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Sports Saturday

Sky set sights high after heartbreaking loss to Aces in playoffs last year

The Sky open their pandemic-shortened season Sunday against the Aces in a rematch of last season’s second-round playoff game.

Can Diamond DeShields go from an All-Star in 2019 to an MVP candidate in 2020?
Can Diamond DeShields go from an All-Star in 2019 to an MVP candidate in 2020?
AP Photos

The Sky open their pandemic-shortened season Sunday against the Aces in a rematch of last season’s second-round playoff game.

They were haunted all offseason by Dearica Hamby’s game-winning 40-foot desperation shot off a turnover. And though coach James Wade believes the shot shouldn’t have counted because Hamby allegedly stepped out of bounds, the Sky are using the heartbreaking end to last season as motivation.

“Last season left us all with a sour taste in our mouth, and although we did accomplish our goal of making the playoffs, obviously we have our sights set on something greater, and that’s a championship,” Diamond DeShields said. “I would just set the bar there for our team. If you’ve already made the playoffs, what’s next to do? That’s to just go all the way. If we get to the finals, it’s not enough just to play in the finals. We want to win everything.”

With the playoffs no longer a goal but an expectation, here’s a primer for the Sky’s 2020 season:

The biggest question: Will DeShields take her game to the next level in Year 3?

By retaining the core of last season’s 20-win team, the Sky sent the message that they’re going all in on DeShields, who will be vital to the team’s success.

“We’re going to lean on her to continue to grow in our system,” Wade said. “You’ve only seen the beginning of what she could be, so hopefully she can step into that role and keep on growing as a potential star in this league.”

Coming off a breakout season in which she averaged a team-high 16.2 points, DeShields used the prolonged offseason to sharpen every dimension of her game. She put an added focus on her defense and three-point shooting. She also wants to be more efficient this year after she shot 39.9% last season, a dip from 2018.

Can DeShields go from an All-Star in 2019 to an MVP candidate in 2020? We’ll find out.

Potential breakout star: Azura Stevens

Wade said he was counting on forward Azura Stevens to have a big season before news broke that Jantel Lavender is out for the year. Now there’s even more pressure on Stevens to become a big-time contributor in 2020.

Stevens has strong defensive instincts and is a shot-blocking machine. A foot injury limited her to only nine games last season. But now that she says she’s 100% healthy, Stevens has the potential to be the Sky’s starting four.

“She has a very high upside,” Wade said. “There aren’t many players in the league with her skill set, size and mobility.”

Bold prediction: Kahleah Copper makes a run for Sixth Woman of the Year

Kahleah Copper possesses the elite speed and athleticism that could make her a starter on other WNBA teams. But the versatile guard has accepted her role as the spark plug of the Sky’s second unit as she plays behind a trio of All-Stars.

Copper is coming off an outstanding overseas campaign in Poland. As a starter, she averaged 17 points and eight rebounds in EuroLeague play. It’s her hope that she can carry over the confidence she gained in Poland.

“It’s just bringing my swag . . . to the team, knowing what I can offer to this team and knowing whatever I can do to make the team better,” Copper said. “And whatever I can do, if I do it well, it will ultimately help the team.”

If Copper can build off last season’s success, she could vie for Sixth Woman of the Year.

A look at the Sky’s schedule

Most important game: Every game has an added emphasis during this year’s shortened season. But a game the Sky have circled on their calendar is their season opener against the Aces. Not only are they seeking redemption from last year, but that game will also set a tone for the season.

Toughest stretch: The Sky’s most grueling stretch of their season will most likely be their three games between Aug. 6 and 10. During that span, they’ll play the Mercury, Sun and Storm — three All-Star-laden teams who are picked to make runs at this year’s title — with only one day of rest between each game.