FOR­WARD ready to bounce back from in­jury-plagued 2019, fill laven­der’s shoes

Chicago Sun-Times - - SKY BEAT - BY MADE­LINE KEN­NEY | mken­ney@sun­ | @mad­ken­ney

Sky coach James Wade is counting on new for­ward Azura Stevens to have a “big year” af­ter an in­jury lim­ited her to nine games last sea­son.

Ac­quired in a shock­ing trade that sent 2019 first-round pick Katie Lou Sa­muel­son to the Wings in Fe­bru­ary, Stevens had sea­so­nend­ing foot surgery last Au­gust to ad­dress an in­jury that had been both­er­ing her since 2018.

Though she hasn’t played in a game in over a year and is in a new en­vi­ron­ment, Stevens is hop­ing to adapt quickly with the Sky.

“I do def­i­nitely want to come back in with more of an at­tack mind­set,” she said. “Last year was just a hard year all around for me, deal­ing with the in­jury, and I wasn’t re­ally able to dis­play my game the way I wanted to. But now that I’m feel­ing health­ier, I just want to play my game . . . [and] just add pos­i­tive things what­ever that means of­fen­sively or de­fen­sively.”

That’s ex­actly what the Sky are go­ing to need from her with for­ward Jan­tel Laven­der out for the sea­son.

This week, Laven­der had surgery on her left foot for the fifth time, the team said.

What it means for Laven­der be­yond this year is un­known. She’s 31, won a WNBA ti­tle with the Sparks and has started to pur­sue a ca­reer in sports broad­cast­ing.

While Laven­der’s fu­ture re­mains in flux, the Sky are left with some­what of a dilemma at power for­ward.

Last sea­son, As­tou Ndour re­placed the in­jured Laven­der in the start­ing lineup in Au­gust, lead­ing to the 6-5 for­ward’s sec­ond-half break­out.

Ndour re­ceived out­side in­ter­est af­ter her surge. As a re­stricted free agent, she re­ceived an of­fer sheet the Sky couldn’t match be­cause of salary-cap re­stric­tions. The Sky ul­ti­mately sent her to the Wings in a sign-and-trade deal for a 2021 first-round pick.

With Ndour out of the pic­ture, the Sky will rely on Cheyenne Parker and Stevens to fill the void left at the four spot.

Wade likes the en­ergy and lead­er­ship Parker brings off the bench, so there’s a chance he might use Stevens in the start­ing lineup.

Stevens has a sim­i­lar game to Ndour’s, but she’s on a much cheaper con­tract. She has strong de­fen­sive in­stincts and can give the Sky an added pres­ence in the mid­dle.

Stevens also has shown that she can have an im­pact on both ends of the court. In 2018, she was named to the all-rookie team af­ter av­er­ag­ing 8.9 points, 4.6 re­bounds and 1.1 blocked shots in 34 games.

“She has a very high up­side,” Wade said of Stevens, who’s set to earn $57,000 this sea­son — a whop­ping $128,000 less than Ndour’s salary, ac­cord­ing to High Post Hoops’ data­base. “There’s not many play­ers in the league with her skill set and her size and her mo­bil­ity . . . that can move like [her].”

Teams with the most suc­cess in the WNBA have ath­letic bigs who can switch, stretch the floor and at­tack close­outs.

Wade said he felt the team was miss­ing that af­ter the Ndour trade, but he be­lieves Stevens can fit that mold in time.

“This could be a big year for her,” Wade said. “Our of­fense is prob­a­bly suited be­cause we like to run, we like to play at a pace that’s re­ally ac­cel­er­ated and it gives [Court­ney Van­der­sloot] a long tal­ent with long arms that she could play to.” ✶

“She has a very high up­side. There’s not many play­ers in the league with her skill set and her size and her mo­bil­ity . . . that can move like [her].”

Sky coach james wade, on new­comer azura Stevens

The Sky ac­quired Azura Stevens from the Wings in Fe­bru­ary for Katie Lou Sa­muel­son and a 2021 first-round draft pick.

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