As a Golden State Warriors fan, the human ankle has been the bane of my existence for a few years now.
For those not paying attention to the NBA, Warriors guard Stephen Curry has had some major ankle problems in that time and by major I mean that a major factor for re-injury has quite literally been "running forward on a basketball court". Center Andrew Bogut's ankle injury didn't have the same type of surreal risk factor for re-injury, but is still working to recover from a fractured right ankle suffered over a year ago now.
So naturally, when I first saw the video of Chicago Sky guard Epiphanny Prince injuring her right ankle on the first possession of the second half during a friendly between the Russian national team and the Chinese national team - as reported by Janis Kacens at LoveWomensBasketball - I feared the worst for the Chicago Sky, a franchise that just can't seem to catch a break even during a season when they seemingly did catch a break by landing a draft pick that netted them a strong 2013 Rookie of the Year candidate.
Anyway - personal dramatics aside - we now know that Prince's injury will probably keep her out of action for just two weeks, which should give her time to work herself back into shape and step right back into things for the Sky.
Yet after a Prince injury completely derailed their quest for their first playoff berth in franchise history last season, the fact remains that the Sky find themselves staring at an extended period without their star once again.
The Sky announced prior to the season that Prince was scheduled to miss seven games while she honored her commitment with the Russian national team; the only difference now is that she'll be recovering from an ankle injury instead of a case of jet lag (and whether you're a Warriors fan or not, ankle injuries can be the kind of nagging injury that players take an extended time to recover from even after being declared fit to play). But at the very least, the Sky were mentally prepared to go ahead without Prince on the floor to help handle the ball and offseason acquisitions Allie Quigley and Sharnee Zoll as well as rookie forward Elena Delle Donne all figure to help ease the pain of this loss moreso than the team was able to last season. With improvement from starting point guard Courtney Vandersloot, increased aggression from All Star center Sylvia Fowles and the scoring punch that Elena Delle Donne offers they should be able to move forward without losing too much ground in the Eastern Conference standings.
But they aren't exactly facing a cupcake schedule either, as previously described by Swish Appeal community member truthtella:
Here's the schedule:
June 7 @ SA
June 9 vs. SA
June 16 @ ATL
June 20 @ TUL (Cambage will be back)
June 22 @ IND
June 26 vs. NY
June 29 vs. LA
Without their best 3-point shooter, their best contested shot-maker, and the player that initiates most of the offense (more often than Vandersloot), how many of these games can they realistically win?
I think I’m going to go conservative and change my prediction to 2-5 based on what I’ve seen thus far. I think they might split with SA and could steal the Tulsa game on the road. The NY game is a toss-up. They’re going to get pounded in the other games.
Clearly, truthtella nailed the pair of San Antonio games on the schedule but there are a few other developments since the time of his comment that could influence the Sky's strength of schedule during this stretch:
- Atlanta will be without Sancho Lyttle while she honors her commitment to Spain.
- Indiana is currently limping through the season as they battle a seemingly contagious injury bug, but it remains to be seen how healthy they'll be by June 22.
- New York has since lost Essence Carson for the season, which will change things for them.
And with the Sky having played those first two games on the slate, it's pretty clear what they have to do to succeed over the next five.
- Turnovers: Much has been made of the Sky's turnover struggles from last year and their need to improve upon that this season. Well, thus far they have improved for a few reasons: 1) Elena Delle Donne is an awfully good ball handler for a rookie forward, 2) both Allie Quigley and Sharnee Zoll-Norman have been efficient ball handlers (albeit in very different ways) and 3) Courtney Vandersloot's touches have decreased compared to last season because the Sky just have more ball handling options and she's turning the ball over slightly less often as well. But the reason their turnover differential is still negative is that they don't force many turnovers. Although they've unsurprisingly been a much more efficient scoring team this season, those transition baskets could help them become more efficient.
- Elena Delle Donne's efficiency: To the point above, Delle Donne's scoring is needed but even as good as she has been she's a rookie who needs help - the more efficient she is as a scorer and passer (meaning teammates knock down shots when she sets them up) the better off the team will be. What hurt them in their loss in San Antonio was a simple inability to hit shots. They didn't handle the ball particularly efficiently as a team in the rematch, but they were able to get to the line as a team and hit threes.
- Getting the ball to Sylvia Fowles: While it's trendy to harp on Sky guards for not getting the ball to Fowles, post play is a two-way street: Fowles has to establish position and that's something that she can struggle to do against the league's stronger post defenders like San Antonio's Jayne Appel. Fowles is quite effective when she's running the floor in transition or able to get a pass after the defense collapses on a driving perimeter player - she's just so athletic that she's tough for opposing post defenders to keep up with. When she's set up as the first option in a halfcourt set and expected to establish and hold position, that's when things stall a bit for the Sky. If they can find ways to get more action going toward the rim with Fowles cutting to catch and shoot at the rim, she'll be more effective and the Sky will be extremely difficult to guard.
This year's stretch without Prince shouldn't come close to tanking their season the way last year's did: both the Connecticut Sun and Indiana Fever are struggling to win games as they work through key injuries of their own. And it should be clear that the addition of Delle Donne changes the equation for this team without Prince: she can take on more responsibility as ball handler and scorer, which takes pressure off of everyone else. But they're still a team with an almost contradictory dynamic at work: they are better when they're moving and forcing teammates to defend all their weapons (when all their weapons are true threats to score) however they're also prone to turnovers when they do look to move the ball more without Prince because it usually means putting the ball in the hands of someone other than Delle Donne who defenses must fear.
Yet even if we say they started to show signs of improvement as a Prince-less unit in Sunday's game against San Antonio in Chicago, they still required last minute heroics to seal the deal against a team that many people looked upon as an afterthought in the Western Conference this season (though it should be noted that they've performed extremely well considering the absence of their two stars). They still have some work to do as a unit and need to rely on someone other than the rookie to be a consistent performer.