Courtney Vandersloot dished out 18 assists in one game this week, taking down another WNBA assist record. Someday, she’ll have them all.
Courtney Vandersloot has only known one WNBA team in her career. After becoming the third overall pick by the Chicago Sky in the 2011 Draft, expectations were high for the point guard from Gonzaga. She started 26 games and was decent in her rookie year, making the All-Rookie team that year. Since then, Vandersloot has evolved into perhaps the best passer in league history, a title that was further solidified by her WNBA-record 18 assists on Monday night.
If there is a pass to be made, she finds it and threads the needle to a teammate for an open look. She is always looking for an opening, constantly searching for a hole in the defense. Vandersloot can find her teammates in all phases of the game on offense. She can make any pass from a no-look feed to a floating ball over the top of the defense if they don’t get back on defense quickly enough. Whether it’s half-court or in transition, if a teammate is open, there is a good chance they are receiving the ball from her.
Despite only being 5-foot-8, she isn’t afraid to drive into the teeth of the defense in the lane. Vandersloot can navigate her way around the taller defenders all while keeping her head on a swivel, persistently looking for a passing lane. Then when the defense isn’t expecting it, she fires a pass to a wide-open teammate for a layup. Vandersloot has been known for her slick dump-off passes to a big in the lane as shown here when she delivers a no-look straight to Ruthy Hebard for a layup:
She’s also deadly in the pick-and-roll, taking advantage of the mismatches presented to her. Coming off the screen, defenders can’t go up and blitz Vandersloot for the fear she will drive right by them to the basket. So in turn they choose to give her space which she uses to keep surveying until a proper pass is available. When given the opportunity, she can pick a defense apart. Her style does have its downsides in that sometimes a pass goes errant, resulting in a turnover. But it has led to more positives than negatives over the years for Vandersloot.
Vandersloot has been near the top of the WNBA in terms of passing for the majority of her career. She has led the league in assists per game in five of her nine seasons including the last four years in a row (including this season). Vandersloot leads all active players with a career average of 6.2 and doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon. It’s not a surprise that her assist percentage is the highest in the WNBA every season since 2017 and she’s the active WNBA leader in that category too.
After only averaging 4.1 dimes per in 2016 she cranked up the production in the playmaking department, averaging 8.1 assists the following season. Since then her assists per game average hasn’t dropped below 8 per game. This has resulted in her making the All-WNBA team for the past two seasons has led to her climbing up the historical charts of the league. Vandersloot is currently fifth all-time in assists and she has shown no signs of slowing down either. Her passing numbers are already up there with greats such as Sue Bird and Lindsay Whalen.
How has Courtney Vandersloot’s passing evolved?
What makes Vandersloot’s play so special is her consistency. She’s been playing at this level for quite a while now. Whenever the Sky needs her, Vandersloot is there to get them in the position for a quality shot in crunch time. Just this current season she has contributed directly to two game-winners for the Sky with both coming against the Las Vegas Aces. The first coming in the season opener when she fired a pass from the baseline to Allie Quigley in the corner for the game-winning shot. Then just last week she ran a pick-and-roll to her right, waited for a bit, then fired a bounce pass to Azura Stevens for the tiebreaking basket with just seconds remaining. Defenses can’t leave Vandersloot alone for even a second otherwise she will make them pay.
Vandersloot has gotten her assists from a variety of teammates over the years. But from where on the court has she attained most of her assists? It is a question worth asking as it can tell us what type of shots she’s looking to generate for her team. Below is a graph showing from where her assists have come from over her career (including 2020 as of August 23rd). The data was found at PBP Stats.
The assist totals are divided into three main areas of the court: Rim, three-pointers, and mid-range.
As shown by the chart, most of her assists came from at the rim. What was interesting is how her 3-point assists are way down compared to the rest. However, a shift has begun as her assists from three-pointers in 2018 and 2019 skyrocketed to 80 and 91 respectively.
Despite it once being the area on the court where she got the most from, Vandersloot’s assists from the mid-range have been decreasing. The chart below shows her totals from these three areas over the years of her career (again, the numbers are via PBP stats).
As you can see, her mid-range assists once dominated her game but it’s begun to fade and been taken over by the rim and 3-pointers. As basketball shifts towards more 3-pointers and less long 2s, the gap between the mid-range totals and the rest may only increase. What also makes Vandersloot’s passing great is that she’s getting the majority of her assists in areas such as the rim and beyond the 3-point are. Those are two of the more effective areas on the court and as Chicago’s engine, it’s up to Vandersloot to keep things humming along on offense. That means getting the ball to her teammates in those areas for an open look.
Vandersloot is up there every season at the top of the assist leaders and all-time she’s in the top tier of players who can dish the ball. Some of her more recent seasons have only been matched by some of the WNBA’s all-time greats. She is a focal part of Chicago’s offense and responsible for running the ship. And Vandersloot can be the scorer along with being the provider. She has averaged double digits in points per game in the past four straight seasons and is third-highest in scoring on the Sky this year (13.2).
Over the years she has fine-tuned her game and has gotten her teammates scores closer to the rim than she used to. She’s gotten better as the years have gone along, filling up the box scores as she’s continued to run the show for Chicago. When she eventually hangs it up, she will surely be heralded as one of the best passers in WNBA history.