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My Chicago Sky Holiday 'Wish List,' starting with re-signing Rebekah Gardner

Stephen PridGeon-Garner Avatar
December 26, 2023

The Chicago Sky inked who they desired to steer the wheel into this new era, in coach Teresa Weatherspoon, back in late October.

They also inked their general manager, officially splitting the roles of head coach and general manager — as the last team to do so — bringing Jeff Pagliocca in to fill the role a few weeks later, in early November.

The franchise now enters the 2024 calendar year with those key pillars addressed, as well as five players presently under contract: Kahleah Copper, Dana Evans, Isabelle Harrison, Marina Mabrey, and Elizabeth Williams.

The franchise now awaits decisions on Teresa Weatherspoon’s brain trust, as it will be very intriguing to see who she — one of the most connected and experienced in the space — ultimately decides to fill those spots.

They’re piecing together the newest rendition of the franchise, and, independent of the coaching staff to come with Weatherspoon, they also await two important dates:

· WNBA teams can begin negotiating with free agents on Sunday, January 21

· Free agents can begin signing contracts with teams on Thursday, February 1

The franchise will naturally be tasked with making plenty of decisions, given the seven roster spots they have available.

In the spirit of the holidays, here is my 2024 wishlist for the Sky, ahead of the 2024 season.

1. Bring Beks Back

Rebekah Gardner missed a majority of the 2023 WNBA season due to a break in her foot that required surgery, occurring just three games into the campaign.

She had shown clear growth in abilities to knock down shots from deep, as well as in a secondary ball handling role — in addition to her elite level defense at the point of attack as well as on the wing — prior to going down.

Her absence as a defensive stalwart, swiss army knife, and perpetual motion connecting piece was sorely missed in multiple contexts the rest of the season.

Per Synergy Sports, for players who compiled as many defensive possessions as she did in 2021, her PPP mark of 0.794 ranked fourth — amongst elite defensive companies like Natasha Cloud, Alyssa Thomas, and Skylar Diggins-Smith.

She was *beyond* deserving of all-defensive team recognition, finishing 14th in steals per game (1.4), and 12th in total steals (49).

The Sky had a defensive rating of 100.0 with her on the floor, and she had 1.4 defensive win shares.

However, her impact persisted well past what stats in any capacity could detail.

It was her defensive tenacity in picking up full court, stifling rhythm at the inception of possessions, and making life hard — with physicality — off-ball, elite level screen navigation, ability to cover for teammates on switches, hand activity, and abilities defending in support, all on consistency, that make her an invaluable piece.

She also displayed plenty of game and abilities on the offensive side as well, especially as a cutter, with secondary drives and playing off closeouts, as well as in selflessness to create driving lanes and shift a defense with movement for others.

Because she is a restricted free agent, the Chicago Sky essentially have “dibs” on her in terms of being able to retain her.

Therefore, because she’s as close to “in house” as can be due to her status, in addition to her value, she’s at the top of my “wish list.”

Her defense in tandem with Kahleah Copper on the wing, as detailed above, in addition to the ability to dictate at the point of attack, and complimentary offensive skills, makes her a perfect piece to have with this roster context.

2. SkyTown Skylar?

Skylar Diggins-Smith did not play in the 2023 WNBA season, as she was on maternity leave, in addition to other things pertaining to her time with the Phoenix Mercury.

She’s an unrestricted free agent, with an abundance of attention around her as an all-world, two-way menace at the guard position.

The last we saw of her, she was All-WNBA first team back-to-back seasons.

Also, like Gardner, she was wrongfully omitted from the defensive teams after an all-defensive caliber campaign.

Additionally, she had an on-off net rating of +8.9 in 2022, indicative of how much better the Mercury were with her on the floor, in comparison to how they performed with her off the floor.

She legitimately had a two-way season worthy of MVP consideration in 2022. 

That all followed a season where, in 2021, she was at the helm from the lead guard position, of a team that defeated many odds en route to a finals appearance (not unlike the Sky), one where they ran into the Chicago Sky.

Why does Skylar make (so much) sense?

Mindset-wise, she’s a kindred spirit to the fire that coach Weatherspoon displays — also from a lead guard position.

