CHICAGO – Candace Parker most likely won't be the 2021 WNBA Finals MVP. That's only shocking for those who aren't paying attention. Kahleah Copper, the sixth-year wing, put #WNBATwitter on notice when she blew by Game 2 nemesis Sophie Cunningham in Friday night's Game 3.
After Copper and Cunningham scrapped for a loose ball off Cunningham's missed layup Wednesday night in Phoenix that led to a personal foul on Copper, it was Copper's turn to get even. This viral screenshot of their exchange after the play proved that she had juice.
On Friday night, Copper jab-stepped, shot-faked and was off, bolting past the Mercury's 6"0' wing. Cunningham had no choice, coming up from behind and grabbing Copper with both arms.
The Sky went on to win in an 86-50 blowout, setting up Sunday's win-or-go-home game for the Mercury in Chicago.
Copper has been the WNBA's best slasher in the 2021 regular season and postseason. In the regular season, she averaged 14.4 points per game while shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 30.6 percent from three. This postseason, she's turned up the heat, averaging 18.6 points per game while shooting 53.5 percent from the field and 39.3 percent from beyond the arc. Those numbers should lead to a Finals MVP if the Sky can win the series.
In addition to her intensity, supernatural athleticism and laser-sharp focus on the court, Copper shapeshifts. Her competitive fire cools and her playfulness rises.
"I just try to bring energy, you know, I think is even as small as handshakes," she said Saturday. "I'm getting Sloot [Courtney Vandersloot] out of her comfort zone and making her dance before for the games, you know, just getting [them hyped] and getting her ready. I think that those small things outside of basketball make a really big difference. Everybody having a handshake with everybody makes everybody feel good, you know—it's not just with the starters. We're having fun and we're just getting ourselves ready to play the game that we love to play, but I think that those small things really make a difference."
But back to who she is on the court: her first step is straight-up lethal, and Finals opponent and former teammate Kia Vaughn described it as not just quick but also aggressive. It's almost unguardable because it's not a step but rather a long stride.
"The stride and the aggressiveness in that stride to then get the burst that she has," Vaughn told B/R. "It's the combination of a little bit more that makes her so athletic … she's big for her size."
Vaughn knows Copper not only because they both went to Rutgers (at different times) but also because they met when Copper was a rookie on the Washington Mystics in 2016. She was the Mystics' seventh overall pick in the 2016 WNBA draft who was then traded a year later to Chicago along with Stefanie Dolson and the second overall pick in the 2017 draft for superstar Elena Delle Donne.
Before the idea of the Delle Donne trade came to mind, Mystics assistant coach Eric Thibault believed that Copper had proved herself in her rookie season. While she only played 16.2 minutes per game and averaged 6.2 points in her rookie season, he was confident once the season ended that she was going to be a valuable piece for a long time. What stood out to him most was her motor, willingness to learn and steadiness. The Mystics finished the 2016 season 13-21, anything but consistent and steady.
"She was steady in a season that overall wasn't that steady, and that's not easy for young players," he told B/R.
When Thibault and his father Mike and current Fever head coach Marianne Stanley drafted Copper, they were drawn to her intangibles as a product from Rutgers under C. Vivian Stringer, a coach who instills a particular culture and playing habits in all of her athletes. According to Vaughn, Stringer has a track record for developing guards and wings who are "up and down" in transition, defensive-minded and aggressive.
Thibault looks back on that trade reluctantly but noted: "When you have a chance to get Elena Delle Donne, you can't give them nothing in return."
Once Copper got to Chicago, she continued to work. This was something that Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello had noticed over the years after many chats with her spouse and current Sky assistant coach Olaf Lange, who has primarily worked with Copper.
"I love the players that work so hard, and obviously, Olaf talks a fair bit about Kah and just her growth and how much she puts the work in," she said before Game 3 on Friday. "I always say, 'You put the work in, you're going to get better.'"
And she has. In her final year at Rutgers, she added a three-point shot. Thibault recalled that Mystics Director of Player Development Sefu Bernard worked with her on refining those shot mechanics back in 2016 during her rookie season in the W before working with Lange years later in Chicago.
She's consistently improving and steady.
But Sky head coach James Wade wanted her to add something else to her arsenal. After a disappointing bubble season in 2020 when Chicago was knocked out of the postseason in the first round, Wade knew his team had to commit more to defense, and he wanted Copper to be leading the charge. And when the Sky acquired Parker via free agency in the offseason, she joined Wade in helping Copper execute her new responsibilities.
"They were yelling at me every day like, 'Get the help. Get here. Do this. Do that,' and just looking back on that. And then really pushing me and just expecting me to, you know, get stops every possession against the [practice] guys," she said. "So, I just, I appreciate that. I appreciate them challenging me and really believing in me. And I think that that was a major catalyst for us—me setting the tone defensively and just giving a team the energy."
Copper's buy-in to the Sky's new defense—which is more aggressive and strategic and uses a lot more hedging than it had in the past—is partly why they find themselves on the verge of their first championship in franchise history.
While Parker is the play-initiator or traffic controller, Copper is the motor or the engine. She routinely is the one getting the stops. All season long, she's used her athleticism to defend the most explosive guards and wings. In this Finals, she's been tasked with guarding Diana Taurasi, a 10-time All-Star and three-time WNBA champion.
"I think it's huge for her to have the games that she's had and then also be tasked with defending Diana," Parker said on how Copper has fueled the defense. "I think sometimes those contributions on that end of the court get overlooked, and I think we depend on her athleticism. So I think we have a great mixture where she's able to go out and defend and then everybody behind is just reacting. We try to have a solid team defense, and her and Diamond [DeShields] are the ones that really bring that athleticism and being able to stay in place so we can use our IQ."
Vaughn and Thibault both agree that Copper has duality, as she's a different person on the court. Vaughn remembers from when they were teammates in 2016 how attentive she was to others and how she was family-oriented and playful. And apparently, she's a really good cook and makes pancakes that Vaughn believes "are always on point."
In rematches since the trade, Thibault knows that off the court there's no ill will. On the court, it's a different story. "She's just warm and always been really good with us, and then we know once the game starts, she got to try to beat us," he said. "She's going to try to drive it down our throats."
The only reason Vaughn would talk about an opponent on the eve of an elimination game for her Mercury was because of that effect Copper had not only on her but also continues to have on everyone around her. And for Thibault, this moment—watching a player he helped draft and develop early in her career now on the brink of a Finals MVP and a championship—is bittersweet. He wishes that she could still be in a Mystics jersey rather than in black, blue and white.
"And just know, Kah, Kahleah, I love you, and it's the only reason why I'm talking about you as an opponent because I don't want to talk about it, but I do you know…," Vaughn told me as if she were talking to Copper. "She's my Rutgers sister."
Both will also be cheering on Copper when she gets a loftier payday. After the Finals, she will be an unrestricted free agent. Will the Sky invest more in a key piece who helped bring them to their first Finals since 2014, or will the league's best slasher be on the move this offseason?