Sky’s James Wade has a plan to build another title contender

Sky coach and general manager James Wade is actively developing. From year to year, season to season, he never wants to be the same guy.

So after Sky’s unofficial elimination last September in the semi-finals of the WNBA playoffs, the work began.

“I’ve been to four NBA teams this offseason,” Wade said, referring to the Bulls, 76, Trail Blazers and Celtics over the past few months. “I’ve seen how they do shooting and different things to develop players. I keep in constant contact with some [NBA] trainers. You get coaches with 30 years of experience, coaches who’ve played in the NBA for 20 years, and they tell you their experience and how they’ve seen teams improve.”

Earlier this week, Wade was also announced as part of former Jazz head coach Quinn Snyder’s coaching staff for African basketball. The two-day Scout event will be held Sunday and Monday in Paris.

No need to jump to conclusions about Wade’s future — he has said adamantly that he wants to spend his coaching career in the WNBA, and Sky made his option a day after he was ousted in the postseason, a move that will keep him under contract through the 2025 season.

But as the last remaining WNBA coach/GM after a wave of coaching changes in the fall, he’s more committed than ever to improving.

Wade has always enjoyed the dual role: building the team he is then tasked with coaching. If there’s any argument against him as a GM, it’s that his draft seasons haven’t been the strongest. He led forward Katie Lou Samuelson with the fourth overall pick in his first draft in 2019, and in 2021 guard drafted 19-year-old Sheila Hill. Those selections came with scrutiny, but Wade recovered when he traded Samuelson for Azura Stevens in 2020 and Heal for Dana Evans in 2021, two months after being drafted. Both trades paid dividends to Sky.

As far as free agency is concerned, over the past two years, Wade has managed to clean things up. After signing superstar Candace Parker in 2021, he added forward Emma Meeseman in 2022 and also acquired point guard Julie Allemand in signings and trades, as well as re-signing guards Courtney Vandersloot, Ally Quigley and Kaleh Cooper. Those moves contributed to him winning his first Executive of the Year award last fall.

This year, all eyes will be on Wade because he’s the last person to wear two hats and because Heaven faces a potential rebuild, depending on how free agency performs.

Asked how Sky would attract free customers while other teams invest in modern facilities, Wade said, “Of course, we have Chicago.” On top of the city’s attractions, cite the central location.

But he seems more confident in the charisma of his coaching staff. Emre Vatansifer, Tonya Edwards and Anne Waters will return from 2022, joined by another player development coach. Sky also added to its sports medicine staff and hired a sports psychologist last season.

“We pride ourselves on the people we bring into the organization,” Wade said. “The people we have are second to none. In the meantime, we strive every year for better things, for new things, for things of the highest standard. We are moving and evolving at that.”

In his first move to free agency, Wade made a qualifying offer for guard/forward Rebekah Gardner, making her a booked player, meaning she could only negotiate with the Sky. Gardner was another free agency result for Valley last season.

Next up is the biggest challenge: re-signing free agents unfettered in the sky. Vandersloot will be very important, along with Parker, as well as Stevens, Quigley and Meesseman in the market as well. No other team faces more potential turnover than the Sky except for the Storm, who said goodbye to Sue Bird after a 20-year career in Seattle. The hole left by the 13-time All-Star and four-time WNBA champion is just the right size for Vandersloot, the Sky floor general, who met with Storm and Lynx last year before staying with the Sky on a one-year deal.

This year, things are different. First, Heaven does not come out of a championship season.

Could their failure to replicate motivate the free agents to stay and redeem themselves? If not, does the team have enough to attract other top free agents?

Only time will tell, but one thing is already clear: Wade’s architectural vision does not include demolition.

“It was nice to play in the tournament [in 2022],” he said. “But we weren’t able to. So we have to figure out how to build to get there again.”

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