Sky’s Kahleah Copper has sights set on new heights in playoffs

In 17 games before the break, Copper averaged 13.8 points (44.4% shooting) and 5.1 rebounds. In 12 games since, she was averaging 17.8 points (50% shooting) and 6.8 rebounds.

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The Sky’s Kahleah Copper drives to the basket during a game against the Connecticut Sun in July.

The Sky’s Kahleah Copper drives to the basket during a game against the Connecticut Sun in July.

NBAE via Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — Kahleah Copper’s ability to pick apart defenses is a thing of beauty.

When the 6-1 wing drives in transition, she’s like a speeding freight train, leaving defenders stumbling on their back foot. In the halfcourt, she’s a chef, dicing up double-teams in the paint before kicking the ball out to a teammate or scoring through contact. In one-on-one scenarios, Copper shifts her body to elevate around her defender to the rim.

Nobody in the WNBA has a more explosive first step.

“It’s the competitor in me,” said Copper, who had a game-high 28 points in the Sky’s 89-78 loss to the Las Vegas Aces on Thursday. “I just want to win over you in this possession. Coming down, to see the defense deflate is what I want.”

During free agency last winter, coach/general manager James Wade used the core tag on Copper. The move, one of Wade’s first in free agency, signaled Copper’s importance in the Sky’s efforts to win back-to-back titles but also her status as the future of the franchise.

The recognition, she said, hasn’t altered her mentality or given her any reason to let up. Wade and her teammates can attest to that. Copper is a natural-born leader, often described as the energy behind the Sky’s success. The effort she gives on the court remains the same whether she’s in practice or trying to close out an overtime victory.

“As a franchise player, you still have to have the blue-collar mentality,” Candace Parker said. “Yes, her role has shifted, but her mentality hasn’t, and that’s a positive, not a negative.”

When Copper returned to the Sky at the end of May from her overseas responsibilities for Perfumerias Avenida, after securing two more MVP honors (Spanish League and EuroLeague), she said she wanted more. As the regular season comes to a close with the Sky tied for the best record in the league, Copper has delivered on her personal expectations.

She’s averaging 15.5 points, up from 14.4 in 2021, and her three-point percentage has improved from 30.6% to 36.8%. Defensively, she has been relentless for the Sky.

But since the All-Star break, Copper has taken her game to another level.

In 17 games before the break, Copper was averaging 13.8 points (44.4% shooting) and 5.1 rebounds. In 12 games since, she was averaging 17.8 points (50% shooting) and 6.8 rebounds.

“I was watching games, and it’s not that I was relaxed, but I wasn’t being super-aggressive,” Copper said. “You see post-All-Star, I’m much more aggressive, offensively and defensively.”

In the Sky’s 95-92 overtime victory July 31 against the Connecticut Sun, Copper caught the ball on the wing in the final 30 seconds of the second quarter. Azurá Stevens set a screen for Copper, who drove hard to her right past Courtney Williams and Alyssa Thomas before being met by Brionna Jones in the paint. Copper leaped off her left foot, rising above the 6-3 Jones.

The still frames show Copper’s well-known finger-roll layup, but the height she reached opened up the possibility for more. She has been asked since then if she can dunk. Copper confidently responded that there’s no question about her ability to get up, but she hasn’t actually tried it yet. Wade has teased Copper about dunking, but the two haven’t talked about adding it to her repertoire.

What is being discussed is their playoff game plan, which will rely heavily on Copper’s prowess in the paint. Since the All-Star Game, Wade’s rotation has seen subtle changes in preparation for the playoffs.

His 11-player rotation has tightened to eight and sometimes nine players in the last five games. Wade said he’ll be pushing certain players, especially Copper, to 30-plus minutes per game.

Last summer, Copper broke out in the playoffs en route to WNBA Finals MVP honors. This year, as the Sky try to become the first team to win back-to-back titles in 20 years, Copper’s approach is similar to last year.

“I want to make sure I get better,” Copper said. “However that looks, from the regular season to the postseason, I have to get better somewhere.”

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