot to teach. Vandersloot is a player who is willing to listen and she should learn much from the veteran.
Short Bench Places a Premium on Starters Staying Healthy
Those eight players will form a solid nucleus for the Sky. They will score and rebound well. However, the remaining three players on the roster -- Eshaya Murphy, Carolyn Swords and -- do not appear to have the ability to make significant contributions. The one exception could be Murphy, who has bounced around from bench to bench during her five years in the league but had two double-digit outings in preseason action, doubling her career average of 4.9 points per game to 9.8 so far this season. Swords, the 6-6 center out of Boston College also had a nice preseason foray, putting up a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds against the New York Liberty earlier this week, but saw very limited action (7.5 mpg) with proportionate results (2.7 ppg, 1.8 rbg) last season, and with Riley now on the roster is unlikely to see appreciably more time this year.
Six-one Serbian forward Sonja Petrovic, a rookie, was acquired from the San Antonio Silver Stars in March in exchange for a second-round 2013 draft pick. Largely an unknown quantity in the States, Petrovic played for Chatman's Euroleague squad Spartak Moscow last season, averaging nine points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game and, perhaps most importantly, shooting 46.9 percent from three-point range.
"I've had the pleasure of coaching Sonja for the past few years and her skill set and basketball IQ can't be denied,” said Chatman in announcing the acquisition. “She can shoot the three, put it on the floor, crash the boards well for her size, and impact our transition game. I'm looking forward to having her join our team."
Petrovic has reported to training camp, recently posing for photos with the Chicago Sky guy, but has yet to appear in a game. The 23-year-old could prove to be the solution to the Sky's three-point shooting woes, but at least for now, this is a team with a lack of bench depth for whom the success of the season depends heavily on remaining healthy.
The added firepower could be the secret to Chicago's breakout season, especially if the Sky maintain -- or better yet, improve -- their defense. Even with Defensive Player of the Year Fowles in the middle and Prince averaging over two steals a game on the perimeter, the team gave up over 75 points a game in 2011. That was far from the league's worst scoring defense -- the Atlanta Dream, for example, gave up 80.8 and won the Eastern Conference.
In fact, Chicago had one of the WNBA's stingiest perimeter defenses, allowing opponents only 33.7 percent from beyond the arc, and were second only to the Minnesota Lynx in field-goal percentage defense, where they allowed their adversaries only 41.8 percent field-goal shooting.
Their problem was two-fold: First, while giving up those 75.2 points per game, they put up only 74.2 on the scoreboard themselves. That made them one of only four teams in the league with a negative scoring differential (-0.94).
That's not a lot, but it still accounts for their many close losses last season. And that's where their second problem arose: Their defense seemed to fall apart, hurting them badly in close games when they were consistently unable to get stops as the clock wound down.
This could be the area where the veteran additions help most. All have played on championship teams that were also good defensive teams who knew how to make plays down the stretch in close games. It is the knowledge they gained in those games that they must pass on to their teammates if the sky is to break out of the doldrums in 2012.
In any event, the Sky will begin their 2012 quest for redemption with the following roster (newcomers are highlighted in boldface):
- Sky get Cash, Willingham from Storm in blockbuster deal
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