Can 2023 Sky maintain standard set by past stars?

The team James Wade constructed will only go as far as two-time All-Star and the 2021 WNBA Finals MVP Kahleah Copper takes them.

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Sky guard Kahleah Copper poses for portrait during media day at the Sachs Recreation Center in Deerfield.

Sky guard Kahleah Copper poses for portrait during media day at the Sachs Recreation Center in Deerfield.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Shadows loom large over the Sky in 2023.

One is a 6-4 superstar from Naperville with two league MVPs and two titles under her belt.

Another is a 5-8 point guard who might go down as the best the WNBA has ever seen.

The third is another local star whose story of perseverance that led to a history-making four three-point titles was inspirational.

Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley are all gone, taking their title-contending goals with them. The consensus from many seems to be that it’s time to move on. What needs to be understood is that there is no way to fully do that. Not when this group will be tasked with upholding their level of excellence and relevance in a sports market where it’s hard to come by.

Kahleah Copper will be shouldering that load.

“No pressure at all,” Copper said. “Before this season started everything was so new. Coming here, meeting everybody and going through camp, these are the people that I want to go to war with.”

That fiery mentality has carried beyond Copper.

Sky coach/general manager James Wade has a group of players he said all arrived with a chip on their shoulder. It’s easy to see why this is an unproven group expected to uphold a fresh championship identity built by stars. The question is will they be successful at proving that they are more than just the team that followed Parker, Vandersloot and Quigley’s abrupt exits?

This time last year, Wade’s team was fielding questions about their goals to become the first team in WNBA history to win back-to-back titles in 20 years. This year, that expectation is gone but a different pressure has replaced it. The pressure to maintain the standard set by the Sky’s previous two teams.

“If it was a straight line and all you had to do was walk forward that wouldn’t be fun,” Wade said. “You want to turn a little bit and figure some stuff out, not see around the corner and get through it and lean on each other to do so. When you think the road is straight you don’t need anybody’s help. I want us to lean on each other, and depend on each other. It’s going to take a collective effort to do that.”

What happened this free-agency period is not the story of a championship-contending team falling to the bottom of league standing. But the team Wade constructed will only go as far as Copper, a two-time All-Star and the 2021 WNBA Finals MVP, takes them.

She is in the self-proclaimed driver’s seat and her teammates are already fully trusting where she’ll lead them.

“We’re going to let Kah [lead] first,” Dana Evans said. “And then we’re going to go. What I love about her is she’s also leading by example. She’s first in every drill and always setting the tempo then we kind of feed off of her.”

Aside from Copper, the Sky’s two other All-Stars are Courtney Williams and Elizabeth Williams, both with one nod to their name.

Sky guard Courtney Williams poses for portrait during media day.

Sky guard Courtney Williams poses for portrait during media day.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Whether it’s a lack of star power or just the unknown of this group, national publications’ preseason rankings have the Sky finishing anywhere from 10th to last place. The entire team already has seen those projections.

“If they don’t know basketball, I don’t know what to tell them,” Marina Mabrey said.

“It was comical,” Courtney Williams added.

The two teams at the top of those projections are the Las Vegas Aces, who picked off Parker from the Sky, and the New York Liberty, who snagged Vandersloot.

On Wednesday afternoon, Sky ownership was scheduled to meet with the media as questions surround the franchise’s plans for the future. While franchises like the Aces and Liberty continue to gain competitive advantages through investment, Sky ownership has been silent with their plans to keep up.

But the team had no answer for ownership’s absence at media day.

Observing the state-of-the-art training facilities that are being built elsewhere and amenities that have contributed to landing the league’s biggest free agents, Wade appears to be using it as fuel.

“The noise is going to make us stronger and make us a more cohesive unit,” Wade said. “They have some beautiful names in other locker rooms. But at the end of the day, you have to see us on the floor. No matter how beautiful your locker room is or how big your private plane is, you can’t bring that stuff with you on the court.”

The Sky waived Angel Baker Wednesday evening, Wade’s first roster cut over a week into training camp. His final 11- to 12-player roster will need to be solidified by the league’s May 18 deadline.

In 2019, Wade led a similar Sky team that garnered low expectations to the second round of the playoffs. From there he built the team out into the eventual 2021 WNBA champions they became.

This year carries some of those same similarities. How long it takes for them to reemerge as a contender depends on the cohesion and success developed this season.

One thing the Sky are already in agreement on is that they’re going to shock many.

“Tenth right?” Copper asked when preseason rankings came up. “I pay it no mind. But it’s always good to keep in the back of your mind for that extra motivation.”

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