As the Bulls begin their playoff march at the United Center on Saturday, another group of professional basketball players will be watching closely to see how far the much-improved, new look Bulls will go in the playoffs. One and done? Not likely. Eastern Conference finals? A real possibility for the first time since 1998.
Much like the Chicago Bulls, the WNBA's Chicago Sky gave itself a much-needed makeover during the offseason: After going 14-20 in the regular season and missing the playoffs, the Sky accepted the resignation of their head coach--the franchise's third in its five year history--and chose a new head coach in Pokey Chatman, who led the powerhouse Russian team Spartak to the Championship game before losing 59-68. In coming to the Sky, Chatman reunited with her former LSU protegee, All-Star 6'6 center Sylvia Fowles, and Team Spartak's Euroleague player of the year, Epiphanny Prince, who skipped her senior year at Rutgers to play for Chatman on Team Spartak.
And now, great hope for new offensive firepower in their WNBA draft picks. The combination of leadership, offensive power, and defensive prowess that propelled the Bulls to ever-loftier heights since the arrival of Rose in 2007 may also, at long last, catch up to the Chicago Sky.
On Monday, Courtney Vandersloot, the 2000-point woman whose inspiration and occasional practice coach is former Utah Jazz and Gonzaga frontman John Stockton, was selected with the third overall pick in the 2011 WNBA draft by the Chicago Sky.
In the second round, the Sky selected Carolyn Swords from Boston College with the 15th overall selection and Angie Bjorklund from the University of Tennessee with the 17th overall pick. Anyone under the tutelage of living legend Pat Summitt will help a team considerably. Amy Jaeschke, the first player from the Big 10's Northwestern University was selected in the third round with the 27th overall pick.
Most impressive about Vandersloot, a dynamic, 5-8 point guard from Gonzaga, is that she is the first ever Division I player, man or woman, to notch more than 2000 points and 1000 assists in a career. Vandersloot, the 2011 Nancy Lieberman Award winner as the top point guard in Division I, led the nation in assists per game (10.2) for the second year in a row and broke the NCAA single-season assist record with 367. She has been compared to NBA legend John Stockton, the NHL's Wayne Gretzky and the Seattle Storm's Sue Bird.
"She's the total package at the premiere position. Many play the point. Courtney owns it. Her ability is not only being able to finish the break, but how she initiates it. She can be a deep, moving outlet, peek at the rim and still be in total control," said new Chicago Sky Head Coach and General Manager Chatman Pokey Chatman.
In 2011, Vandersloot's extraordinary shooting and remarkable court sense guided Gonzaga to a 31-4 record. She also led her team to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament as an 11 seed, the lowest-seeded team to make it that far in NCAA history. In the postseason, Vandersloot averaged a tournament-high 30.7 points per game.
Writing on her blog, while expressing appreciation for the draft day experience, Vandersloot seems ready to get down to business. "It is now time for me to get back to Spokane and hit the gym. I have a lot of work to do before training camp begins on May 15!" she wrote.
Hometown favorite Jaeschke, a graduate of New Trier High School, told the Daily Northwestern newspaper that being picked 27th overall turned out to be "A blessing in disguise because I'm so excited that I got to be picked up by the Chicago Sky and play in front of a hometown crowd and near my friends and family," Jaeschke said. "Having them come out and support me is more than I could ever wish for."
Now, the Sky can only pray for the same results as the Bulls had this season with new coach and defensive genius Tom Thibodeaux: a #1 seed in the playoffs and a 62-20 regular season record. The combination of leadership, offensive power, and defensive prowess that propelled the Bulls to ever-loftier heights since the arrival of Rose in 2008 may also, at long last, catch up to the Chicago Sky.