Sky season preview: Candace Parker signing invites title hopes

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Sky season preview: Parker signing invites title hopes originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Chicago Sky's 2021 season tips off Saturday with a nationally-televised matinee against the Washington Mystics.

That opening squares with the tone of the year.

With Candace Parker aboard and the majority of a talented core returned, the Sky are widely expected to contend for the first championship in franchise history this season.

Here are some things worth knowing before their quest begins:

Offseason recap

In: Candace Parker, Astou Ndour, Shyla Heal (No. 8 overall pick, 2021 draft), Stephanie Watts

Out: Cheyenne Parker, Gabby Williams, Sydney Colson, Stephanie Mavunga, Alexis Prince

Key players

  • Candace Parker: The two-time MVP and one-time WNBA champion is preparing for the first of her 14 professional seasons outside of LA, and doing so with her hometown team. Yes, Parker turned 35 in April, but her greatness is far from dulled -- she is coming off a 2020 season in which she earned first-team All-WNBA honors for the sixth time in her career, took home Defensive Player of the Year and led the league in rebounds per game (9.7).

  • Courtney Vandersloot: Smashed single-game and season-long assist records in 2020 to garner her second straight first-team All-WNBA selection. The Sky's offense ranked top four in efficiency and pace in each of head coach James Wade's first two seasons, and Vandersloot is the engine that makes it go.

  • Diamond DeShields: An All-Star in 2019 whose 2020 was derailed by an early-season injury and midseason bubble exit for personal reasons. DeShields ranked eighth in the W in scoring (16.2 points per game) in her second season, but hopes observers take note of her defensive improvements in 2021 as well.

  • Kahleah Copper: Made a compelling case for Most Improved Player in 2020 by averaging career-highs in points (14.8), rebounds (5.5), assists (2.1), steals (1.0) and field goal percentage (49.6) while starting all 22 games.

  • Allie Quigley: One of the renowned sharp-shooters in the league, even if her long-range accuracy dipped last season. The 13-year veteran (ninth with the Sky) has seen some of the franchise's greatest heights and is essential for her scoring, consistency and leadership.

Storylines to watch

Defensive mentality

In Wade's tenure, the Sky have established an up-tempo, efficient and aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball on the offensive end of the floor. But the defense has lacked teeth. The Sky ranked ninth of 12 teams in defensive rating in 2019 and eighth in 2020.

"There will be no identity without defense," DeShields said during the team's media day. "We've shown and proved that we're a capable scoring team, we're capable scoring with and against any team in the league. But we've fallen short on the defensive end. So that'll be the main focus as far as us enhancing our identity."

The Sky know to reach the championship heights to which they aspire, those metrics will need to improve. Bringing Parker into the fold should help -- in addition to the sublime scoring and playmaking she brings on the offensive end, she also averaged 9.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks (ninth in the W) last season.

But Wade is putting an emphasis on defense up and down the roster, and from the sound of it, eliciting full buy-in.

Better health

The Sky fancied themselves title contenders going into the 2020 season in the bubble, too, but injuries -- among other factors -- contributed to a first-round exit.

DeShields was hampered by a nagging knee ailment for the first 13 games (of which she started none), then exited the bubble for personal reasons in late August. Azurá Stevens had a career year cut short after 15 games (13 starts at power forward) due to a knee injury that required surgery. And the Sky began the campaign at a deficit in the frontcourt because 2019 starting center Jantel Lavender missed the year, and was subsequently traded, following foot surgery.

Now, DeShields is back and hungry. Stevens is returned on a one-year extension. Parker and old friend Astou Ndour were added to the frontcourt, and 2020 first-round pick Ruthy Hebard is entering Year 2. The hope is their talent can better coalesce this season.

One day at a time

The Sky are well aware of the expectations looming over them this season. Parker's presence has not only shifted the tenor of practices and meetings, but also the tone of the conversation around the team.

But there remains a long 32-game regular season ahead, and then the playoffs after. Reaching that mountaintop will require a day-by-day approach.

"I want nothing more than a championship. But we haven't even played a game yet," Vandersloot said. "I want to focus on just being the best that we can be right now and getting better every single day."

The rest, the Sky hope, will take care of itself.

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