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All-Time Starting 5: Chicago Sky

In honor of the team’s 10th anniversary, the Chicago Sky have been fielding a “10 For Our Town” promotion all summer long. Most of it has been centered on the Sky’s history since their inception, from honoring 10-year season ticket holders to allowing fans to vote for their top 10 players in Sky history. While I was a little late to the party (avoiding the dark days of the team’s tenure at UIC Pavillion by a healthy margin), I’ve still had the privilege of watching some awfully talented basketball players here. So, in honor of the Sky’s 10th anniversary (and in what seems to be a Today’s Fastbreak theme), let’s look at the best of what Chicago has had to offer women’s basketball fans since 2006: an all-time starting lineup for the Chicago Sky.

Guard: Courtney Vandersloot

Drafted out of Gonzaga in 2011, expectations were high for “Sloot.” The point guard was an All-Star her first season in the league, and although fans and coaches alike had to be patient, her potential began to blossom during the 2013 season. Vandersloot was a gifted floor general from the get-go, and under the tutelage of Sky coach Pokey Chatman, she’s grown into one of the WNBA’s premier guards, now owning the franchise record for total assists.

Because of the big names that she’s played with since entering the league, Vandersloot doesn’t often get much credit for her play. Sky fans know better. We’ve watched her morph from a wide-eyed rookie into a resilient, steady veteran. She’s worked incredibly hard on her game, becoming a dependable outside shooter and one of the best defenders at the point guard position. Vandersloot is perhaps more willing than anyone else on the floor to sacrifice her body and take a charge no matter who the opponent is. This is something that never fails to get a standing ovation from the Allstate Arena crowd.

Her leadership skills have also drastically improved. Often on the court alongside players who aren’t typically considered vocal, Vandersloot had to step up and fill that role, and it’s made her a player Chatman can be proud of. Of course, this is something you have to be watching for specifically, but the way she interacts with her teammates is just what you’d expect from a top point guard.

While Vandersloot remains unassuming (she was robbed of an All-Star selection this season, despite being the best point guard in the Eastern Conference), she’s become a fan favorite here in Chicago. Ask any Sky fan who the toughest player on the team is, and their answer will probably be Courtney Vandersloot. She does all the things that don’t show up in the box score (aside from that nice 31.0 AST%, of course) and is without a doubt the glue of the current Sky roster. She’s easily deserving of the first guard position on this All-Sky team.

Guard: Epiphanny Prince

When speaking in terms of raw talent, this Rutgers product doesn’t have much competition. A two-time All-Star selection during her time in Chicago, Prince boasts one of the most complete skill sets among WNBA guards. Her ability to play both guard positions made her a valuable asset for many Sky teams, and when it came to scoring the ball, Prince was often spectacular; in 2012, she tied a league record with three consecutive 30-point games.

Prince’s combination of strength and skills makes her a tough cover for just about anyone. She can shoot the ball (37 percent career three-point shooter) and get to the free throw line (.317 career free throw rate), and her superior one-on-one skills bailed the Sky out of more poor offensive possessions than I’d like to remember. She can also play some defense, too, recording 281 steals during her five seasons in Chicago.

While Prince was traded to her hometown New York Liberty before the 2015 season, she’ll be remembered by Sky fans as a player whose explosive talent and scoring ability almost single-handedly brought the franchise into relevancy during the 2012 season and played a crucial role in the team’s future success. She’ll go down in Sky history as one of the team’s all-time most exciting players.

Forward: Elena Delle Donne

This one is a no-brainer. Despite only playing in her third professional season, Delle Donne is already being proclaimed the face of the WNBA.

…Not that it’s undeserved. The 2013 Rookie of the Year is a once-in-a-generation player. At 6’5”, Delle Donne has the height of a center, yet her skills rival those of the best guards. She shoots the three at a high level. She can beat both bigger and smaller defenders off the dribble. Her post play is beyond impressive, with footwork that’s second to none and a unique knack for using the glass.

I could go on, but it’d probably be more efficient to just drop a link to Delle Donne’s 45-point performance earlier this season. There isn’t an offensive move in basketball that she can’t pull off. Size, speed, athleticism, skill, intelligence, vision…the complete package. The ideal scoring machine.

It’s probably no surprise (nor coincidence) that Delle Donne’s arrival in Chicago has correlated with the Sky’s biggest success as a franchise. As a rookie, she led the team to a 24-win season and their first-ever playoff appearance. A year later, she overcame a bout with Lyme disease and back tightness to carry the Sky to a first-round comeback over the Atlanta Dream and an eventual Finals berth. This season, Delle Donne has taken her game to even loftier heights, leading the league in scoring at 24.2 points per game while improving her already impressive free throw shooting to a ridiculous 96 percent. 

Along with being one of the top basketball players in the world, Delle Donne is the consummate professional. Always humble and always giving back to the community, on off days you’re most likely to find her making appearances on the news to promote the Sky or making visits to children’s hospitals. Keeping her grounded is her relationship with her sister Lizzie, whose story is positively touching.

