Each Thursday this season, Sports Illustrated’s Ben Pickman is diving deep into the WNBA story lines you need to know.
Kahleah Copper’s confidence has never wavered. Even while her minute totals were limited for consecutive games early in her professional career, the 6' 1" Sky guard knew she was fully capable of being an impact player in the WNBA. “It wasn’t about the minutes,” Copper says. “It was about when I got in there, just being to affect the game.”
Last summer during the league’s shortened bubble season, Copper made what was her biggest on-court impact to date, averaging 14.9 points and 5.5 rebounds on 49.6% shooting from the field. After starting just 15 total games in her first four WNBA seasons, she started all 22 for Chicago in 2020.
But Copper has raised her play to another level early in this 2021 WNBA season. While she’s still arguably the league’s most underrated scorer, and perhaps most underrated overall player, coach James Wade notes that an increasing number of people, both in, and around the league, are starting to take notice. “As I always tell her, ‘There’s no turning back now,’ ” Wade says.
This year, as the Sky (2–2) are eyeing their first championship in franchise history, Copper is an even more important presence. And it’s not just because she’s an improved player; it’s because she is also now a coach.
Wade was always aware of Copper’s potential. He recalls taking note of her speed and athleticism while she was at Rutgers, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors as a senior. But it took until last season for Copper, who was drafted by the Mystics in 2016 but traded to Chicago before the ’17 season, to truly find a leading role. “This is what we envisioned for her for a long time,” Wade says. “And when we were able to give her that opportunity last year, she took it on strong.”
On the court, Copper is an elite slasher. Last season she averaged the second-most shots per game for any WNBA guard in the restricted area (3.6), converting on more than 70% of her attempts. While still early in the 2021 campaign, she’s more than doubled that number, averaging a WNBA-guard-best 7.3 attempts within the restricted area, shooting just under 60% on them. Her added aggression reflects the work she put in this offseason prioritizing her finishing ability around the basket.
On average this season, Copper is taking more shots within five feet of the rim than some of the game’s best bigs, such as Breanna Stewart, Tina Charles and Nneka Ogwumike, and she presents a fearlessness when attacking the basket that few others in the W possess. Wade adds that her ability to rise up over players and make contested shots also puts her in an elite class.
“Not everybody has players who can do that,” Wade says.
Copper, who is averaging a career-high and team-high 18 points per game this season, additionally plays an integral role in Chicago’s transition attack. She frequently pushes the basketball after hauling in defensive rebounds, seeking to create easy offense for herself or her teammates. In those situations, her speed is also eye-catching.
“I hope we don’t lose her to the Olympics with the 400 or the 100 or 200,” Candace Parker told reporters after the Sky’s season-opening win vs. Washington, “ ’cause she’s one of the fastest players I’ve ever seen, and I’ve usually been on the other side of trying to guard it.”
Adds Copper, 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 to explain some of her value for the Sky. But Copper’s impact is far greater than just a bucket-getter. “Her role is much more than a basketball role,” Wade says. “She’s an emotional leader for us because she gives us stability and consistency.” Copper, 26, counsels the team’s younger players when they have questions and she is also the player who calms down her coach when a questionable call might fluster him midgame.
Last winter, Copper took an assistant coaching job for the women’s basketball team at Division II Pacific Northwest University instead of playing overseas. There, she joined fellow Rutgers alum and PNW’s head coach Courtney Locke as the only two coaches on the school’s staff. Copper, who describes herself as a “player’s coach,” took on a player development role with the program. She was also responsible for handling the team’s opponent scouting reports.
Over the course of the college season, Copper often connected with Wade to learn more about life on the sideline. She asked for information about specific sets and about how to get the most out of her players, both topics that her WNBA coach was more accustomed to talking to his colleagues about.
While Pacific Northwest struggled, finishing the year with just a 4–15 record, Wade sees Copper holding her teammates more accountable this year, much like how a coach would. Copper says she is “seeing the game on the floor differently” this season—more like a coach.
Along those lines, she says she’s more in tune with different transitions within game play, better understanding when to go all out and push the basketball and when to slow down the pace. Wade also sees her being more vocal on the defensive end of the floor, instructing teammates on how to better position themselves and how to handle different situations. “She understands more of what we’re trying to do [as coaches],” Wade says.
As one of the emotional heartbeats of the Sky, Copper is also trying to bring her teammates up in lighter ways. She’s the chair of the team’s unofficial birthday committee, making sure that everyone gets a bundt cake on their special day. (Earlier this week she made sure to get a confetti cake for one of Chicago’s athletic trainers, though that gesture pales in comparison to getting bundtlets for everyone in the WNBA bubble last summer.)
Copper said that one of her goals entering this WNBA season was to be more of a vocal leader. While her game is continuing to speak loudly for itself, the intangibles she brings to her team might be just as important.
“People are starting to take note now,” Wade says. “I think however our season goes, a lot of it will depend on Kah and the identity she helps build within our team.”
Notes from around the WNBA
Liberty wing Betnijah Laney has gotten off to a torrid start this season. Last year’s Most Improved Player has picked up right where she left off, totaling 20 or more points in each of New York’s six games. That mark ties Cappie Pondexter for the fourth-longest 20-plus point stretch to open a season in WNBA history, trailing just 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 at least four weeks with a small fracture in her sternum. Taurasi suffered the chest injury on May 16 against the Sun, a game in which she scored 19 points. She, fittingly, went on to play two subsequent games, before a CT scan revealed the fracture. It, of course, is a tough setback for Taurasi, who dealt with significant back and hamstring injuries in 2019. The loss is also significant for a Phoenix team that is looking to be among the league’s best this season.
The injury could also have ramifications for the U.S. Olympics roster. For the first time since 2008, the roster wasn’t announced before the WNBA season began. And in early May, Carol Callan, the U.S. national team director and chair of the Olympic selection committee, told NBC Sports that “nobody has a spot locked up.” Maybe the injury will have no impact on Taurasi’s selection, but it’s also possible it could throw a wrench in her desire to be the first basketball player to win five Olympic gold medals.
Despite opting out last season, Mystics forward Tina Charles has put herself squarely in early MVP talks for the 2021 campaign. It would appear she took the Liberty’s parting ways with her personally—“They fired me on my day off. That was mad cold,” she said after facing her former team—and that shows on the court. She has scored at least 30 points in three consecutive games, becoming just the sixth player in WNBA history to accomplish that feat. Charles is averaging 26.2 points and 8.4 rebounds this season. She also leads the league in field goal attempts and free throw attempts. “Every time I take the floor, I’m just trying to make a statement that I’m here, to not write me off,” 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 I do ahead of me, so I take every game personal. And I know my energy, how I come out does wonders for the team.”