They have the type of competitive drive and leadership in them that invigorates and can be felt simply off a conversation.

That type of relationship between player and coach, specifically at the point guard position, is invaluable.

She also matches energy in a kindred form with franchise face Kahleah Copper, as well as with Dana Evans, and Marina Mabrey.

That general level of scrappy competitive nature ( throw Rebekah Gardner in that mix as well..) would make for a backcourt group that can compete with anyone off skill alone, but in mindset, aligns with Weatherspoon’s disposition and all push each other — as well as being stubborn to conceding anything to opponents.

There’s also this leadership dynamic that would exist:

She’s also a fellow Fighting Irish like Marina Mabrey.

As far as on the floor, Diggins-Smith would change the way the Sky are guarded.

Aside from Marina Mabrey (who consistently draws two to the ball in pick-and-roll) and Kahleah Copper garnering the attention of extra help on every touch, teams were comfortable conceding unders to the Sky in pick-and-roll, and generally switching actions, flattening them out and keeping them out of the paint.

Skylar Diggins-Smith is a player that blends a bit of what both Copper (as a driver and garnering extra help) and Mabrey (with the ability to draw two to the ball in contexts) in a dynamic archetype.

Think of the pockets last season where Dana Evans drew an abundance of paint touches, to score and assist — Diggins-Smith brings that downhill mindset + ability to knock down three’s odd the catch and bounce.

Diggins-Smith gives an ever-presence for defenses to account for, on and off-ball to both optimize Copper and Mabrey, but also complement them.

In 2022, she compiled 241 possessions where defenses committed to her, the 6th most — with a .913 PPP mark that ranks 5th for players with 190 possessions garnering this type of attention

Additionally, her 1.07 points per shot (PPS) generated mark was T-4th.

241 of her 412 pick-and-roll possessions saw the defense commit, 58 percent in 2022. For reference, Finals MVP Chelsea Gray had 57 percent of hers do so that season — this is the level of attention, and efficient operating against, that she’s seeing.

Looking at her drives, in 2022, she finished the season with 9.0 points in the paint per game, which ranked 7th — where she was the only non-frontcourt piece in this stratosphere, until Kahleah Copper, who ranked 11th (allow your mind to process the abundance of rotations these two would Garner from a defense, and how other Sky players would be enabled to play off tilted defenses…).

Diggins-Smith (270) ranked 11th and Copper (252) ranked 12th in points in the paint in 2022 — the only two non-frontcourt players in the top 15.

Additionally, Diggins-Smith was at 5.3 free throw attempts per game (2nd.. in the league), and had 160 attempts (4th).

The Sky were dead last in free throw attempts total (640) and made (481) — and we’re also 10th in points in the paint per game (33.5) and total (1340).

Diggins-Smith’s 5.3 free throw attempts, 160 total attempts, and 9.0 points in the paint per game would’ve all been first on the Sky in 2023.

Her 270 points in the paint in 2022 would’ve ranked second on the Sky last season.

Paint touches-galore would be the theme between those two, which is the best way to beat switching defenses from the perimeter, with drives to collapse and cause rotations. 

Diggins-Smith was also 3rd in points per game (19.7) and 7th in assists per game (5.5) in 2022 — providing elite point guard play.

Defensively, assuming Gardner is brought back in accordance with my “wish list,” she’d give the Sky three elite point-of-attack defenders for Weatherspoon to deploy.

Diggins-Smith, Evans, and Gardner would provide 40 minutes of non-stop, tone-setting containment of the ball, screen navigation, and chaos-inducing activity.

Whoever wasn’t guarding the initiator of offense for an opponent, would toggle a role into defensive activity off-ball of the other two + Kahleah Copper.

Diggins-Smith complements Gardner, Copper, and Evans to make for very intriguing lineup combinations — but also gives another piece that’d allow Elizabeth Williams to play to her best skill in rim protection.

With the likes of the aforementioned four hounding on the perimeter defensively, Williams could comfortably be active in drop coverage, rarely needing to get into late-switch scenarios and remain in position to be elite in rim protection.

(Stay tuned for wish three, as this aligns with that one as well.)

