Every Thursday of this season, Illustrated SportsBen Pickman dives deep into the lines of WNBA history you need to know.
Kahleah Copper’s trust has never wavered. Even though her total minutes were limited to consecutive games early in her professional career, the 6-foot-1 guard “knew she was fully capable of being an impact player in the WNBA.” It wasn’t about the minutes, “says Copper.” It was about when I got there, just to affect the game. ”
Last summer, during the league’s shortest bubble season, Copper had the biggest impact on the court to date, averaging 14.9 points and 5.5 rebounds on 49.6% shooting from the field. After starting just 15 games total in his first four WNBA seasons, he started all 22 for Chicago in 2020.
But Copper has taken her game to another level earlier this 2021 WNBA season. While she is still arguably the league’s most underrated scorer, and perhaps the most underrated player overall, coach James Wade notes that a number more and more people, both in and around the league, are beginning to take notice. “Like I always tell him, ‘There’s no going back now,'” Wade says.
This year, as the Skies (2-2) aim for their first championship in franchise history, Copper is an even bigger presence. And it’s not just because she’s an improved player; it is because now she is also a coach.
Wade was always aware of Copper’s potential. He recalls taking note of his speed and athleticism while at Rutgers, winning Second Team All-Big Ten honors as a senior. But it took until last season for Copper, who was selected by the Mystics in 2016 but was traded to Chicago before the 2017 season, to really find a leading role. “This is what we envisioned for her for a long time,” says Wade. “And when we were able to give her that opportunity last year, she took it hard.”
On the court, Copper is an elite assassin. Last season he averaged the second-highest number of shots per game by any WNBA point guard in the restricted area (3.6), converting more than 70% of his attempts. Although he is still early in the 2021 campaign, he has more than doubled that number, averaging 7.3 WNBA guard attempts within the restricted area, shooting just under 60% on them. His added aggression reflects the work he did this offseason prioritizing his ability to shoot around the basket.
On average this season, Copper is throwing more shots within five feet of the rim than some of the game’s best greats like Breanna Stewart, Tina Charles and Nneka Ogwumike, and he exhibits a bravery in attacking the basket than few others in the W possess. Wade adds that her ability to rise above players and make controversial shots also places her in an elite class.
“Not everyone has players who can do that,” Wade says.
Copper, who is averaging 18 points per game, a career high and a team high this season, also plays an integral role in Chicago’s transition attack. She frequently pushes the basketball after catching defensive rebounds, seeking to create an easy offense for herself or her teammates. In those situations, its speed also attracts attention.
“I hope we don’t lose her in the Olympics with 400 or 100 or 200,” Candace Parker told reporters after Sky’s season-opening win against Washington, “because she is one of the fastest players I have seen in I’ve seen my life, and I’ve usually been on the other side of trying to protect him. “
Copper adds, when asked about Parker’s assessment: “If Candace said it, and she’s been around that long, then it’s the truth.”
All of that helps explain some of its value to Heaven. But Copper’s impact is far greater than a simple bucket hunter. “His role is much more than a basketball role,” says Wade. “She is an emotional leader for us because she gives us stability and consistency.” Copper, 26, advises the younger players on the team when they have questions and is also the player who calms her coach when a questionable call could make him nervous in the middle of the game.
Last winter, Copper took an assistant coach job for the Division II Pacific Northwest University women’s basketball team instead of playing overseas. There, she joined Rutgers alumna and PNW head coach Courtney Locke as the only two coaches on the school’s staff. Copper, who describes herself as a “player coach,” took on a player development role with the show. He was also responsible for handling the team’s opponent scouting reports.
Over the course of college season, Copper often hooked up with Wade to learn more about life on the side. He asked for information on specific sets and how to get the most out of his players, both of which his WNBA coach was more used to talking about with his teammates.
As Pacific Northwest struggled, finishing the year with a 4-15 record, Wade sees Copper making his teammates more responsible this year, just like a coach would. Copper says she’s “looking at the game on the court differently” this season, more like a coach.
In that regard, he says that he is more in tune with the different transitions within the game, that he better understands when to go all out and push the basketball and when to slow down. Wade also sees her speak more on the defensive side of the court, instructing her teammates on how to better position themselves and how to handle different situations. “She understands more than what we’re trying to do [as coaches]”Wade says.
As one of Sky’s emotional heartbeats, Copper is also trying to cheer on her teammates in a lighter way. She is the chair of the team’s unofficial birthday committee, making sure everyone gets a cupcake on their special day. (Earlier this week, he made sure to get a confetti cake for one of Chicago’s athletic trainers, though that gesture pales in comparison to getting packages for everyone in the WNBA bubble last summer..)
Copper said that one of her goals going into this WNBA season was to be more of a vocal leader. While your game continues to speak out loud for itself, the intangibles it brings to your team can be just as important.
“People are starting to take notice now,” Wade says. “I think regardless of how our season goes, a lot will depend on Kah and the identity that he helps build within our team.”
Liberty wing Betnijah Laney is off to a steamy start to this season. Last year’s most improved player has picked up right where she left off, with a total of 20 or more points in each of New York’s six games. That mark ties Cappie Pondexter for the fourth longest 20-plus-plus stretch to open a season in WNBA history, trailing only Elena Delle Donne, Sheryl Swoopes, Lauren Jackson and Cynthia Cooper.
On Tuesday, the Mercury announced that Star Guard Diana Taurasi is expected to be out for at least four weeks with a minor fracture to her sternum. Taurasi suffered the chest injury on May 16 against the Sun, in which he scored 19 points. She, appropriately, went on to play two games later, before a CT scan revealed the fracture. Of course, it’s a severe setback for Taurasi, who faced major back and hamstring injuries in 2019. The loss is also significant for a Phoenix team looking to be among the best in the league this season.
The injury could also have ramifications for the US Olympics roster.For the first time since 2008, the roster was not announced before the WNBA season began. And in early May, Carol Callan, director of the US national team and chair of the Olympic selection committee, told NBC Sports that “no one has a closed place.” The injury may not have any impact on the Taurasi team, but it may also ruin her desire to be the first basketball player to win five Olympic gold medals.
Despite opting out last season, Mystics forward Tina Charles has thrown herself into the early MVP conversations for the 2021 campaign. She apparently took the Liberty split with her personally: fired on my day off. That was crazy, ”he said after facing his former team, and it shows on the court. She has scored at least 30 points in three consecutive games, becoming the sixth player in WNBA history to accomplish that feat. Charles is averaging 26.2 points and 8.4 rebounds this season. He also leads the league in field goal attempts and free throws. “Every time I speak, I just try to make a statement that I’m here, so I don’t write off myself,” Charles said after Tuesday’s win over the Fever. “I’m just trying to win games. I have a goal. I just want to win a championship. I have more years behind me than ahead, so I take each game personally. And I know my energy, how I come out does wonders for the team ”.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.