Chicago Sky's Kahleah Copper and the five biggest breakout performances in WNBA playoff history

ByMechelle Voepel via ESPN logo
Tuesday, October 12, 2021

PHOENIX -- Chicago Sky forward Kahleah Copper began to blossom in the WNBA's bubble last season. In the 2021 WNBA playoffs, she's in full breakout mode.

"She's opened a lot of people's eyes," teammate Courtney Vandersloot said, "because they didn't really know anything about her."

They were missing out, which Copper has proved during the postseason. She led Chicago in scoring during the regular season at 14.4 PPG. In the Sky's seven playoff games, she is averaging 18.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists -- all up from her regular-season averages.

"I feel like the playoffs were another season for me," said Copper, who had 21 points and 10 rebounds in the Sky's 91-77 Game 1 win Sunday over the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA Finals. "It was another opportunity to be better and grow."

Vandersloot smiles at that.

"We had seen glimpses of it, but even we didn't know that she could do this for this long at this level," the Sky point guard said. "We're in the Finals, and she's the best player out there sometimes."

Copper will tell you she's a proud native of North Philly, but Chicago has grown on her. Her pro career started in Washington, when she was the No. 7 pick in the 2016 draft out of Rutgers. Then, in February 2017, before her second season, Copper, Stefanie Dolson and a 2017 first-round draft pick were traded to Chicago for Elena Delle Donne.

That worked out for the Mystics, who won a title behind Delle Donne in 2019. But it has also worked for the Sky, as both Copper and Dolson are part of this Finals team.

From 2017-19, Copper was a role player for the Sky who averaged between 14 and 16 minutes per game. She displayed flashes of her skill, but never quite had that big game on a big stage, until her 16 points against the Las Vegas Aces in the second round of the 2019 playoffs. The Sky were on the verge of advancing to face Copper's former team, Washington, in the semifinals. But a late turnover and a half-court heave gave the Aces a 93-92 win.

The loss lingered with Copper, and she was all the more determined to make the most of 2020. She averaged career highs of 14.9 points and 5.5 rebounds in the bubble in Bradenton, Florida, and was a candidate for the league's most improved player award.

"The bubble season for me was preparation meeting opportunity," said Copper, who added that she told coach James Wade, "I'm not going back. I'm going to continue to get better."

Being chosen an All-Star this summer meant a great deal to Copper.

"I felt like, 'Wow, the work that I put in really has been rewarded,''' she said. "And this postseason has also been like that for me."

Copper turned 27 in August, and her game is on the ascent. We rank the top five breakout performances in WNBA postseason history by players who went on to win the WNBA title. Will Copper join them?

1. Emma Meesseman, 2019 Washington Mystics: She came into the WNBA at age 20 from Belgium and was a starter from 2014-17. She didn't play in the WNBA in 2018 as she prepared with her national team for the FIBA World Cup and then missed part of the 2019 season while competing in the European championships. So she took a reserve role in 2019 and excelled at it, especially in the postseason, when she averaged 19.3 points and 5.6 rebounds. After 22 points in the title-clinching Game 5, she was named WNBA Finals MVP. And the Mystics made a T-shirt for sale 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 appeared in only three playoff games in four seasons and was facing her second dispersal draft in 2004. She wasn't picked until No. 6, which was good fortune for her and Seattle, as Lennox played a key role in the franchise's first title. With the Storm down 1-0 to Connecticut in what was still a best-of-three Finals series, the Sun's Nykesha Sales had 32 points in Game 2. What saved the Storm? Lennox nearly matching her with 27 in a 67-65 Seattle win. Then in the clinching Game 3 victory, "B-Money" had 23 points and was named WNBA Finals MVP. She retired in 2011, averaging 12.1 points and 4.1 rebounds in her career.

3. Penny Taylor, 2007 Phoenix Mercury: The Australian was picked No. 11 by Cleveland in the 2001 draft, when most WNBA fans didn't yet know who she was. By her second season, she was an All-Star. Then she was the top pick by Phoenix in the Rockers dispersal draft before the 2004 season. But heading into the 2007 season, she still hadn't had much of a stage, appearing in only six playoff games, all with Cleveland. Then Taylor had a huge role for the Mercury's first title team in 2007, averaging 19.3 points and a team-high 7.9 rebounds in the playoffs. Taylor retired in 2016 having won three championships with the Mercury.

4. Natasha Howard, 2018 Seattle Storm: Howard won the 2017 WNBA title as a reserve with the Minnesota Lynx. Traded to Seattle before the 2018 season, she made an immediate impact as a starter and averaged 13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds in the regular season. Then in the playoffs, she upped her numbers to 15.8 and 8.3. In the title-clinching Game 3, she was unstoppable with 29 points on 11 of 14 shooting and 14 rebounds. Howard went on to be the WNBA's defensive player of the year in 2019 and won another title with the Storm in 2020. She's now with the New York Liberty.

5. Erlana Larkins, 2012 Indiana Fever: Larkins played her first two seasons (2008, 2009) in New York, then didn't make a WNBA roster in 2010 or 2011. The Fever signed her in 2012, and she averaged 4.1 points and 4.4 rebounds in the regular season, starting just two games. But Larkins took on a vital role in the playoffs, starting nine games and averaging 9.9 points and a team-high 10.9 rebounds in helping Indiana win its only WNBA title. Larkins spent six more seasons in the WNBA, helping the Fever make the Finals again in 2015, when they fell in five games to Minnesota.