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Sports Saturday

Astou Ndour credits James Wade for WNBA opportunity, but is that enough to keep her with Sky in 2020?

“He’s known me since Day 1,” Astou Ndour said of Sky GM James Wade. “Like, [because of] him, I’m in the WNBA now.”

In 2019, Astou Ndour soared to unexpected heights in place of the injured Jantel Lavender.
Last season with the Sky, Astou Ndour soared to unexpected heights in place of the injured Jantel Lavender.
AP Photos

Center Astou Ndour has known Sky general manager and coach James Wade for a while. In 2014, Wade was an assistant on the San Antonio Stars’ staff while Ndour was a rising star in Europe. Recognizing Ndour’s raw talent and potential, Wade persuaded coach Dan Hughes to select her 16th overall in that year’s WNBA draft.

Since then, the two have established a good rapport. It helps that Wade can speak to Ndour in French when he’s breaking down specifics for her in practices and games.

“He’s known me since Day 1,” Ndour said. “Like, [because of] him, I’m in the WNBA now.”

Ndour, a restricted free agent who returned to Euroleague play last month after surgery Oct. 11 for a torn meniscus, feels loyal to Wade. But that loyalty will be tested in free agency after she turned heads with a breakout performance in 2019.

Last season, Ndour played a key role in the Sky’s frontcourt in the second half last year, replacing starting power forward Jantel Lavender in the lineup when Lavender went down with a season-ending foot injury.

In 11 regular-season starts, Ndour averaged 10.7 points (on 50 percent shooting) and 7.1 rebounds — a drastic jump from the 2.5 points and one rebound she averaged in 10 games off the bench.

She also played an important part in the Sky’s two playoff games, averaging 16.5 points — second to only guard Diamond DeShields — and a team-leading 8.5 rebounds.

Ndour is one of seven Sky free agents Wade hopes to re-sign in the coming weeks. He has already reached out to each of them since teams could begin talking with free agents last week. Players can’t sign new contracts until Monday.

“He was asking me how I feel [about] the team, if I want to come back — like, everything,” Ndour said.

Wade met with restricted free-agent guard Kahleah Copper in Chicago on Monday. A source told the Sun-Times the two made progress in negotiating terms of a new deal, though discussions are ongoing.

Wade is confident he can keep the Sky’s core intact, but he’ll have to be creative to do it. The groundbreaking eight-year collective bargaining agreement signed last month substantially increases players’ salaries for the 2020 season. Top veteran talent can earn a maximum base salary of $215,000 in 2020 — a nearly 83 percent increase from 2019. Contracts for players with less than six years of experience — such as Ndour and Copper — max out at $185,000 in 2020. Those maximums will increase by 3 percent in each of the following seasons.

Right now, the Sky have $458,956 on the books for the coming season, according to High Post Hoops’ salary database. But with All-Stars Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Stefanie Dolson due for more lucrative salaries, resources could dry up fast.

Wade’s not worried about that now and seemed optimistic about the Sky’s free-agent conversations.

“When you have a good season like you have and you have a lot of free agents, a lot of people want to go shopping in your refrigerator,” he said. “So you just have to let [players] know why they’re there — and it’s not always greener on the other side — and let them know how close we are to a championship run.”

For now, Ndour isn’t stressing over her future with the Sky.

“I [told Wade], ‘Yeah, I’d like to play here — I like my teammates, I love the staff,’ ” she said. “And so I hope I’m going to come back.”