SYDNEY. Kalea Copper took the ball from Breanna Stewart on the left flank, took two dribbles and hit the opposite side of the basket with her right arm fully extended. an interception by deflecting the ball before picking it up and finishing it off with a left hand on a Euro step in the paint.
In another group match earlier at the 2022 FIBA World Championship, Copper rushed back to defense after a pass from the USA, depriving a Belgian player of the ball mid-air from a layup.
Whether it’s in the WNBA or on the international stage, Copper plays like no one else on the court can match, maybe even her own teammates from a roster filled with WNBA All-Stars.
“Kah is just electric,” Stewart said. “It looks like she just slips to the basket. She can find those gaps where she hits and can get easy downtime. But she is a spark. Whenever she is called, she is ready.”
Copper may not be the face of the team like Stewart or Aya Wilson. She does not have such flashy statistics as Kelsey Plum or Brionna Jones. But as one of two players who never played for US basketball at all in their careers prior to the World Cup, Copper made an undeniable impact on Australia, bursting onto the scene with the athleticism, explosive drive to the rim and flank dynamism that the Americans lacked at the Olympics in Tokyo.
Copper averaged 11.0 points on 53.8% shooting (41.7% on 3-pointers), 4.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.4 steals in 20.0 minutes as the United States ended group play without losses, winning five games by an average margin of 46.2 points. But the Chicago Sky wing will remain a deciding factor at both ends of the floor as the Americans achieve their fourth consecutive gold medal in this competition this week and maintain their remarkable one-game losing streak at every World Championship and Olympic Games since. 1994.
“She was critical not only in the penetration you get, but also in her defense,” American coach Cheryl Reeve said after the team’s victory over South Korea. “She really took some players out of the game and a big thank you to her. She was an important part for us.”
The next step is to beat Serbia, the No. 10 FIBA ranked team, in the quarter-finals on Wednesday (22:00 ET, SportzshalaU/Sportzshala+). If he wins, the American who won first place will meet in the semi-finals with the winner of the Canada-Puerto Rico tournament.
Players say it can be difficult to move up in the US basketball rankings. With so many talents in every position and in the depth table, earning a spot on a team is tough, let alone getting game time.
Copper’s trajectory is both a reflection and in some ways a departure from this trend. She was not part of the national team until the spring of 2021, when she was in her sixth year in the WNBA and had just finished her breakout season in the WNBA bubble. Copper reflects at the time, “I was just trying to find my way, trying to find my footing.”
Although she participated in the training camp before the Tokyo Games – an experience that proved to Copper that she could play with the best of the best – she did not qualify for the Olympics. However, she improved her game after that, earning her first of two consecutive All-Star nominations, winning the WNBA Finals MVP during the 2021 Chicago title run, and winning the 2022 Euroleague regular season MVP with Perfumerias Avenida.
“It was just important that I didn’t miss, and this competitor and this fire in me continued to burn,” Copper said.
Her 2022 WNBA season did not end as planned. The Sky finished second in the playoffs and hoped to be the first franchise in two decades to repeat the WNBA championship. Copper had a fairly quiet semi-final run against the 3rd-seeded Connecticut Sun, but even her 22 points in Game 5 of winner-take-all weren’t enough. The Sun scored a final 18 points in the game, the longest hitting streak to close out a WNBA playoff game in history, to eliminate Chicago on their home floor.
Copper said that dealing with the grief of losing the semi-finals, packing at home, flying to her hometown of Philadelphia and establishing her World Championship status with the US basketball team were all difficult turns. But she knew that she could not get past the game for the national team – something that she had long dreamed of and considered an achievement of the highest level.
“I just think it was important for me to be mature and also be able to play more basketball,” Copper said. “I think this is a special event and it’s a big opportunity for me.”
When she arrived in Australia for training camp, the roster had not yet been formed and no one was guaranteed a spot. But Reeve noticed a difference in Copper compared to the last time she tried out for the team. Copper said that she tried to demonstrate this not only by her stellar performance, but also by being an active leader.
“She’s clearly grown over the last couple of years, especially in the WNBA that we’ve seen, so she got off the plane with the level of confidence she’s retained,” Reeve said. “It was really fun to see.”
Team USA has eight new faces compared to the roster for the 2018 World Cup. Copper and Shakira Austin, No. 3 overall in the WNBA, selected by the Washington Mystics in April, were the only two who had not previously qualified for US Basketball (taking into account youth teams and the February qualifier).
Despite being new, Copper is indispensable on both sides: she starts earning in four out of five group games. Her role as an athletic wing fills a void that may have been empty on Team USA since Angel McCoutrie and Maya Moore were part of the Rio 2016 Olympic team. Offensively, Copper’s quick first step allows her to easily reach the ring. She could throw well-timed shots, including three-pointers, and get to the post in transition or half court when the US needed a bucket.
Many considered Copper’s absence from the WNBA All-Defensive Teams a snub, and she showed why the tournament is still in place by eliminating key players such as Belgium’s Julie Allemand and Puerto Rico’s Arella Girantes (who had several 20-point games in Sydney). ). games. Copper’s ability to bounce and push the ball across the floor also fits in perfectly with Reeve’s preferred fast game.
“Kah is very versatile,” Wilson said. “We need a spark off the bench from her. Even in the starting lineup, she just gives 100 percent. When it comes to USA Basketball, it’s all about knowing your role, and I think coming in and understanding her role right away is huge for us. So we play on her energy.”
Copper’s strong performance at the World Championships helped her find an approach, both personally and as a team, that wasn’t there during the WNBA playoffs. “It’s therapeutic in a way,” she said, having the opportunity to turn the page on a disappointing end to her WNBA season.
“Just by 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 this WNBA offseason. American women are still learning how to play with each other – Copper, Stewart, Jones, Alyssa Thomas and Jewell Loyd were late to training camp, while the team’s trio of first-class players missed the first two games after winning the WNBA title. She’ll likely have an impressive Chinese team or a rising Australian team waiting for her, and while it’s not the WNBA title she’d hoped for, Copper could still win a championship this fall.
“It will mean everything to me,” Copper said of the potential gold win. “Making this decision to come here and be able to win gold is like everything happens for a reason, and it will be another milestone on my wish list.”