With her on-court performance and her off-court generosity, Delle Donne has earned the respect of her peers and the love of her fans. She’s the perfect role model, epitomizing how athletes should carry themselves. I couldn’t be prouder to have her in Chicago.

Forward: Candice Dupree

The Sky’s first-ever draft pick in 2006, this smooth power forward out of Temple was undoubtedly the team’s first “franchise player.” She was their first All-Star, first representative of “Team Chicago” at the Shooting Stars competition during NBA All-Star weekend and generally the first player one thought of when the Sky were brought up in conversation. Dupree asserted herself as a force in the WNBA right away, churning out season after season of remarkably steady play. The consistency is almost eerie:  from 2006 to 2009, Dupree never averaged fewer than 16 points scored per 36 minutes or more than 18, on nearly identical levels of volume each season. She never shot below 43 percent from the field or above 46 percent. Even her free throw numbers were, well, even: 78 percent, 76 percent, 78 percent and 79 percent in her final season with the Sky.

Indeed, Dupree was Ms. Consistent, scoring with finesse both in the post and off the dribble, with a fluidity that’s extremely rare for players in their early 20s. Unfortunately for the Sky, Dupree’s best days were still to come, and it wouldn’t be with them. After requesting a trade from the Sky in 2010 (citing an impatience for the franchise to put together a winning team), Dupree went on to shoot an incredible 66 percent from the field for the Phoenix Mercury, immediately establishing a chemistry with elite guard Diana Taurasi and a reputation as one of the best pick-and-roll players in the league. Dupree’s other career highlights include a pair of FIBA gold medals for the United States in 2010 and 2014, and a WNBA championship with the Mercury in 2014…the clinching victory ironically coming against the team she was drafted by, and on the WNBA court where she first played.

Center: Sylvia Fowles

If Candice Dupree was the Sky’s first All-Star caliber player, Fowles was their first All-World candidate. Coming out of LSU as part of the heralded 2008 draft class, the 6’6” center was immediately one of the most intimidating physical presences in the WNBA. All it took was a year for her to get her feet wet, and after that, the rest of the league’s frontcourts had a pretty rough go of it. Big Syl’s dominance grew and grew every season; by her third year in the league, she was a premier 20-10 player, and a year later, she averaged that figure while taking home her first Defensive Player of the Year award.

In her prime, it was almost impossible to keep Fowles from asserting herself, mainly because there was no other player as big and strong as she was. Along with routinely being a beast at the rim (she’s led the league in FG% four times so far, good for a 58.4 percent mark for her career), her rebounding and shot-blocking prowess made any Sky lineup heaps better on the defensive end of the floor. She led the league in blocked shots in 2010 and 2011, while snaring rebounds at a league-best 21.0 TREB% from 2012 to 2013. The latter number, along with finishing second in the league in blocked shots that year, earned Fowles another Defensive Player of the Year award in 2013, the anchor for what’s easily been the Sky’s best regular-season effort to this date.

On the court, there may have been no one more physically terrifying than Big Syl, but off the court there may have been no one more beloved. The “Gentle Giant,” as she came to be known, was always amiable around fans and media alike, wearing a big smile even after tough losses. She was a fan favorite at Sky season ticket holder events and always carried herself as someone who just loved what she did, along with everyone who watched her do it.

It’s for reasons like these, coupled with the stellar on-court performance, that made Fowles’s recent request to be traded such a bitter pill for the Sky fan base to swallow. Unlike Dupree, Fowles didn’t make it immediately clear why, saying only that she wanted to “experience different things.” She ended up sitting out the first half of the 2015 WNBA season before heading to Minnesota in a three-team deal.

Despite its surprising and abrupt ending, Fowles’s career in Chicago will largely be remembered fondly by teammates, coaches and fans alike. Always goofy, always professional and always relentless, Big Syl represented her team and her city with pride and performance, and that’s why I wouldn’t want anyone else at the heart of my all-time Chicago Sky team.

Sixth Woman: Jia Perkins

All right, so I’m cheating a little bit. This was supposed to be an all-time starting five, yet here we are at what’s clearly the sixth player on this list.

But here’s the thing: I love Jia Perkins. I love her game. I love her demeanor. I love her consistency, and I love how she’s been able to remain effective into her early 30s as a steady wing option. Not many players in this league can do that.

What I don’t love is how all of this seems to be completely lost on casual fans. Perkins is without a doubt one of the most underrated players in the WNBA, year after year, and her tenure with the Sky was no different. Despite being an integral part of the team for five seasons, very rarely is she mentioned as a player who helped build this franchise. I can’t accept this, so I had to find some way to include her in this post.

From 2006 to 2010, Perkins solidified the Sky’s wing rotation, contributing 14.3 Win Shares during that span while posting three straight seasons of a PER over 20. Perkins scored efficiently and often, recording a career-high 17 points per game for the Sky in 2008, and rarely turned the ball over. She was durable, too, playing in 165 out of a possible 170 games, while enjoying success both in the starting lineup and coming off the bench.

For a fan base that had so little to cheer for during the early years, those are some pretty solid numbers, and some contributions that shouldn’t be forgotten…by this Sky fan, anyway!

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