Kahleah Copper’s methodical rise has Sky on the cusp of their first WNBA title
Through the Sky’s captivating WNBA Finals run, Kahleah Copper is averaging 18.6 points on 53.5% shooting, 5.7 rebounds and two assists.
The morning after leading the Sky to a historic WNBA Finals victory Friday against the Mercury by scoring a game-high 22 points, Kahleah Copper woke up early to make breakfast.
Her morning routine is pretty typical: breakfast, treatment, practice.
On game days, Copper squeezes in a nap between treatment and her arrival at Wintrust Arena or wherever the Sky are playing on the road.
There was nothing typical about this Saturday morning, however — and not because the Sky are one victory away from their first WNBA championship.
No, this Saturday morning was special because Copper woke up early to make breakfast for 15 of her closest friends and family from North Philadelphia.
‘‘I let them stay at my place, and I’m at the hotel [with the team],’’ Copper said.
Copper might be a breakout star to some, but to the group in town and countless others back home in North Philly, she’s just ‘‘Kah’’ — the one who brings everyone together for quality time.
Off the court, Copper laughs a lot, like a big kid. She’s thoughtful, always doing the most for teammates on their birthdays, and never misses an opportunity to hype them up.
On the court, she’s lethal. Copper — who says the person she is on the court is her alter ego — consistently has picked apart opponents’ defenses all season, but she has steamrolled teams in the playoffs, averaging 18.6 points on 53.5% shooting to go with 5.7 rebounds and two assists.
Her quick first step and ability to contort her body going to the rim makes her a difficult matchup. The Mercury had no answer for her in the Sky’s 86-50 victory in Game 3, with guard Skylar Diggins-Smith noting after the game that nobody has had an easy time defending Copper this season.
But while many are quick to frame it as a meteoric rise, Copper has been chipping away at this for years.
“We used to see [this competitiveness every day,]” Sky coach/general manager James Wade said. “Even when she wasn’t playing as much. So, it’s no surprise to us. We know what we have in her. Now, she’s letting the world know.”
The work she was putting in took center stage last season, when Copper moved into the Sky’s starting lineup. Until then, she had started 15 games in four seasons and was averaging 15 minutes a game.
Copper didn’t have to get ready for the WNBA’s ‘‘bubble’’ season because she had stayed ready. Her minutes doubled and her scoring average jumped from 6.7 to 14.9 points in one season.
Before this season, Copper started working directly with Sky assistant Olaf Lange, the husband of Mercury coach Sandy Brondello. Lange’s coaching career includes EuroLeague titles and stops with the German men’s and women’s national teams.
Lange’s first WNBA coaching opportunity came in 2007, when he was hired as an assistant with the Stars. Becky Hammon was the player he was assigned to work with, and the two spent a lot of time on finishing drills.
When Hammon was in Phoenix for Game 1 of the Finals, she caught up with Lange and had some thoughts about Copper’s game.
‘‘Becky was impressed with her speed,’’ Lange said. ‘‘She said, ‘Copper’s ability to finish at the rim at the speed she’s going is outstanding.’ ’’
To be recognized like that by one of the best finishing guards in WNBA history is one indication among many of how Copper’s stock continues to rise. Lange has used the same drills with Copper in the last year, and her improved ability to attack and finish at the rim is the result.
In the Finals, the Mercury have thrown a few defensive looks at Copper. Diana Taurasi, Diggins-Smith and Sophie Cunningham all have given it their best shot, but Copper has exploited every one of them.
In Game 4 on Sunday, Copper once again will be the fuel the Sky will rely on to reach their goal of winning a WNBA championship.
The physicality and defensive pressure Copper undoubtedly will have to withstand are what drive her.
‘‘It’s reassurance that I am what they think I am,’’ Copper said.
A potential WNBA Finals most valuable player? We’ll see.