Remember a few years back when there were a bunch of people who were around hoops, but didn’t really actually hoop, and they were trying to tell hoopers to quit shooting the midrange? Yeah, nah, Kahleah Copper didn’t listen to any of that. The former WNBA champ and two-time All-Star possesses a middie that’s something out of an instructional video. It’s been a big reason she’s scored the ninth-most points in the W at the time of this writing.
The foundation of her shot is a fluid two-foot hop. It helps her establish momentum on the way up. Her release point is high, at the top of her rise, and it’s followed by an extended and long-held follow-through. Copper’s textbook progression should be studied everywhere.
Her journey to get here should also be studied. Not just the evolution of her shot into a two-dribble automatic machine, but the resolve she’s shown during her eight seasons in the League. It should be a lesson to young hoopers everywhere: This all takes time.
Copper as a freshman at Rutgers (5.1 points and 3.5 rebounds a game on 41 percent shooting) looks like a whole different person when compared to her as a senior (17.7 points and 8 rebounds a game on 50 percent shooting). Patience paid off when the Washington Mystics selected her with the seventh overall pick of the 2016 Draft. She had a solid rookie campaign for Washington, appearing in 30 games, and she was good enough that the Chicago Sky wanted her to be a part of the trade that sent former WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne to the nation’s capital.
Copper played through four full seasons averaging between 14-16 minutes and 6-7 points a game. She couldn’t crack the rotation in a real way in DC or Chicago. Her career drastically changed during head coach James Wade’s second season in the Chi in 2020. Coach Wade increased her minutes by more than double what she played in 2019.
In the 2020 wubble, Copper’s stats were more than solid: 14.9 points, 5.5 boards, 2.1 dimes and 1 steal per. Included in 2020 were a trio of 20-plus point games (all wins for the Sky), marking the first time in her career that she went for 20 or more on three separate occasions. The signs that she was evolving appeared in other ways, too. She recorded at least 1 steal in over half the games she played, her rebounding was way up (she got her first career game of 10 rebounds at IMG) and her three-pointer was much improved.
Though the Sky lost in the first round of the 2020 postseason, Copper and her squad were about to get a major roster addition, one that would fully unlock the potential of the North Philly kid. The arrival of future Hall of Famer Candace Parker in Chicago was the final push to get Copper’s game all the way turnt up. Parker was vocally adamant about Copper for the entire summer. She was constantly praising the energy she brought to the floor. With the voice of a legend in her ear, Copper realized what she was capable of.
The 2021 playoffs belonged to No. 2, who was officially stamped by winning the 2021 WNBA Finals MVP trophy. But before she accomplished that, she put up serious numbers: 17.7 ppg and 5.3 rpg. And she shot 52 percent from the field.
Her offense featured a lot of that still-improving jumper with a ton of attacking the rim. She’s both fast and quick, so anybody trying to stay in front of her? Best of luck. Surprisingly, though, as her individual star rose, she played more efficiently within the system that Coach Wade had constructed. About two-thirds of her buckets came off assists, swung from the fingertips of Courtney Vandersloot, Parker and Diamond DeShields. Copper was playing high quality, high efficiency basketball. She maximized success for herself and for her team.
During her cover shoot for SLAM 236, Copper said that her competitiveness has been nurtured since she was a young kid. It had been waiting to burst out of her from the days when she couldn’t get off the bench in DC. That championship run was the truest form of Kahleah Copper. It was her honest aggression in the brightest spotlight, merciless and unrelenting. Her numbers in the Finals tell part of the story: 17 ppg and 5.5 rpg on 50 percent. The rest of the story can be told in Parker’s own words after the final buzzer sounded in 2021.
“Just playing against [Copper] in L.A. all the time and just not being able to guard her, like, I feel like our games could be compatible, we could make each other better,” Parker told NBC Sports Chicago. “I’ve just been so proud of how she’s stayed the course all the time and just been great. I always tell her before the game, like, Show them what we already know. Every game. She did that this entire season.”
That season ended.
The next one began.
Copper continued to ascend as a singular talent in 2022. Her points per game, her rebounds per game, her assists per game and her shooting percentage elevated, and she notched the highest point total of her W career with a 28-point outing against the Indiana Fever. Copper was hooping at an even higher level than before, but the Sky lost in the second round of the postseason. Then Parker and Vandersloot left, and then deadeye three-point shooter Allie Quigley and former WNBA champ Emma Meesseman departed, too. All of a sudden, Copper was alone in the driver’s seat, responsible for leading her team.
That brings us to 2023. Coach Wade has clearly defined the role of his former Finals MVP. He needs her to score, create and compete as well as possible. Those two-dribble pulls in the midrange are out of necessity. Copper is running more pick-and-roll, responsible for reading more of the defense than ever before, even with her new and reliable backcourt mates Marina Mabrey and Courtney Williams along for the ride. This is officially her franchise now, as evidenced by the 16.6 ppg she’s currently averaging, which of course marks a career-best in that category.
It’s likely that by the time you’re holding this magazine in your hands, Copper has been named to her third All-Star team, where she’ll get the chance to build on what she did against the League’s best in both 2021 and 2022.
“I think I was the ultimate competitor,” Copper told us in her SLAM 236 cover story. “Even re-watching the games and seeing how locked in I was and seeing my intensity on defense. Getting hyped, just every little detail. I think that my competitiveness hit another gear.”
Copper got to feel the warmest sunshine imaginable with that championship in 2021. There were difficult times before that win, and there will be difficult times ahead. But it ain’t nothing. Don’t you dare ever count out the kid from Philly.
Photos via Getty Images.