Midway through her first season with the Chicago Sky, it took an outside voice to shake Marina Mabrey out of a slump.
Things weren’t going as planned. The Sky were flying blind in the weeks after the departure of coach and general manager James Wade. As losses piled up, Mabrey’s frustration became inescapably visible.
Mabrey’s parents, Patti and Roy, never had been inclined to sugarcoat advice to their daughter. Their midseason message was similarly blunt: “Your energy is not the same. You’re not very cheery, you’re not very positive. You’re focused on the wrong stuff and it’s not going to come to you.”
Without that conversation, Mabrey isn’t certain how she would have ended her first season in Chicago. Instead she finished as the Sky’s No. 2 scorer with 15 points per game while shooting 39% from 3-point range and breaking Allie Quigley’s single-season record with 228 makes behind the arc.
It still wasn’t enough to fix the season. The Sky crashed out of the first round Sunday with a miserable two-game sweep at the hands of the Las Vegas Aces in which Mabrey averaged 9.5 points and shot 22.2% on 3s.
One day after their final loss of the year, Mabrey faced her future in Chicago with a conviction that she knows what it takes to make this a fit.
“I won’t come back as the same player as I came here this year,” Mabrey said Monday. “That’s not me. I’m never going to come back the same. You have a player on the outside that’s going to work as hard as they can for the next nine months and make sure that they’re transformed again and on the road to (being) unstoppable.”
Mabrey understands the stakes set around her arrival in Chicago. The Sky traded away four draft picks to acquire her, upending most of their future trade and draft capital. That decision already placed outlandish expectations on the fifth-year guard’s shoulders.
And then Wade — the man who made that gamble — left halfway through Mabrey’s first season with hardly a word of warning.
Mabrey came to Chicago because of her belief in Wade, who had promised to develop her potential as a WNBA player. His departure felt as if the floor had been pulled out from beneath her feet.
“You go through free agency and you have this coach that has the same view of yourself, potential-wise, that you have of yourself, and it’s encouraging,” Mabrey said. “And then they leave. I’m not super experienced, I’m not super old, this is my first time actually deciding I was going to leave and go somewhere else. It’s scary.”
Mabrey, 27, prides herself on being a “very aggressive player” on both sides of the ball. But her explosive ending to the 2022 season in Dallas didn’t just catch the eye of the Sky front office. It also landed her on scouting reports throughout the league.
This year Mabrey faced a new level of defensive pressure — double teams, schemes designed to take the ball out of her hands, extra bumps and touches at both ends of the court. And the tactic often worked, making Mabrey uncomfortable enough to cough up turnovers or shy away from her signature shot.
“I like to think of myself as a very skilled player, really high IQ,” Mabrey said. “But I get tired out there. I need to be in better shape and I need to be in better condition and I need to be stronger because the physicality that I saw this season is like something I’ve never seen before.”
Throughout her overseas season in Turkey this winter, Mabrey plans to hit the weight room to focus on core strength and stability in order to absorb physical pressure with the ball in and out of her hands.
The rest of Mabrey’s checklist of offseason improvements is extensive: getting downhill from the top of the key, finding her teammates off ball screens and becoming a better overall creator to support the rest of the Sky offense.
But she knows those improvements can’t happen until she gains the physical strength to stay cool under heightened defensive pressure.
“It became a narrative that if you are physical with her and you wear her down, you will come out on top,” Mabrey said. “So I appreciate all of the players I played against showing me my weaknesses because I will make that my strength. … I’m happy that I have the awareness I do now and that they exposed these weaknesses in my fifth season, not my 10th.”
For Mabrey, the key to success in the next two seasons lies in her partnership with Sky star Kahleah Copper.
Mabrey and Copper hold the potential to form a dangerous combination due to their similarities: tenacity, toughness and an innate ability to score. When they clicked together on the court, the Sky showed flashes of this firepower.
But the duo never got off the ground in their first season together, at times looking at odds as each attempted to mold the offense to her own style.
Although they both faced growing pains, Mabrey felt the season’s turmoil ultimately forged a stronger connection for her and Copper to build on over the next two seasons.
“Both of us are very strong personalities,” Mabrey said. “I think it’s great for us that we had to go through that together and things didn’t just go smoothly, like the smooth ride that we thought we were going to go through.”
This offseason will bring another cycle of upheaval as the Sky seek to fill the coach and general manager positions, a process Mabrey doesn’t expect to have influence on even as one of the core players on the roster.
A new start with cohesive leadership is a welcome opportunity.
“I feel like we had some really dark spots,” Mabrey said. “But I feel like as far dark as it goes is as far light as it’s going to go. I’m excited to see the light next season.”