SYDNEY — Kahleah Copper received the ball from Breanna Stewart on the left wing, took two dribbles and finished on the opposite side of the basket, fully extending her right arm as she laid it in. Later on defense, she jumped the passing lane for a steal, deflecting the ball before collecting it and finishing with her left hand on a Eurostep in the paint.
In another group play game earlier in the 2022 FIBA World Cup, Copper hustled back on defense after a U.S. turnover, stripping the ball midair from a Belgium player who was going in for a layup.
Whether in the WNBA or on the international stage, Copper makes plays no one else on the court can replicate, maybe not even her own teammates on a roster loaded with WNBA All-Stars.
“Kah is just electric,” Stewart said. “It seems like she just slithers to the basket. She’s able to find these gaps where she gets in and is able to get an easy layup. But she’s a spark. Whenever her name is called, she’s ready.”
Copper might not be the face of the team like Stewart or A’ja Wilson. She’s not putting up as gaudy stats as Kelsey Plum or Brionna Jones. But as one of two members who before the World Cup had not played for USA Basketball at all in her career, Copper has made an indisputable impact in Australia, bursting onto the scene with an athleticism, explosiveness toward the rim and dynamism from the wing that the U.S. women lacked at the Tokyo Olympics.
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 finished group play undefeated, winning its five games by an average margin of 46.2 points. But the Chicago Sky wing will remain a critical factor on both ends of the floor as the U.S. women seek their fourth consecutive gold medal in the event this week and keep alive their remarkable streak of losing just one game across all World Cup and Olympic competition since 1994.
“She has been absolutely pivotal to not only penetration that you get, but her defense,” U.S. coach Cheryl Reeve said following the team’s win over South Korea. “She’s really taken some players out of games, and so kudos to her. She’s been an important part for us.”
The next step is beating Serbia, the No. 10 team in FIBA’s rankings, in the quarterfinals Wednesday (10 p.m. ET, ESPNU/ESPN+). With a win, the top-ranked American would face the Canada-Puerto Rico winner in the semifinals.
Players have said it can be difficult to climb the ranks of USA Basketball. With so much talent at every position, and on the depth chart, earning a spot on the team is challenging, let alone getting playing time.
Copper’s trajectory is both a reflection and in some ways a departure from that trend. She hadn’t been part of the national team pool until the spring of 2021, going into her sixth year in the WNBA and fresh off a breakout season in the WNBA “bubble.” At the time, Copper reflects, “I was just trying to find my way, trying to find my footing.”
Though she participated in training camp ahead of the Tokyo Games — an experience that proved to Copper she could play with the best of the best — she didn’t make the cut for the Olympics. Still, she elevated her game in the aftermath, earning her first of two consecutive All-Star nods, being named WNBA Finals MVP during Chicago’s 2021 title run and winning 2022 EuroLeague regular-season MVP with Perfumerias Avenida.
“It was just important that I didn’t miss a beat and that competitor and that fire in me continued to stay lit,” Copper said.
Her 2022 WNBA season didn’t end as planned. The Sky were the No. 2 seed in the playoffs and hoped to become the first franchise in two decades to repeat as WNBA champions. Copper had a fairly quiet semifinal series against the No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun, but even her 22 points in the winner-take-all Game 5 weren’t enough. The Sun scored the game’s final 18 points, the longest scoring run to close out a WNBA playoff game in history, to eliminate Chicago on its home floor.
Copper said dealing with the heartbreak from the semifinal loss, packing her house, flying to her hometown of Philadelphia and determining her status for the World Cup with USA Basketball made for a tough turnaround. But she knew she couldn’t let playing for the national team — something she has longed dreamed of and viewed as having made it on the highest level — pass her by.
“I just think it was important for me to be able to be mature and also have the opportunity to play more basketball,” Copper said. “I think this is special and this is a big-time opportunity for me.”
When she arrived in Australia for training camp, the roster still hadn’t been finalized and no one was guaranteed a spot. But Reeve noticed a difference in Copper from when she last tried out for the team. Copper said she tried to showcase that not just through her stellar play, but by being a vocal leader as well.
“She clearly over the last couple years has grown, certainly in the WNBA we’ve seen, so she got off the plane with this level of confidence that she has kept,” Reeve said. “That’s been really fun to see.”
The U.S. roster has eight new faces compared to the 2018 World Cup squad. Copper and Shakira Austin, the No. 3 overall WNBA pick by the Washington Mystics in April, were the only two who hadn’t before suited up for USA Basketball (taking into account youth teams and February’s qualifying tournament).
Though she’s new, Copper has been indispensable on both ends, earning starts in four of five group play games. Her role as an athletic wing fills a void that has arguably been empty on Team USA since Angel McCoughtry and Maya Moore were part of the 2016 Olympic squad in Rio. Offensively, Copper’s quick first step allows her to get to the rim with ease. She has been able to hit timely shots, including 3s, and get to the rack in transition or the half-court when the USA needs a bucket.
Many considered Copper’s absence on the WNBA all-defensive teams a snub, and she has shown why so far this tournament by taking key players such as Belgium’s Julie Allemand and Puerto Rico’s Arella Guirantes (who has had multiple 20-point outings in Sydney) out of games. Copper’s ability to rebound and push the ball down the floor also fits perfectly into Reeve’s preferred fast-paced play.
“Kah is very versatile,” Wilson said. “We need a spark off the bench from her. Even in the starting lineup, she’s just going 100 percent through and through. When it comes to USA Basketball, it’s all about knowing your role, and I think for it to be a rookie, to come in and instantly understand her role, is huge for us. So we play off her energy.”
Copper’s strong play in the World Cup has helped her find a groove, personally and team-wise, that wasn’t consistently present during the WNBA playoffs. “It’s therapeutic in a way,” she said, of being able to turn the page on the disappointing end to her WNBA season.
“Just playing with the best players, you can’t get keyed in on. I’m able to play free,” said Copper, who isn’t playing overseas and instead will rest her body this WNBA offseason. The U.S. women are still learning how to play with each other — Copper, Stewart, Jones, Alyssa Thomas and Jewell Loyd made it to training camp late, while the team’s trio of Aces players missed the first two games after winning their WNBA title. An impressive China team or surging Australia squad likely await, and even though it’s not the WNBA title she was hoping for, Copper still might win a championship this fall.
“It’d mean everything for me,” Copper said of potentially winning gold. “Making this decision to come here and being able to win the gold, it’s like everything happens for a reason and it’ll be another accomplishment checked off my bucket list also.”