Courtney Vandersloot brings unique vision to WNBA.
by Josh Flynn
Imagine seeing the world through Courtney Vandersloot’s eyes, seeing each precise angle, each minute opening. Perhaps players run in slow motion. With miniscule movements, they float across the court and the basketball drifts contrail as Vandersloot hurls it toward the open teammate. Perhaps it’s a matter of calculation—grids and numbers, formulas that tell where the ball needs to be and when it needs to be there. Perhaps it’s a matter of extrasensory perception, a knowing that a window will open and her teammate will score.
However she does it, rookie Chicago Sky point guard Courtney Vandersloot sees the world in a manner only a rare few before her have. She’s in a guild that contains Sue Bird, Ticha Penicheiro, Magic Johnson and John Stockton.
Ask writers how they get their ideas and they might give a sarcastic reply involving invocations to muses. Ask Vandersloot how she sees the court and she will shrug her shoulders and give a shy smile. “I don’t know how I develop something like that,” she says. “I credit it a lot to playing different sports when I was younger. I think that helps with the vision. But it’s about understanding the game. It’s about learning and seeing and being with great players and focus. If you work as hard as you can it all comes together.”
Her answer might be misleading. You can work to become a scorer. You can work to become a defender. You can work to be a rebounder. Court vision, however, may be more gift than attainable skill. “You can practice passing skills but the seeing and knowing when is the right time [to pass]—that’s kind of hard to teach,” Vandersloot admits.
Here is a young woman who grew up watching Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi dazzle opponents and collect championships. Here is a young woman who learned the secrets of passing first hand from John Stockton. Here is a young woman who joins her fellow rookies Maya Moore and Danielle Adams in a vanguard set to carry the WNBA into its next 15 years.
Courtney Vandersloot hasn’t always been a name floating around the women’s basketball world, however. While fans marveled at Maya, Vandersloot was at Gonzaga quietly tallying numbers no male or female in college basketball had ever accomplished before—2,000 points and 1,000 assists—and helping create another Cinderella team for the university. It was during the 2011 NCAA Tourney when the average fan began to really take notice of her game, where she sky-rocketed from a potential second-round WNBA draft pick to the third pick overall while leading the Bulldogs to an Elite Eight appearance. Now she’s brought her skills to the Chicago Sky and is helping the team compete for its first Playoff spot in its six-year existence.
It’s a dream come true for a player who once wrote a third grade essay about playing in the WNBA. “My mom reminded me about it around the time I had to start thinking about the league,” Vandersloot says. “She said, ‘This is what you always wanted.’”
So far, Vandersloot has been a solid presence for the Sky. She’s averaging 8 points and nearly 5 assists per game. And while it’s been a bit of a struggle meshing with her new teammates—Vandersloot says there has been an adjustment period where she learned her teammates’ playing styles and they hers—she has great targets waiting for her all over the court. “It’s incredible to play with someone like Syl (Sky center Sylvia Fowles). She’s one of the best post players in the world, if not the best,” Vandersloot says. “She draws a lot of attention so that opens up a lot of possibilities for us because people have to focus on stopping her and how they are going to contain her.”
Learning to play with new teammates isn’t the only hurdle awaiting rookies. For Vandersloot, her biggest surprise in the WNBA so far has been adapting to the schedule. At Gonzaga she had ample time to prepare for an opponent. With the WNBA’s compacted schedule, and traveling back and forth across the nation, there is little time for college-style prep work. But Vandersloot says the repetition of playing the same teams over and over cancels out the lack of prep time.
And there is also her shyness. As a floor leader it’s something she was working on up to the day she graduated from Gonzaga. “It’s a continuing process,” she says. “At some point you have to get over it and realize your team needs you and they are looking for you to be a leader. I think being shy is just a comfort zone and you need to get out of that. But luckily I’m developing more of a comfort zone outside of being shy so that makes it easier to be a leader.”
While Vandersloot learns how to play in the WNBA, the city of Chicago is slowly taking notice of the team’s potential. Vandersloot sees a rising excitement, says people want to be a part of the team. The league has also taken notice, naming Vandersloot, along with Fowles and Epiphany Prince, WNBA Eastern Conference All-Stars. “It’s quite the honor,” she says. “It’s exciting we have three players on the All-Star team. It’s exciting for the Chicago Sky. But it’s also a great experience for us to play with and against the best players in the world. It’s going to be a great time for us.”
The Sky isn’t likely to win the championship this year. And a surging Atlanta Dream will battle them for a Playoff spot. But a team has been assembled that can compete with the rest of the WNBA. There will be heartbreaks along the way. More experienced teams will pull out crunch time wins, but the Sky will also snag their share of crucial victories and leave some Eastern Conference opponents mourning a loss in the tight Playoff race. But after a mediocre six years, the Chicago Sky is on the right path to success. And Courtney Vandersloot has the vision to guide them.