No denying Sky players think the world of their Coach of the Year
After the Chicago Sky blew by the Phoenix Mercury in the first round of the WNBA playoffs Wednesday at Wintrust Arena, Sky stars Diamond DeShields and Courtney Vandersloot sat down in the media room to take questions from reporters.
Near the end of the session, I asked both players to discuss their relationship with head coach James Wade and what he's meant to the franchise. Earlier that night, Wade, in his first year as a WNBA head coach, was presented with the Coach of the Year award.
Wade led the Sky to a 20-win season and its first playoff appearance since 2016.
DeShields answered first, complimentary of Wade, and when she finished, a Sky staff member said there was time for one more question. But Vandersloot interjected.
"Wait, I didn't answer this one yet," she said.
Wade, described all season by his players as relatable, refreshing and a player's coach, has had an undeniable impact on Vandersloot, which speaks volumes, considering the impact Vandersloot -- mentioned as a most valuable player candidate -- has had on the Sky and on the WNBA.
Vandersloot again leads the WNBA in assists at 9.1 assists per game.
"One thing I really respect about James is that we would have conversations for hours about what we want to do here in Chicago and he was always all ears," Vandersloot said of talks she had with Wade last winter in Russia, where both were stationed in the offseason. "He wanted to know everything, he wanted to change things and his energy is unmatched. It's so contagious. It's easy to be around him and play for him.
"He instills so much confidence in all of us, he believed in us from the beginning and it's a player's dream to play for a coach who has (that kind of) energy and expectations. He's made me better."
Sky players said in training camp that there was immediately a different vibe around the team with Wade in charge.
They liked how positive he was, his style and ideas.
"Having him come in and make the commitment to our team from Day 1 and show us that he really cared, he bought into us first and then we bought into him," said DeShields, who leads the Sky in scoring at 16.2 points per game. "We didn't really know what was going to happen (with Wade in charge), but as he warmed up to us, I mean, I love the guy. I think all of us do. It's because he believes in us and it's because he makes us better. He gives us the chance to be the best version of ourselves."
The Sky ranks in the top three in the WNBA in every major category: points per game (84.6), rebounds (36.4), assists (21.6), blocks (4.5), field goal percentage (44.8) and 3-pointers made (247).
Plus, DeShields, Vandersloot and former DePaul star Allie Quigley, one of the best 3-point shooters in the league, were all all-stars.
But even before Xs and Os and statistics, Wade seems to put a higher emphasis on relationship building.
"I tell (my players) a lot how much I appreciate them, how much I love them. They're my family and every player means something important to me and we have a relatable relationship in different ways," Wade said.
"I've always been anxious to come to work and it's because of them. I love my team a lot."
Friend of the family:
Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello had an interesting perspective on James Wade. She coached Wade's wife Edwige Lawson-Wade when she was a WNBA player for the San Antonio Stars and then the Brondello and Wade families got to know each other when coaching overseas in Russia.
"James and Edwige are just great people and we've been friends a really long time," Brondello said. "I couldn't be prouder because it couldn't have happened to such a great guy and a really good coach. He's got those girls buying in and playing fantastic basketball. He got that award because he deserves it."
It's the Sky at Las Vegas in Round 2 of the WNBA playoffs, a single-game elimination battle at 4 p.m. Sunday on ESPN2.
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