Take yourself back to the spring of 2011 and imagine.
‘‘With the sixth overall pick in the 2011 WNBA Draft, the San Antonio Silver Stars select Courtney Vandersloot, Gonzaga.’’
It didn’t happen, but let’s indulge in the hypothetical for a moment.
Instead of sky blue and yellow, Vandersloot’s jersey is black and silver. In this alternate reality, it isn’t Pokey Chatman who drafts her out of Gonzaga but Dan Hughes. And the veteran point guard she plays with isn’t Ticha Penicheiro but Becky Hammon.
As unimaginable as this scenario is, it almost happened. And, if it had, the Sky likely wouldn’t be raising a WNBA championship banner May 24.
‘‘I met with [Hughes] at the Final Four before the WNBA Draft,’’ Vandersloot said. ‘‘He said straight up, ‘If you’re available at [No.] 6, I’m taking you.’ ’’
‘‘It was only right that I coach Courtney,’’ Hughes said, laughing. ‘‘I’ve coached all the greatest point guards in the league.’’
There are two sides to every story — the truth and everything else. In this case, it’s what might have been and what is.
Call it being humble or overly modest. Whatever the reason, Vandersloot didn’t see herself as a top-three pick. She thought for sure she’d be available at No. 6, and because Hughes was the only coach who had told her he was drafting her, she was convinced she was headed to San Antonio.
Little did Vandersloot know that a Euroleague championship-winning coach new to the WNBA was joining a young franchise with a clear game plan for building a title-contending team she would be at the center of.
Vandersloot had a phenomenal NCAA Tournament run in 2011, leading Gonzaga to the Elite Eight. Hughes remembers feeling apprehensive that Vandersloot’s draft stock was rising to a level that would keep her from falling to No. 6.
Chatman was watching, knowing she wasn’t taking anyone else with her first pick as a WNBA coach/general manager. It wasn’t the scoring tear Vandersloot went on (23.3 points per game in the tournament) that sold Chatman on selecting her. It was her vision, her ability to balance getting her teammates touches and calling her own number and the way she was able to control the pace of the game.
What Chatman saw in the guard from Kent, Washington, was a player who could anchor a young franchise still working to establish itself, the type of player the Sky could build their future around.
She was right.
‘‘I remember [a turning point for her] was during a playoff run,’’ Chatman said. ‘‘We had to go through Indiana, and I saw her chest kind of stick out on the court. It was a really tough place to play, great organization and fan base. To see that transformation of ‘Sloot’ as a little peacock with her chest out, that’s when I knew.
‘‘All the coaches looked at each other with a look like, ‘The baby is growing up.’ ’’
Vandersloot started 26 of 34 games in her rookie season, was an All-Star and made the WNBA All-Rookie team.
By comparison, Danielle Robinson, whom Hughes drafted sixth overall, started nine games. Their statistics were similar. In fact, Robinson narrowly beat Vandersloot in almost every category.
In Chicago, however, Vandersloot was baptized by fire. She credits a lot of her development to the fact she wasn’t given much time to become a starting point guard.
Vandersloot played alongside two-time All-Star Epiphanny Prince in her first four years. In her second year in the league, Penicheiro arrived in Chicago for her final WNBA season. Teaming up with Vandersloot was one of the reasons Penicheiro decided to sign with the Sky over the Phoenix Mercury or the Stars in 2012.
Penicheiro welcomed the opportunity to spend the last year of her career mentoring a player she thought had the potential to be the WNBA’s next great point guard.
During the next few years, after Sylvia Fowles requested a trade in 2015 and Elena Delle Donne requested one in 2017, the Sky earned a reputation as an organization that couldn’t keep its franchise players happy.
After Delle Donne was traded to the Mystics, it became clear to anyone who wasn’t already aware that Vandersloot always had been the Sky’s franchise player. She has earned that title because she never left and, more important, because of what she accomplished even though every other star did.
Vandersloot led the league in assists per game, averaging 8.1, the season after Delle Donne’s departure. She notched the first triple-double in Sky history in 2018, became the first WNBA player to average more than nine assists per game in 2019 and made history again by becoming the first player in league history to average double-digit assists in a season in 2020.
