SYDNEY — Kahleah Copper received the ball from Breanna Stewart on the left wing, took two dribbles and ended up on the opposite side of the basket, fully extending her right arm on insertion. She later jumped a steal in defense on the fast lane, deflecting the ball before collecting it and finishing with a left hand on a Eurostep in the suit.
In another group match early in the 2022 FIBA World Championship, Copper returned to defense after a US turnover, stealing the ball in the air from a Belgian player who was going for a layup.
Whether in the WNBA or on the international stage, Copper makes plays that no one else on the court can replicate, perhaps not even her own teammates in a roster of WNBA All-Stars.
“Kah is just electric,” Stewart said. “It looks like she just slides to the basket. She finds those gaps where she comes in and can get an easy layup. But she is a spark. Whenever her name is called, she is ready.”
Copper may not be the face of the team like Stewart or A’ja Wilson. She doesn’t spin stats like Kelsey Plum or Brionna Jones. But as one of two members not to have played for USA basketball at all in their career prior to the World Cup, Copper made an undeniable impression in Australia, storming from the wing to the stage with an athleticism, explosiveness to the edge and momentum in the US -Women were absent from the Tokyo Olympics.
Copper averaged 11.0 points on 53.8% shots (41.7% on 3 points), 4.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.4 steals in 20.0 minutes as the United States went unbeaten in the group game finished and won their five games by an average margin of 46.2 points. But Chicago Sky’s wing will remain a crucial factor at both ends of the floor as the US women seek their fourth consecutive gold medal at the event this week and their remarkable streak of just one game lost at all World Championships and Olympic competitions since on Life preserved 1994.
“She was absolutely paramount, not only for their penetration but also for their defense,” said US coach Cheryl Reeve after the team’s win against South Korea. “She really took some players out of the games so kudos to her for that. She was an important role for us.”
The next step is to beat Serbia, the No. 10 team in the FIBA rankings, in the quarterfinals on Wednesday (10pm ET, ESPNU/ESPN+). In the event of a win, the top-ranked American would meet winners Canada-Puerto Rico in the semifinals.
Players have said that climbing the ranks in USA basketball can be difficult. With so much talent at every position and depth chart, earning a spot on the team, let alone getting game time, is a challenge.
The development of copper is both a reflection and in some ways a departure from this trend. She was only part of the national team pool in spring 2021, entering her sixth year in the WNBA and just coming off a breakout season in the WNBA “bubble.” At the time, Copper mused, “I was just trying to find my way, to find my footing.”
Despite attending training camp before the Tokyo Games – an experience that proved to Copper she could play with the best of the best – she didn’t make it to the Olympics. However, she subsequently upped her game and earned her first of two consecutive All-Star nominations, was named WNBA Finals MVP during Chicago’s title run in 2021, and won the 2022 EuroLeague regular-season MVP with Perfumerias Avenida.
“It just mattered that I didn’t miss a shot and that competitor and fire inside me kept burning,” said Copper.
Her 2022 WNBA season did not end as planned. Ranked No. 2 in the playoffs, The Sky was hoping to become the first franchise to repeat as a WNBA champion in two decades. Copper had a fairly quiet semifinal series against the No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun, but even her 22 points in winner-take-all Game 5 weren’t enough. The Sun scored the final 18 points of the game, the longest scoring run to complete a WNBA playoff game in history, and eliminated Chicago on their home court.
Copper said dealing with the heartbreak after the semifinal loss, packing her house, flying to her hometown of Philadelphia and determining her status for the World Championship with USA Basketball was a difficult turning point. But she knew she couldn’t resist playing for the national team – something she had long dreamed of and considered at the highest level – to pass her by.
“I just think it was important for me to be mature and also have the opportunity to play more basketball,” said Copper. “I think this is something special and a great opportunity for me.”
When she arrived for training camp in Australia, the list was not finalized and no one was guaranteed a place. But Reeve noticed a difference in Copper compared to her last try for the team. Copper said she tried to demonstrate that not only through her outstanding playing but also by being a vocal leader.
“She’s definitely grown over the past few years, certainly in the WNBA that we’ve seen, so she got off the plane with that level of confidence,” Reeve said. “That was really fun to see.”
The US squad has eight new faces compared to the 2018 World Cup squad. Copper and Shakira Austin, the Washington Mystics’ WNBA No. 3 overall in April, were the only two who hadn’t previously qualified for USA Basketball (adjusting for the youth teams and February qualifier).
Despite being new, Copper has been indispensable at both ends, earning starts in four of five group games. Her role as an athletic wing fills a void that has arguably been empty at Team USA since Angel McCoughtry and Maya Moore were part of the Rio 2016 Olympic roster. Offensively, Copper’s quick first step allows her to get to the edge with ease. She was able to hit timely shots, including 3s, and could get stuck in the transition area or half court when USA needed a bucket.
Many viewed Copper’s absence from the WNBA’s all-defensive teams as a snub, and she’s shown why this tournament has been the way it has been by bringing key players like Belgium’s Julie Allemand and Puerto Rico’s Arella Guirantes (who scored multiple 20-pointers in Sydney had games) switched off from games. Copper’s ability to bounce and pin the ball to the ground also aligns perfectly with Reeve’s preferred fast game.
“Kah is very versatile,” Wilson said. “We need a spark off the bench from her. Even on the starting lineup, she’s 100 percent through and through. When it comes to USA Basketball, it’s about knowing your role and I think it has to be a rookie “To come in and understand her role straight away is tremendous for us. So let’s play her energy.”
Copper’s strong play at the Worlds helped her find a groove personally and as a team that wasn’t consistently present throughout the WNBA playoffs. “It’s therapeutic in a way,” she said as she turned the page on the disappointing ending to her WNBA season.
“Only playing with the best players, you can’t tune in. I can play for free,” said Copper, who doesn’t play overseas and will instead be resting her body this WNBA offseason. The US women are still learning how to play together — Copper, Stewart, Jones, Alyssa Thomas and Jewell Loyd arrived late for training camp, while the team’s Aces trio missed their first two games after winning their WNBA title . An impressive Chinese team or a burgeoning Australian squad is likely awaiting her, and while it’s not the WNBA title she was hoping for, Copper could still win a championship this fall.
“It would mean everything to me,” Copper said of gold’s potential gain. “Making that decision to come here and be able to win the gold is like everything happens for a reason and it will be another accomplishment that will also be ticked off my bucket list.”
https://www.espn.com/olympics/story/_/id/34676785/fiba-world-cup-2022-kahleah-copper-helps-carry-usa-basketball-quarterfinals FIBA World Cup 2022 – Kahleah Copper helps carry USA Basketball into quarterfinals