2021 WNBA Finals – Chicago Sky’s Kahleah Copper and the 5 best breakout performances in WNBA playoff historical past
October 12, 2021
- Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, womens college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began reporting on women’s basketball in 1984 and has been with ESPN since 1996.
PHOENIX – Chicago Sky striker Kahleah Copper started to bloom in the WNBA bubble last season. She is in full breakout mode in the 2021 WNBA playoffs.
“She opened a lot of people’s eyes,” said team-mate Courtney Vandersloot, “because they didn’t really know anything about her.”
You missed something that Copper proved in the postseason. She led Chicago in regular season scoring with 14.4 PPG. In Sky’s seven playoff games, she averages 18.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists – all above her regular season average.
“I feel like the playoffs were another season for me,” said Copper, who had 21 points and 10 rebounds in Sky’s 91-77 Game 1 win over the Phoenix Mercury in Sunday’s WNBA final. “It was another opportunity to get better and grow.”
Vandersloot smiles at that.
“We had seen a glimpse of it, but even we didn’t know she could do it at this level for so long,” Sky’s point guard said. “We’re in the final and she’s the best player out there sometimes.”
Copper will tell you she’s a proud native of North Philly, but Chicago grew on her. Her professional career began in Washington when she was number 7 on the 2016 Rutgers draft. Then, in February 2017, ahead of their second season, Copper, Stefanie Dolson and a 2017 first-round draft pick were swapped for Elena Delle Donne in Chicago.
That worked for the Mystics, who won a title behind Delle Donne in 2019. But it also worked at Sky, as both Copper and Dolson are part of this finals team.
From 2017-19, Copper was an RPG player for Sky who averaged between 14 and 16 minutes per game. She showed flashes of her skill but never had the big game on a big stage until she had 16 points against the Las Vegas Aces in the second round of the 2019 playoffs. The Sky was about to face Copper’s former Washington team in the semifinals. But a late turnover and half-court heave gave the Aces a 93-92 win.
The loss stayed with Copper, and she was all the more determined to get the most out of 2020. She reached average career highs of 14.9 points and 5.5 rebounds in the bubble in Bradenton, Florida and was a candidate for the league’s best-improved player award.
“The bubble season was a preparatory meeting for me,” said Copper, adding that she told coach James Wade, “I’m not going back. I will keep getting better.”
Being voted All-Star this summer meant a lot to Copper.
“I felt like, ‘Wow, the work I put into it was really rewarded,’ ” she said.” And this postseason was like that for me too. “
Emma Meesseman has teamed up with Elena Delle Donne to lead the Mystics to the 2019 title. Meesseman was named Finals MVP. ed Dishman / NBAE via Getty Images
Copper turned 27 in August and her game is on the rise. We rank the top five breakout performances in WNBA postseason history by players who won the WNBA title. Will copper join them?
1. Emma Meesseman, 2019 Washington Mystics: She came to the WNBA from Belgium at the age of 20 and was a starter in 2014-17. She did not play in the WNBA in 2018 as she was preparing for the FIBA World Cup with her national team and then missed part of the 2019 season when she competed in the European Championships. So she took on a reserve role in 2019 and excelled in it, especially in the postseason when she averaged 19.3 points and 5.6 rebounds. After 22 points in title competition 5, she was named WNBA Finals MVP. And the mystics put up for sale a t-shirt celebrating “Playoff Emma”.
2. Betty Lennox, 2004 Seattle Storm: Lennox was an All-Star and Rookie of the Year in 2000 with Minnesota. But then she was with two teams that folded: Miami and Cleveland. At 27, she had only played three playoff games in four seasons and was facing her second draft resolution in 2004. She was only picked at number 6, which was lucky for her and Seattle as Lennox played a key role in the franchise’s first title. After the Storm lost 1-0 to Connecticut in a still best-of-three finals series, Sun’s Nykesha sales in Game 2 were 32 points. What saved the storm? Lennox almost hit them at 27 in a 67-65 win in Seattle. In the decisive win in Game 3, “B-Money” had 23 points and was named WNBA Finals MVP. She retired in 2011 and averaged 12.1 points and 4.1 rebounds over her career.
3. Penny Taylor, 2007 Phoenix Mercury: The Australian was voted number 11 by Cleveland in 2001, when most WNBA fans didn’t know who she was. In her second season, she was an all-star. Then she was Phoenix’s top pick in the Rockers Dispersal Draft prior to the 2004 season. But at the start of the 2007 season, she still didn’t have a big stage, appearing in just six playoff games, all with Cleveland. Then Taylor played a huge role for Mercury’s first title team in 2007, averaging 19.3 points and a team high of 7.9 rebounds in the playoffs. Taylor retired in 2016 after winning three championships with the Mercury.
4. Natasha Howard, Seattle Storm 2018: Howard won the 2017 WNBA title as a reserve with the Minnesota Lynx. Traded in Seattle ahead of the 2018 season, she made an immediate impression as a starter, averaging 13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds in the regular season. Then in the playoffs she increased her numbers to 15.8 and 8.3. In the title-winning game 3 she was unstoppable with 29 points in 11 of 14 shots and 14 rebounds. Howard was the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 and won another title in 2020 with the Storm. She is now with the New York Liberty.
5. Erlana Larkins, Indiana Fever 2012: Larkins played her first two seasons (2008, 2009) in New York, then failed to make it into the WNBA two games in 2010 or 2011. But Larkins played a major role in the playoffs, starting nine games, averaging 9.9 points and a team high of 10.9 rebounds to help Indiana get its only WNBA title. Larkins spent six more seasons in the WNBA and helped Fever get back to the finals in 2015 when they fell in five games against Minnesota.