WNBAlien 2011 Previews: Chicago Sky

PG: Courtney Vandersloot/Dominique Canty

SG: Epiphanny Prince/Erin Thorn

SF: Tamera Young/Angie Bjorklund

PF: Michelle Snow/Cathrine Kraayeveld/Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton

C: Sylvia Fowles/Carolyn Swords

—–

Head coach: Pokey Chatman

Significant additions: Vandersloot, Snow, maybe Wisdom-Hylton and obviously Chatman.

Significant losses: Jia Perkins, Shameka Christon, and they might even miss Mistie Bass. Chatman would have to pull a gun to make anyone miss Steve Key.

—–

Lots of change and a bunch of leaps into the unknown for Chicago this season, but let’s face it, that has to be better than where they’ve been in previous years. Steven Key was summarily dismissed as head coach and GM (not before time, in the eyes of most) and the Sky pulled off something of an unexpected coup in hiring Pokey Chatman as his replacement. They’ve finally found themselves an honest-to-goodness point guard, unlike the endless array of combo guards they’ve been working with practically since the franchise was inaugurated in 2006. They traded away Jia Perkins, who’s been their best perimeter scoring option for several years (although she was pretty terrible last season). Just yesterday they shockingly waived Shameka Christon, the main piece they got back when Candice Dupree forced a trade last year (and the only WNBA-level small-forward on the roster). The franchise certainly needed a shake-up, and that’s definitely occurred; it remains to be seen whether the shakes have left them with anything markedly better than they had before.

Last year was something of a coming out party for center Sylvia Fowles, solely because she actually managed to stay healthy through an entire WNBA season. We’d all known what was there, but we needed proof that she could survive for the 34 game grind.What we got was virtually 18pts/10rebs, 58% shooting from the floor and dominant defense that changes the shots of anyone with the temerity to drive the lane. If the Sky had been a half-decent team, she’d have been a legitimate MVP candidate (if we honestly put the emphasis on Valuable, and less about record, she was right there anyway with Catchings, Jackson and Pondexter). Fowles has worked with Chatman before at Spartak Moscow, winning a load of titles in the process, so there shouldn’t be any issues in working out how to use her to the best advantage. If she can talk Big Syl out of taking those awful mid-range jumpers she tossed up occasionally last year, I’d be delighted. Get down on the block and dominate, big girl.

Now let’s look at what the hell else Chicago are doing with their frontcourt. Michelle Snow is the only other remotely reliable piece, and anyone who’s followed Snow from Houston to Atlanta to San Antonio will know that ‘reliable’ isn’t usually a word you’d associate with her. Long-limbed and mobile, Snow frustrates by showing glimpses of what she’s capable of, then disappearing for minutes, quarters or even games at a time. It’s also going to be interesting to see how Snow fits with Fowles. Both have been almost exclusively centers in the WNBA and a ‘twin towers’ approach with two long, athletic 6-5 post players has to be considered something of an experiment. It’ll create some mismatches, but it may also take some time for the two of them to work out how to fit in around each other. After them we’re looking at rookie giant Carolyn Swords (Snow at the 3 with Swords and Fowles down low would be hilarious to see for at least a couple of minutes), veteran Cathrine Kraayeveld and recent acquisition Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton. Swords might eventually be a serviceable Bales-esque backup, Wisdom-Hylton has been solid if completely unspectacular in her couple of years as an anonymous backup in LA, while Kraayeveld was dreadful last year after coming in as part of the Dupree/Christon trade. In theory, Kraay can spread the floor for the likes of Fowles and Snow with her three-point shooting. When she can’t hit water from a boat, which was the case much of last year, she’s pretty close to useless. Fowles better stay healthy.

The small forward position in Chicago is even more perilous than those post backups. Shameka Christon was always meant to be the starter, but after missing most of last season thanks to assorted injuries caused by a Fowles elbow, then hurting her knee in training camp last week, the Sky decided to cut their losses and waive her. It was a surprising move, given that it leaves them with the likes of Tamera Young and rookie Angie Bjorklund trying to cover the spot, but if she was going to be out for the reported eight weeks she’d have missed over half the season anyway. Young has some talent, she’s long and fairly athletic, but she disappears from games like Snow and her shooting has always been painfully erratic. Bjorklund was known for her shooting and very little else at Tennessee, and wasn’t even producing much for them in the NCAA tournament. If she sees much floor time the Sky are probably in trouble. Three-guard sets and triple-post sets are going to have to be a central part of the equation for the Sky this year.

The backcourt is where the new optimism springs for Chicago in 2011. Taking Courtney Vandersloot with the #3 overall pick in the draft was brave, considering Amber Harris was still there and would’ve filled their hole at power forward, but it was a swing for the fences that could pay dividends if she fulfils her promise. Watching Sloot in the NCAA Tourney this year was a joy, flashes of a young Sue Bird orchestrating her team, looking for her own offense when available, and throwing the occasional showbiz pass just to keep us all entertained. She’s quick enough, she’s got good hands, and she’s got that point guard gene that can be so hard to find. It might take her a little while to adjust to the pro level, but elite point guards are not easy to find and the Sky have likely found theirs for the forseeable future. Trading Jia Perkins for Snow opened up the starting off-guard spot for Epiphanny Prince, which has to be a step in the right direction. Prince gave the Sky impetus off the bench as a rookie last year, and this season she likely won’t have to spend as much time backing up the point guard spot (although she can do that if necessary). Another player who’s worked with Chatman in Europe, as a pure scoring guard Prince could be primed to take a jump forward in her second year in the league. The backups are Erin Thorn, a pure shooter and the kind of vocal leader any coach likes to have, and Dominique Canty, a combo guard who may initially start if Chatman doesn’t think Sloot is ready. As a starting point guard Canty has been mediocre at best the last few years, but as a combo backup she can likely provide some solid minutes when the young starters need a rest.

Chatman has a lot of questions to answer in Chicago this year, even though the controversy that forced her out of LSU years ago has now been largely forgotten. She has at least coached pros before, even some on this roster, but she’s never worked in the WNBA and wasn’t even in the US through most of the offseason due to her commitments with Spartak. It’s a somewhat different game in the WNBA and she may find some things that worked in Russia don’t work back home. Plus she no longer has the overwhelming talent advantage that Spartak have over most of their opponents. She’s put together something of a patchwork roster that has youth on its side and room to grow, but the gaping holes at certain spots may be too much for even Pokey and Big Syl to cover up this year.

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