In an offseason dominated by uncertainty for the Chicago Sky, one truth emerged almost immediately: This is Kahleah Copper’s team now.
Copper quickly embraced her role as the primary star, jokingly dubbing herself the team’s assistant general manager. Throughout training camp, she often stood beside coach James Wade in the center circle at the training center in Deerfield, hands on her hips, calling out commands and tugging aside rookies to dispense advice.
“I’ve always been a leader — even on that 2021 championship team — but I was able to take a back seat,” Copper said. “I was able to not have to be that vocal person every single day because we had multiple leaders.
“This year is about bringing it every single day and being consistent. It’s not easy, but I’m a natural leader.”
The Sky have never been centered this solidly around a single player. For the past decade, the team was defined on — and off — the court by the partnership of Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, while the additions and exits of stars such as Sylvia Fowles and Elena Delle Donne constantly shifted the offensive focus.
The addition of Candace Parker in 2021 shifted the leadership dynamic, creating a veteran core that Copper fervently watched as she developed from a secondary rotation player to a Finals MVP.
Wade became accustomed to balancing leadership through a committee of veterans. But this year he and Copper are locked in as the clear spearhead for the Sky, building both a roster and a team identity around one star player.
“It’s more individual,” Wade said. “In recent years past, we’ve had our leaders, but it’s been a group effort. Now it’s really easy to have that singular communication with her and have her echo all your sentiments, especially when it comes to the locker room.
“It’s been great to see her blossom into the person that she’s becoming and bringing people along with her.”
The hierarchy is unequivocal. But last weekend finally answered the most pressing question for the Sky: What does that actually look like on the court?
The basics of a Kahleah Copper team were clear from the start: dial up the game to a furious tempo, push opponents to their limits in the open court and attack the rim at all costs.
“If we’re able to play in transition, we’re playing right into how I like to play,” Copper said.
Any team built around Copper thrives by putting the ball on the floor, which became even more evident during the opening weekend.
The Sky took a relatively low volume of 3-pointers in their first two games (19.5 attempts per game, fourth-lowest in the league), carving up defenses to score the bulk of their points in the paint. The offense still created midrange and 3-point opportunities, but those typically came out of the motion Wade uses to dizzy opponents and open looks for Copper, Courtney Williams and other shooters.
But the defensive side was where the Sky fully melded to Copper’s style of play. Seven players combined for 15 steals in the season-opening win over the Minnesota Lynx. The defense swarmed around mistakes and capitalized on hesitation, forcing opponents to run with the Sky rather than settling for back-and-forth half-court sets.
This new identity isn’t easy. It requires aggression on the perimeter, commitment to defensive assignments — and a lot of flat-out running. But Wade finds it’s easier to get new players to buy into that ethos when the star player is showing how it’s done.
“It’s different when you’re vocal and you don’t exude that on the floor,” Wade said. “She’s vocal, but she shows it in every possession. It makes everybody follow that. They’re not going to give nothing less than what she’s giving because that’s what she demands.”
Many coaches model themselves as “player’s coaches,” personnel managers who relate to their players and utilize that bond to get the best out of both the individual and team. In the same way, Copper sees herself as a player’s leader.
Copper gets it. She didn’t come to Chicago as a star. Her first three seasons with the Sky were defined by patience and an ability to make the most of her minutes while sitting behind more established players on the depth chart. The last three seasons saw her emerge as a starter and All-Star.
And now, on a roster full of players with chips on their shoulders, Copper feels she’s a natural fit as the frontman.
“I can relate to players on a level of having a process of not playing or having a process of coming to a new team,” Copper said. “I’m relatable and I’m a competitor. So you respect that.”
This mentality defines the way Copper is approaching her leadership role. While she leads the Sky in scoring so far, she entered the season focused on growing as a facilitator to help feed the entire offense.
After two straight All-Star selections, Copper is hungry for more. But she also believes her road to success is simple — put the Sky in a position to win and the rest will follow.
“I want to win,” Copper said. “Once you get a taste of winning and winning consistently and winning at the highest level, that’s what you want. That’s what you go after.
“Yeah, I want to be an All-Star, but I want to win. Those personal accolades, they come with the big W’s.”
Chicago Sky guard Kahleah Copper, left, goes up for a basket as Connecticut Sun guard Natisha Hiedeman, right, defends during Game 3 of a WNBA basketball semifinal playoff series on Sept. 4, 2022, in Uncasville, Conn.
Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, middle, is boxed out by Chicago Sky guard Kahleah Copper (2) and center Kristine Anigwe (33) during the first half of a WNBA basketball game on May 21 in Phoenix.