Vandersloot is second on the Sky’s all-time scoring list with 3,295 points, trailing only wife/teammate Allie Quigley (3,337). She is the Sky’s all-time assists leader with 2,180, and it’s not even close. Quigley trails her with 586 assists for the Sky.
‘‘When I played for Sacramento, it took us forever to reach the [WNBA] Finals and win a championship,’’ Penicheiro said. ‘‘Sometimes you have to stick with the same people, the same core, and go through the mud, go through battles and get your heart broken to finally take that step.’’
Last season was the ultimate test of where the Sky were as an organization in pursuit of a title and who Vandersloot was as a point guard. Was she merely great or one of the greatest ever?
Great players break records, sure, but the greatest change the trajectory of franchises and, subsequently, the league. To be able to say Vandersloot did that, the Sky needed to win a title.
Not only did they do so, but Vandersloot made more history in the process. She averaged a double-double — 13 points and 10.2 assists — during the Sky’s playoff run. She also became the second player in league history to have a triple-double in the playoffs.
‘‘The way she played in these playoffs and Finals, I can’t recall a better point-guard performance in the league,’’ Penicheiro said.
Vandersloot’s postseason heroics were even more impressive, considering she was playing with a partially torn plantar fascia in her left foot. It was a decision some of her coaches say describes who she is as a competitor.
In Vandersloot’s 11 seasons, the Sky have had to game-plan for her extended absence only once, when she injured her knee and missed 16 games in 2014. Later that season, she helped lead the Sky to their first Finals appearance. She has played all year long since she became a pro and estimates she takes only about a month off from basketball each year.
Her teammates say she’s uncomfortable when she’s not in the gym, but she’s learning how to integrate more relaxation into her schedule.
‘‘I’ve picked up golf,’’ Vandersloot said.
It might be because she doesn’t talk a lot that she gets left out of greatest-of-all-time conversations. Maybe it’s because Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird still are playing and absorb a lot of that attention. Or maybe it’s because she’s not the same kind of scorer those players are.
What can’t be argued are her numbers.
Bird, Lindsay Whalen and Penicheiro are the only players with more career assists than Vandersloot, and they all have at least four years on her. Penicheiro and Whalen retired after playing 15 seasons in the WNBA, and Bird is about to begin her 19th. Vandersloot is entering her 12th season trailing Whalen (2,345) by 165 assists, Penicheiro (2,600) by 420 and Bird (3,048) by 868.
Vandersloot and Whalen are the only players in WNBA history to lead the league in assists in four consecutive seasons. Whalen led the league from 2011-2014 but shared the honor with Taurasi in 2013.
She holds the single-season assist record (300) and the single-game assist record (18). Last season, she tied the WNBA’s single-game assist record — which she owned — in her historic playoff performance in Game 1 of the semifinals against the Connecticut Sun.
Some argue players can’t be in GOAT conversations until they’ve won a championship. Now that Vandersloot has one to her name, it’s impossible not to acknowledge her as the best point guard in the WNBA. When all is said and done, she might be the best true point guard in league history.
Sky fans got a tiny taste of what it would be like without Vandersloot during the most recent WNBA free-agency period. She and Quigley were two of the last Sky players to re-sign. For weeks, speculation and rumors swirled about what the backcourt duo would decide.
Vandersloot took meetings with the Seattle Storm and Minnesota Lynx. She also entertained the idea of being paid by her former overseas team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, to sit out the 2022 season to rest. Ultimately, Vandersloot and Quigley determined there was unfinished business with the Sky with an opportunity to win back-to-back titles.
Vandersloot isn’t considering retirement, but she did say that, because of the WNBA’s new prioritization rule in the collective-bargaining agreement, she plans to sign one-year contracts moving forward. With Bird expected to retire after the 2022 season, the Storm’s pursuit of Vandersloot likely will intensify, especially considering Vandersloot has expressed interest in playing in her home market. Chatman working as an assistant on Storm coach Noelle Quinn’s staff adds to the theory.
Unlike the real possibilities her future holds, past scenarios — such as her ending up in San Antonio — are pure fiction. Although her story still is being written, the history Vandersloot has made with the Sky can’t be changed.
‘‘My story would have been different [had I ended up in San Antonio],’’ Vandersloot said. ‘‘It took me some time, but I’m still playing at a really high level. It all worked out the way it should.’’