With the WNBA preseason in full swing, the Chicago Sky and Indiana Fever were presented with a fairly convenient slate: a home-and-home series between two teams within reasonable driving distance from each other.
Of course, it being the preseason, they weren’t the cleanest of games.
The Sky wasn’t at full strength entering the series: Diamond DeShields and Kahleah Copper were held out due to minor injuries, while Astou Ndour was still fulfilling her international obligations in Turkey. Allie Quigley also sat out Tuesday’s game in Chicago, though she played last Thursday in Indiana.
Having won just six games in 2018 and looking to improve in any way possible, the Fever played the series with house money,
Indiana ended up winning both games by double digits, though both teams showed the kind of rust typical for WNBA squads that have mere days to transition from international play. That doesn’t mean they weren’t meaningful; there were good and bad plays on both ends, but there was plenty to be learned from this week’s friendlies.
An aggressive Gabby Williams
First, let’s start with the good. With so many of the Sky’s perimeter players inactive, second-year forward Gabby Williams was given more room to operate, and she delivered a solid all-around line. In 29 minutes of play on Tuesday, Williams recorded 10 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 blocked shot.
It was the confidence with which Williams played, though, that was the most encouraging. If you watched the Sky last season, you might have gotten the impression that Williams was still finding her way as an offensive threat. If Tuesday’s game is any indication, however, she’s made significant progress.
The addition of a consistent three-point shot will be crucial to Williams’ development. It was a shot she hesitated to take last season, but Tuesday she launched four of them, making two. While she didn’t have as strong of an offensive showing on Thursday, her confidence shooting the basketball — along with the Sky actually running plays for her — bodes well for Williams’ ceiling.
A sluggish Sky offense
For the most part, though, the numbers for Chicago’s offense were downright ugly. The Sky shot just 32.8 percent from the floor on Tuesday and 38.5 percent on Thursday, knocking down just nine of its 32 total three-point attempts. As an offense, Chicago scored a paltry 70.8 and 75.2 points per 100 possessions in the first and second games, respectively.
Granted, inefficient scoring is commonplace during preseason basketball, especially for teams missing several key components. DeShields, in particular, will serve as a “bailout” option for the Sky’s offense when she returns with her superior dribble penetration ability.
Injuries don’t excuse turnovers, though. Chicago had a dreadful time taking care of the ball during the series, registering 42 total turnovers against 31 total assists. For a team that turned the ball over more than any other in 2018, this is particularly discouraging.
A young, hungry Indiana roster
Unlike the Sky, the Fever is still planted firmly in rebuild mode, and several roster spots are up for grabs as head coach and general manager Pokey Chatman navigates these murky waters.
What should be pleasing for Chatman is the all-around effort that her team put forth. While the Fever didn’t shoot the ball particularly well either, the players gave themselves plenty of extra opportunities on the glass, grabbing 20 total offensive rebounds versus the Sky’s 12.
The manner in which the Fever swept the series was even more convincing when you consider how Chatman handled her rotations. She treated the preseason like an extended tryout of sorts, playing nobody other than Kelsey Mitchell more than 20 minutes in either game. Players who might be considered to be on the bubble still got extended looks.
For the most part, her team responded.
Players like Asia Taylor, Erica McCall and Paris Kea — all of whom are battling for spots on the Fever’s final roster — contributed solid minutes in the series. Kea is a player who Chatman might favor after Thursday. Backup point guard Erica Wheeler suffered an ankle injury and, while Chatman doesn’t believe it to be serious, she has rarely turned down an opportunity to have more point guard depth on her teams.
A glimpse into Teaira McCowan’s potential
The biggest beneficiary of Indiana’s full-roster rotation was Teaira McCowan. The 6-foot-7 center was drafted by the Fever in the first round of the 2019 WNBA Draft and it was unclear at the time how big of a role she’d play as a rookie.
Two preseason games later, McCowan has made about as good of a first impression as possible. In 35 total minutes, she recorded a cumulative box plus/minus of +31, by far the highest of any Fever player.
We already know that McCowan can protect the rim. We’re going to be seeing plenty of this in 2019 and beyond:
It’s the other areas of her game, though, that were of most benefit to Indiana. A big part of McCowan’s gaudy box plus/minus in the series was due to the fact that none of Chicago’s bigs could keep her off the boards — McCowan was the game’s top rebounder in both contests. In addition, her sheer gravity when rolling to the hoop was something that was pointed out specifically by Chatman in her postgame press conference.
Like any rookie, McCowan will have her fair share of struggles. But what she showed against Chicago this preseason was very promising. Indiana has solid veteran options in the frontcourt, in Candice Dupree and Natalie Achonwa, but McCowan will be taking minutes from them eventually. And it might be sooner rather than later against smaller teams like the Sky.