The Chicago Sky finally got all of their players back, just in time for media day.
CHICAGO — If for no other reason, media day was special for the Chicago Sky and new head coach James Wade as it was the first time the entire roster had shared the court together this training camp.
Wade now has just four days with the team to put the finishing touches on his system and get players up to speed. He said that the biggest focus moving forward is getting the team to gel together on the floor.
“I think yesterday when we played China it felt like we were a different team,” guard Allie Quigley said. “We had most of our players back, that kind of stuck out. We got a glimpse of what we could be this summer.”
Sky players echoed their feelings about how intense training camp has been thus far.
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“He’s kicking our butt, as he should,” point guard Courtney Vandersloot said. “That’s what training camp is for, just trying to get out the kinks and test us. Give us a little bit of adversity early so that the rest of the season we can [play] without issues.”
Vandersloot said that the transition from European postseason play into training camp practices has been a bit of a shock, but she has appreciated being able to be around for most of camp. In seasons past, Vandersloot has missed preseason due to overseas commitments.
Cheyenne Parker, who is entering her fifth year as big for the Sky, added that training camp has been intense and that Wade has high expectations for the players.
“I really like how we persevere,” Parker said. “We’ve been very busy every single day. Even on our off days like today we still have a lot to do. But in spite of that, when he’s expecting us to go hard, we push each other. The energy that we bring is just an amazing feeling.”
That energy stems from Wade just as much as it does the players on the floor.
“He is a high-energy coach and I think it’s contagious,” veteran center Stefanie Dolson said. “We’ve all kind of gotten that from him and the energy has been great in practice. The pressure, the intensity has been really high”
Growth has been a big point of emphasis for Wade, who has been focused on the day-to-day improvements of the team. He has made it clear that no long-term goals can be met without first taking care of the little things.
“He’s been pushing us to our limits,” second-year guard Diamond DeShields said. “He knows what we’re all capable of and he won’t allow us to settle for anything less. He’s been very, very adamant about us giving our best effort.”
DeShields was a focal point on the Sky’s offense last year and handled the brunt of team slashing duties. The 6’1 guard averaged 14.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists last year on 42.5% shooting from the field and 32.8% shooting from deep. A possible jump this year from DeShields could be the key to Chicago returning to the playoffs.
“Camp has been awesome,” Deshields said. “There’s a lot of information being thrown at us along with trying to get to know the new members of our team and our staff. But camp has been very, very productive and I feel very confident moving into the regular season with how camp has gone.”
Learning the system
With a new coach comes a new system for the Sky. Wade plans on having Chicago pushing the ball on the break and stretching the floor.
Vandersloot will be instrumental in orchestrating that Sky’s break this year. She set the single-season WNBA assists record last season, dishing out 258 assists in 30 games.
“I love it,” Vandersloot said. “He wants to play fast, he wants us to score a lot of points. And that’s a fun brand of basketball especially for the point guard position.”
DeShields also added that she loves the new system, which will expand on the Sky’s offensive style under former coach Amber Stocks.
“I feel like it’s a system that a lot of people are used to and that it suits our playing style,” Quigley said. “We want to play fast, we want to get a lot of shots up, a lot of threes. So I think it suits the kind of players we are.”
Wade said that he wants a big year from Quigley and that he expects her to be the team’s lead scorer again this season. The Joliet native’s ability to space the floor at an elite level should be an easy fit in the Sky’s new offense.
Quigley said that Wade wants the team to get up around 20 threes a game. The Sky shot 19.7 threes per game last year.
“I mean, we would be doing a disservice if we didn’t shoot the three,” DeShields said. “We have capable, capable 3-point shooters, one through five. So I guess I could say we’ll be shooting more threes.”
One addition who will help the Sky reach that total is Connecticut guard Katie Lou Samuelson. Samuelson finished her college career with 382 career three-point field goals, the second most in school history.
Samuelson has been playing the two, three and four during training camp. While she said she feels comfortable in all three slots on offense, she is still learning to defend the four spot, which she did not have to do in college. Her versatility will likely come into play when Wade opts to go small or run a five-out offense for stretches of time.
Improvements on defense
It is no secret the Sky have struggled on defense. Chicago has been a bottom-three team in defensive rating for three years straight, setting a WNBA record for the worst defensive rating in league history last year.
DeShields said that defense has been a focal point during training camp and that they have no choice but to improve.
That improvement could be made easier by the continuity of this year’s roster. Chicago is returning the seven players who played the most minutes for the team last year. But improvement will likely be a gradual process, rather than a dramatic shift, for the Sky.
“We have our athletic wings and I think that’s going to help a lot defensively,” Quigley said. “I think we’re just working on that every single day to try to become better.”
Quigley emphasized that the team understands the need to pick things up on defense this season, but noted that the team’s identity will lie more with the offense.
Sky players stressed the need for the team to be resilient over the course of the season, especially during rough patches.
“Losing sucks,” Parker said. “I think the biggest thing for us is learning how to bounce back. If you lost, okay, but learn from it and do something different for the next game so we don’t keep losing. I think that was the biggest hurdle [last year], just learning how to overcome a loss and get a win.”
The Sky dropped six games in a row in June last season, and then went on a three and four-game losing streak in July. Those streaks derailed Chicago’s season, and the team finished 13-21.
“I think we’re going to rely on James a lot,” Vandersloot said. “Our leaders, personally, me just being able to keep everyone [always] looking forward. Not dwelling on anything bad. We’re gonna lose, we’re gonna lose a game. We’re gonna drop some games. That’s just the nature of the sport and in this league, no one goes undefeated. So just being able to not let that turn into two or three like we have in the past. We have to adjust, move on, and be a different team the next time out.
Jantel Lavender trade
“Oh we had a trade?” Wade joked when asked about Chicago’s acquisition of former Sixth Woman of the Year and All-Star Lavender from the Los Angeles Sparks in exchange for a second-round draft pick.
“It was good for us,” Wade said. “We have coaches who have won a championship on the roster. Coach [Bridget] Pettis and myself. But we didn’t have a player in the locker room that’s won a championship and been through those wars. And we needed that for us, we needed that skill set for us. I think she helps a lot in showing us, ‘Hey, we have young players, but this is what it takes to win a championship.’”
Lavender averaged 5.2 points and 3.7 rebounds in 17 minutes per game for the Sparks last season. The 6-foot-4 center’s production has declined the past few season, but the Sky will look to reignite it this season.
The Sky traded third-year center Alaina Coates to the Minnesota Lynx on Tuesday, cementing more minutes for Lavender. Dolson said that adding more depth and skill to the front court was an important move for the Sky.
“My expectations are always high,” Lavender said. “I want to win a championship. I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. I think we need to trust the process, listen to what James says and do [what he says] to a T. When a team buys into what a coach says, the possibilities are endless.”
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