Unsung Hero

by August 26, 2013

by Sherron Shabazz / @SherronShabazz

The Chicago Sky are having their best season in franchise history. Having a trio of All-Stars will do that for you. Sylvia Fowles, Epiphanny Prince and Elena Delle Donne carry the offensive load while veteran forward Swin Cash acts as the team’s glue and vocal leader.

Quietly running the point is Courtney Vandersloot. The third-year guard is having her best season as a pro, averaging career highs in points (9) assists (5.5) and rebounds (3.3). Vandersloot is also averaging a career low in turnovers per game (2.5) while ranking fourth overall in the WNBA in assists.

Vandersloot, an All-Star during her rookie season, has struggled with inconsistent play in her short career. When the Sky secured the second pick in the 2013 WNBA draft, some fans and pundits advocated pulling the plug on Vandersloot in favor of Notre Dame point guard Skylar Diggins.

One person who kept faith in Vandersloot was Sky head coach and general manager Pokey Chatman. Chatman selected Delaware forward Delle Donne with the second overall pick, believing that Vandersloot could run the show in Chicago.

“She’s taken a beating on both ends,” Chatman said of Vandersloot. “That third year they start turning the corner, but Sloot never had the benefit of having someone in front of her because of Dominique’s [Canty] injury and Ticha’s [Penicheiro] injury, so she had to learn some tough lessons under the lights, but she’s worked. She shows up every day to put in some work—be it video, shooting or just talking about the game.”

Vandersloot’s growth can be seen on both ends of the court, but most astonishing improvement is her play on the defensive end. In Chicago’s 82-64 win over New York in July, Vanderlsoot held the Liberty’s premier scorer Cappie Pondexter to a season low 3 points on 1-8 shooting.

“I like the fact that she’s become really good defensively,” Chatman said. “Sloot is small but she’s aggravating. She moves her feet, she gets under your feet, and she’s disruptive. She’s giving people trouble initiating their offense. If they’re taking an extra five seconds to initiate, it really gets our defense turned up.”

The Gonzaga grad is also feasting on offense. When opposing teams double-team Fowles or Delle Donne, the crafty playmaker makes them pay from long range and in the paint.

“The thing is, she’s starting to be more aggressive offensively, so she’s making people guard her,” Chatman explained, “and in the fourth quarter those people’s legs go on their shots. She’s looking for her shot and becoming a threat, and that’s what we need because we don’t want to be a one-headed snake. We want to have a lot of options out there on the floor so we can spread it, move the ball around, and play off of each other.”

SLAM spoke with Chicago’s point guard about making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, playing alongside rookie phenom Elena Delle Donne, and the her aspirations of winning a WNBA championship.

SLAM: How does it feel to finally make the playoffs?

Courtney Vandersloot: It’s awesome. It’s somewhere that we expected to be at the beginning of the season. It’s a good steppingstone for us. We’re not finished. We wanna keep going and we still have quite a few games left.

SLAM: Was the goal a championship at the start of the season or was it just to make the playoffs?

CV: I think we’d be selling ourselves short if we don’t keep a championship in our sight. We want to take it one step at a time so getting there was obviously the first step. We got there now we have a couple more steps before.

SLAM: Talk about your growth because this is your best year statistically in three seasons. What’s changed from year two to year three for you?

CV: It’s a lot of things. It’s another year under my belt, it’s a little bit of confidence, my teammates and different things added to the roster. When it comes down to it, I’ve got a lot of support around me and that’s where it starts.

SLAM: How did things change for you when Sharnee Zoll went down with the thumb injury?

CV: I think all it did was give me more minutes [laughs]. We don’t necessarily have another point guard, but we have a lot of people that can handle the ball. I just needed to be able to play more minutes and be in tip-top shape, but other than that I don’t think it changed much.

SLAM: What does Elena bring to the team?

CV: [Laughs] What doesn’t she bring to the team? She’s a special player. She can score in so many ways, she can handle the ball and she clears it up a little bit for Syl. You see Syl having such a good season because of it. Quite frankly we all benefit from it because somebody has to stop one of ‘em and it’s tough to do.

SLAM: Is it difficult for you having to run this team when you have so many scoring options on the floor?

CV: No. Actually it makes my job a lot easier because these girls don’t care if they’re getting shots or getting touches. We know, according to the game flow, who needs the ball at a certain time. That’s what makes this team so special because we don’t care who is scoring as long as the Chicago Sky is.

SLAM: What about you? Is it hard to determine when you should shoot versus when you should pass?

CV: You know I think it’s all about the time of the game and what the defense is giving us. I think I’ve been able to score a little bit more this year because they have to take more weapons away this year more than ever. If I’m being aggressive at some point they have to try and stop somebody.

SLAM: Pokey constantly talks about your toughness. Talk about how your game has grown on the defensive end.

CV: I think defensively it’s about focus, being in good shape, and being smart. It’s not just about me. I have a lot of support behind me.

SLAM: You have a handful of games left against Atlanta and they’re trailing you in the standings. What’s the team’s mindset facing the Dream in the last few games of the season?

CV: Well I think we have to take step forwards. We’re not settling. We’re on our way forward. Atlanta is a good team but we’ll be ready for ‘em.