Game-winning shots are things of beauty, and sometimes they even happen after the called play breaks down. Just ask Courtney Vandersloot.
This season, Vandersloot has converted two of them. The first was against the New York Liberty on an inbounds play that fell apart and left Vandersloot scrambling before finding an open spot behind the arc.
The second came against the Minnesota Lynx, once again on an inbounds play, this time drawn up by assistant coach Emre Vatansever who was filling in for general manager/coach James Wade who was recovering from COVID-19. As the ball fell through the net, a smiling Vandersloot skipped to halfcourt with her arms extended as teammates engulfed her. It was a moment that typified Vandersloot’s new level of confidence.
“It’s really fun when you know who you are,” Wade said. “When she feels the energy in those moments, it’s great to see.”
Vandersloot describes herself as someone who lives in her comfort zone in all aspects of her life except basketball. She keeps her circle small and enjoys spending her time in places she’s familiar with. Her fear of complacency is what pushed her to explore her options in free agency ahead of the 2022 season.
After leading the franchise that drafted her to its first WNBA title, Vandersloot took meetings with the Seattle Storm and the Lynx. When she signed up to run it back with the same 2021 core, wife Allie Quigley, Kahleah Copper and Candace Parker plus a new but familiar face in Emma Meesseman, Vandersloot was adamant that she still needed a new set of eyes on her game.
So, she reached out to player development coach Jeff Pagliocca.
“I don’t want my legacy to be that I plateaued at 30, 31, 32,” Vandersloot said.
The first time Vandersloot got in the gym with Pagliocca, it was clear he had done his homework. He had a game plan for areas of Vandersloot’s game he felt needed improvement. Most of his notes were ways she could improve as a scorer, passing came naturally.
The duo got to work when Vandersloot returned from Russia in February. They worked on her creativity in the paint, navigating small spaces, scoring through contact and different finishes at the rim. The two also worked on Vandersloot seeking out contact instead of waiting for her defender to attack first. Their regimented schedule included workouts before Vandersloot practiced with the team and film sessions after.
“There are players who love basketball and players who live it,” Pagliocca said. “Courtney lives it.”
The results have been apparent.
Vandersloot increased her scoring average from 10.5 points per game to 12, shooting 48.1% from the field. Her 57 clutch points are third-most in the league behind Breanna Stewart (61) and Sabrina Ionescu (60), leading to her new nickname, ‘‘Queen of the Fourth,’’ given to her by fans on social media.
For the first time in five seasons, Vandersloot didn’t lead the league in assists per game. Her 6.5 assists were second behind the Washington Mystics’ Natasha Cloud. The subtle dip in her assist average can be attributed to the work she has put in with Pagliocca to become a better scoring point guard, along with her capable surrounding cast.
“They don’t really need me to create shots for them,” Vandersloot said.
After a franchise record-setting 26-win regular season, the Sky are the No. 2 seed heading into a first-round playoff series against the No. 7 Liberty.
One thing that isn’t different is what the Sky will need from their veteran facilitator if they are going to become the first team since the 2001-02 Los Angeles Sparks to repeat. Last year, Vandersloot averaged a double-double during the Sky’s championship run with 13 points and 10.2 assists in 10 playoff games.
The Sky will once again go as Vandersloot goes.
“In this moment all I’m chasing is another championship,” Vandersloot said. “That’s the only thing I have on my mind.”