Sky, Fever have taken steps to improve

The Chicago Sky and the Indiana Fever have made key offseason moves that can help propel them into the upper echelon of the WNBA. Those changes, and more, will be on display when the two teams open their respective WNBA campaigns on Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Chicago, 12-22 last season and in the running for the playoffs until the final week, got a jump-start on the improvements it needed in 2017. General manager and coach Amber Stocks enters the new season with a squad that features a blend of returning players, free-agency acquisitions and draft picks.

“The balance of returning and new players, veterans and youth, and inside and outside skill will all combine to create a unique and special chemistry with this team,” said Stocks, who is in her second season with the Sky. “The young players are in good hands with the vets.”

This year’s Chicago roster returns seven members of the 2017 team, highlighted by nine-year veteran, 2017 All-Star and two-time WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year Allie Quigley.

Other notable returners include two-time All-Star Stefanie Dolson, fourth-year player Cheyenne Parker, and Kahleah Copper, in her second season with the Sky. Adut Bulgak returns after joining the Sky midway through last year. Courtney Vandersloot and Astou Ndour are slated to rejoin the team at the completion of their respective international competitions.

Jamierra Faulkner, who missed last season because of injury, will return with three years of professional experience. During free agency, the Sky acquired two potential impact players in seven-year WNBA veteran Alex Montgomery and point guard Chelsea Hopkins.

Rounding out the roster are the Sky’s four rookies. Although drafted in 2017 as the No. 2 overall draft pick, Alaina Coates makes her entrance in the league after sitting out last season because of injury.

Two additional impact rookies include Diamond DeShields and Gabby Williams, the 2018 No. 3 and No. 4 overall WNBA draft picks, respectively. Chicago native Linnae Harper begins her rookie season having landed the final spot to complete the 12-player roster.

The Sky missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2012 after losing 12 of their first 15 games. The veterans are now stressing the importance of getting wins early, and that starts with building team unity.

“We have to use our experience from the last few seasons playing together and our year with Amber to bring the newcomers up to speed as fast as possible,” Quigley said. “We know this is a really short season so it’s all about doing things as fast as possible and as productive as possible.”

Indiana will tip off its 19th WNBA season re-energized and revitalized after a difficult year that saw the team finish 9-25 in 2017. It won’t take long to tell if the Fever have made the strides they need to be competitive as the squad opens with five games in eight days.

Leading a returning cast of starters for Indiana are six-time WNBA All-Star Candice Dupree and veterans Natalie Achonwa, Tiffany Mitchell and Erica Wheeler.

The Fever also acquired Kayla Alexander in a trade with Las Vegas during the offseason. The 6-foot-4 center should help improve Indiana’s interior defense and rebounding. She can stretch defenses with a mid-range jumper and affect opposing shots with her length.

Fever guard Shenise Johnson, a veteran entering her seventh WNBA season, believes speed will play a huge role in Indiana’s season.

“We’re going to be really, really fast this year,” she said. “When we learn how to control that, control the pace, control the tempo, control the game. … It’s going to be scary. I’m really getting super-excited about creating a new culture here in Indiana.”

Joining the team is a cast of rookies that includes Kelsey Mitchell, the second overall pick in the WNBA draft; Victoria Vivians, the eighth overall pick; and former Indiana Ms. Basketball Stephanie Mavunga, chosen 14th.

Second-year fever coach Pokey Chatman has big expectations for the trio of rookies.

“Two, eight, and 14 are crucial,” says Chatman, referencing the rookies by their draft position. “They have a tremendous opportunity. They also bring a skill set that not only we need, the league needs — more rebounding, quickness, people that can shoot the basketball.”

Indiana’s new culture appears to be a more youthful, quick, and athletic one. Chatman believes that this year’s faster team will help improve its defensive performance, enabling Indiana to have more chances on the offensive end.

“The pace will change,” Chatman said. “Last year, we averaged maybe 94 possessions a game, (we’ll) probably get close to the 100 mark this year.”