In all, with Diggins-Smith commanding the point guard position, she’d up their pace (!!!), optimize and complement the Copper-Mabrey pairing offensively — adding a positively frenetic layer to the attack, do the very same with Gardner/Copper/Evans defensively for Williams on the perimeter, and bring championship-level experience with a swagger to her leadership that aligns with coach Weatherspoon’s.

Above all, she wants to win and would have an opportunity to do so with a team and franchise that, context-wise, matches her energy and would implore her to be herself at the point.

3. Kalani Brown, anyone?

Largely because of injuries, but generally off stature, the Chicago Sky lacked an inside presence.

I mentioned their lacking points in the paint and free throw marks of 2023 earlier (last in free throw attempts, free throw attempts per game, and 10th in both points in the paint per game and total).

Per 100 plays last season, Brown was 12th in paint points per game (13.0), and eighth in second-chance points.

Brown was also sixth in free throw attempts per 36 minutes, with 5.9.

The Sky were also ninth in rebounds per game, with 33.3.

Brown was 11th in rebounds per 36 minutes for players who logged at least 400 minutes last season.

The depth in size (6’7, 245 lb), stature, and location of the process — inverting the offense — would enable such a change of pace to all that the Sky are.

Unique from how Diggins-Smith would, but she’d also change the way teams guard the Sky.

She’s a quick processor with very good footwork that combines underrated skill and finesse with power, making her a tough cover.

In her left-handed attack, she has every single counter to get back to that left shoulder in the post.

She also can provide some spacing in the mid-range and is a menace on the offensive boards as well.

She’d bring a great change of pace to the Sky’s process.

Providing the aforementioned size, but also giving Dana Evans a pick-and-roll partner to do damage within reserve lineups, but also would be well insulated to be impactful in drop coverage, as I mentioned above, with multiple players more than capable of containing the ball and navigating screens with activity.

The counter-punching change of pace she’d provide, in a positive contrast to all that Elizabeth Williams brings in her role, would make for a compromising frontcourt tandem.

She was 8th in points per possession in the post (including passes) for the 15 players with 90+ possessions compiled.

Her 1.000 PPP combined with a 7th-ranked 1.05 PPS, 7th-ranked effective field goal percentage, and 4th-ranked score percentage.

The context around her in spacing and shooting within that spacing would be a stark contrast to what she saw with the Wings, as the Sky, even as presently constructed, have perimeter pieces with shooting and scoring prowess that complement the inverting and attention garnering nature that her abilities command.

Take here for example, with an immediate catch, turn, and face, knowing help is coming.

She then aids the smart 45-cut form Howard by moving the defense with her eyes, and the ball, to set up the skip.

Accuracy on the pass has to be better, but look at the pace of the pass, and how much space is enabled for Dangerfield to shoot or drive as long closeouts are created.

Now, imagine this pass is skipped to Marina Mabrey, Kahleah Copper, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Rebekah Gardner, Alanna Smith.

The context shifts for the better.

Imagine this is a quick pass off a deep paint touch, to Rebekah Gardner, Kahleah Copper, or Skylar Diggins-Smith on the immediate baseline cut — with their abilities to finish at the rim and function as excellent cutters.

Miss here, but notice how quickly she processes the double and skips it into the advantage — and the shot quality that’s generated from it.

Rinse and repeat. Deep seal, catch, dribble to engage, gets off it quick (this time with three players committed to her), and the shot quality stemming from it.

If these attempts are going to players on the Sky, the effectiveness of their spacing and shooting impact these actions much more.

Lastly, she’d provide a contact-inducing screening dynamic that would function as a key to A.) Prying teammates open on-ball and off-ball, and B.) Would set up shop for prime post positioning if/when late switches occur.

These are the three chief Holiday Wishes I have for the Sky, that I feel would most emphatically propel this team into the top end of the WNBA’s hierarchy, optimize/complement the pieces already on the roster, and provide coach Weatherspoon with pieces that do not only would help execute within her principles and philosophies, but align with her mental and energetic approaches.

A few honorable mention names that I also strongly considered and may zoom in on as we get closer to free agency:

· G – Courtney Williams

· G – Natasha Cloud

· G – Jordin Canada

· F – Alanna Smith

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