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Rebekah Gardner undergoes surgery, depleting the list

Five games into the WNBA season, the Chicago Sky are already shorthanded as they juggle four player absences.

Guard Rebekah Gardner underwent surgery on her left foot Thursday after suffering an injury in the last minute of Friday’s loss to the Washington Mystics. Trainer James Wade said the surgery addressed “something broken in her foot,” but did not provide details.

The Sky (3-2) will bring a shortlisted roster to the court on Friday against the New York Liberty, which features one of the WNBA’s recently touted “super teams” behind stars Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, Sabrina Ionescu and former guard SkyCourtney Vandersloot.

Gardner faces an uncertain timeline.

“It’s unknown how long she’ll be out, but I wouldn’t expect her anytime soon,” Wade said. “She’s going to be away for a while.”

Gardner often comes off the bench to lead the team’s secondary unit and teeters alongside guards Kahleah Copper and Marina Mabrey, but her influence goes well beyond the reserve.

Air guard Rebekah Gardner, right, drives against Lynx's Rachel Banham during the second half of a preseason game May 13 in Toronto.

A cornerstone of the Sky defense, Gardner logs 19.8 minutes per game and averages two steals, leading the Sky and tied for seventh in the WNBA. Her defensive rating (78.2) is 10th in the league among players averaging five or more minutes per game.

And the impact of Gardner’s injury is heightened by the absence of forward Isabelle Harrison, who underwent meniscus surgery on May 19 after suffering an injury during preseason. The timeline for returning from a meniscus repair can vary from six weeks to three months. Wade reiterated that Sky does not expect Gardner or Harrison to be available “anytime soon.”

Freshman forward Morgan Bertsch, who sprained her ankle against the Mystics, is closer to returning, but Wade said she’ll still be sidelined for a week or two. Bertsch wore a walking boot at practice Thursday morning while his activity was limited to riding a stationary bike and other low-impact exercises.

The Sky also failed to set a target date for the return of striker Ruthy Hebard, who gave birth to son Xzavier in April.

With four players sidelined, Sky have been reduced to nine players available, including maternity replacement player Kristine Anigwe, who will depart on Sunday for international duty with Great Britain.

The team could apply for an emergency hardship exception, which grants a temporary license to sign another player when injuries reduce a roster to fewer than 10 players. Although Wade said Sky would look into this option, he has not committed to using the exception to sign a player as a broker.

“There’s no sense of urgency,” Wade said. “I like the group we have. We just have to be better at certain things.”

Playing with few players is an especially big challenge for a Sky team whose identity is based on effort. Sky’s offense stems from their defense, which applies heavy pressure on the perimeter with traps and aggressive hedges to keep opposing teams out of the paint. Guard Dana Evans often takes up the entire court and Copper urges the team to run opponents erratically in transition.

This is the vision Wade always had for this year’s iteration of Sky, and it won’t be tainted by any absences.

“We won’t change anything,” Wade said. “We’ve never done it and we’re fine.”

The Sky are the second lowest scoring team in the league, averaging 76 points to hold a half-point lead over the Indiana Fever. But they balance that with their defense, which ranks third in the league and generates 15 points on turnovers.

But Tuesday’s loss to Atlanta also reflected the inevitable collapse that follows when Sky cannot fully commit to this high-octane style of play. The Sky scored just 25 points in the first half of a “disconnected” game that Copper blamed on a lack of mental focus.

For Sky, getting that resilient mentality back will be key as they try to outlast opponents like Liberty with a short-sided roster.

“We all play hard and I think when you play hard, you look good,” guard Courtney Williams said. “For us sometimes it doesn’t feel good, but it will look good for everyone else. Because we could be doing all the wrong things, but we’re doing it hard.”