On Thursday, April 14, 2016, 6’7” center Imani Boyette stood in Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. as WNBA President Lisa Borders announced, “With the 10th pick in the 2016 WNBA, the Chicago Sky select Imani Boyette, from the University of Texas.” The Chicago Sky were thrilled that Boyette was still available with the 10th pick, in fact they were not completely convinced that she would be.
“I started getting antsy at the seventh pick. There’s a little bit of angst with Indiana, I thought she may go there. I knew there was a chance that it might happen, and lo and behold, the Good Lord smiled on me and it did,” exclaimed Sky General Manager and Head Coach Pokey Chatman.
Being drafted with the 10th pick often carries some high expectations, and it was no different for Boyette. Coach Chatman made the comparison to Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury, “Couple of inches’ difference, but that is the goal for me, there’s a presence in the paint that has some size and timing, that may not get there to block it, but she can alter it.” Certainly a tall task to be compared to one of the premier centers in all the WNBA. Fortunately, Boyette had some ideas of her own on whom she wanted to be.
“My biggest goal coming into the season was to be a starter, but I still knew I was coming into a veteran team so that may not be possible,” said Boyette. That did not deter this young rookie though. She had worked hard while at the University of Texas to be Big-12 co-Defensive Player of the Year, averaging 11.3 points and 8.9 rebounds.
Boyette knew what she had to do to make an impact: “I wanted to focus on something I could do every day, figure out how to contribute, and how to make the most of the minutes I did get,” Boyette explained. The minutes did not come all at once though.
“I started off the season kind of rocky. I didn’t play the first five or six games at all. That was really hard.” Boyette continued, “it taught me the work ethic behind everything, staying consistent in my effort even when I was not seeing immediate results. I think that helped me out.”
So when Imani finally got her shot, she made it count. After seeing few minutes in the month of May, Boyette burst on to the scene in June appearing in all nine of the Sky’s games that month. In 20.2 minutes per game she averaged 8.2 points on 66.7% shooting from the field and 5.1 rebounds.
Coach Chatman could not ignore the contributions of Boyette. And so she was duly rewarded by being named a starter in the month of July. Boyette explained, “once I started playing and got my opportunity, I worked my way into a starting position. I learned a lot and got a lot better.”
The stats back that up.
Chatman’s vision of Boyette as a shot blocker and rebounding force was being realized right before her eyes. Boyette saw her rebounding average in July increase to 6.6 and blocking average go up from 0.6 to 1.7.
The improvements continued after the Olympic break. She finished the season averaging 6.7 points per game (8th among rookies), 5.6 rebounds (2nd among rookies, 17th in WNBA), and 1.35 blocks (2nd among rookies, 7th in WNBA). Boyette’s consistent effort earned her a spot on the AP and WNBA All-Rookie Team, a goal she had set for herself at the beginning of the year.
“It was super awesome [to make all-rookie team]. Expectations were really low for me coming into the league. It was nice to pleasantly surprise people,” said a jubilant Boyette, although Chatman had high expectations for the Sky’s young center. She also finished the season setting a new Sky rookie franchise record in double-doubles (three) and 10-plus rebound games (three). Boyette tied the rookie franchise record for total rebounds in a game (13), finished second in rookie field goal percent (55.4%) and blocks (42), third in total (175) and defensive (121) rebounds and fourth in offensive rebounds (54).
In her first playoff experience, Boyette and the Sky had their eyes set on a new goal, a WNBA championship. For Boyette it was all about keeping it simple, “I just want to make sure I am staying smart on defense, rebounding and being the defensive presence my team needs.”
Playing in the NCAA Tournament with the Texas Longhorns in Spring 2016 and leading them to their first Elite Eight since 2003, Boyette is no stranger to the one-and-done format. Mentally and physically she has been through the pressures of a postseason where every game could be the last.
In her playoff debut against the Atlanta Dream on September 25, Boyette recorded 11 rebounds and eight points to help the Sky defeat the Dream 108-98 in the second round of the playoffs. She set a new Sky playoff record with six blocked shots.
In their semifinal tilt against the Los Angeles Sparks, on the brink of elimination, Boyette made her presence known with 13 second half points and 11 rebounds, recording her first playoff double-double. The Sky claimed a narrow 70-66 victory and lived to fight another day. Once again, with their backs agaisnt the wall in Game 4, Boyette came up huge with another double-double (15 points, 10 rebounds, and three blocks). Unfortuantely this time around it was not enough to help the Sky to victory as they lost 95-75 and were eliminated from the playoffs.
Playing against two of the premier forwards in the league, Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, Boyette was able to use her first playoffs as a learning experience. Her progression as a player did not go unnoticed by Chatman: “I’ve spoken about Imani at length in terms of her willingness to want to get better. She takes responsibility for certain things. That’s difficult for anyone to admit when they’re not up to the level they expect of themselves.”
This type of attitude, a willingness to get better, is contagious. It is something you want every player who takes pride in their defensive abilities to command. “She’s learned, she’s listening, and that’s what makes her great, because she already had the skillsets,” said veteran guard Cappie Pondexter.
So what does the future hold for this 6’7” center? “I want to be all-WNBA and Defensive Player of the Year. I pride myself on defense, so Defensive Player of the Year is probably the most important one. I also want to be in top five in rebounds and blocked shots,” said Boyette. Here is to hoping Imani Boyette achieves these goals and much more as a member of the Chicago Sky.