Courtney Vandersloot of the Chicago Sky may have found herself a new favorite assist on Monday night.
That one — to Vandersloot’s wife, Allie Quigley — set a new WNBA record of 17 assists in a single game. (Vandersloot would record one more before the game was over, setting the record at 18.) “Oh, it puts a little cherry on top, it’s really special,” Vandersloot said after the game. “I know she was happy for me. She wanted to do that for me.”
Everyone had been waiting for Vandersloot to break the previous mark of 16 assists, held by Ticha Penicheiro. Over the past four seasons, the Chicago guard has enjoyed a run of passing prowess unlike any the WNBA has ever seen.
During the entire history of the WNBA, only eight seasons have seen a player post an assist percentage of at least 40 percent.1 Four of them belong to Courtney Vandersloot, from 2017 to 2020.
It’s a level of playmaking, in other words, the WNBA has never seen. And for her teammates, there’s a recognition of that — not just by marveling at the numbers, but at a gut level as well.
“I mean, she’s incredible,” Sky center Stefanie Dolson said. “Her stats speak for themselves. … The first time I played with Sloot, I was like, ‘Damn. OK, I’m happy to be here.’ She makes the game easy, and playing with someone like that is very rare.”
It isn’t as if Vandersloot had been a disappointment prior to her current four-year run. After a stellar four-year career at Gonzaga that included a trip to the Elite Eight, Vandersloot made the WNBA All-Star team as a rookie in 2011. Between 2011 and 2016, her first six years in the league, 57 players appeared in at least 150 games. Only Sue Bird had a higher assist percentage over that time, and it was close: Bird’s was 31.7, Vandersloot’s 30.7.
Then Vandersloot found another level.
She didn’t necessarily seek out the record — when presented with her stats, she said, “I’m not much of a numbers person.” But she has some theories about why and how it’s happened.
“For me, the last couple of years, first of all, it’s experience,” Vandersloot said. “Being able to make the right decision. But also, the main thing, is having the ball in my hands. With James [Wade, current Sky coach] and before that, Amber [Stocks, former Sky coach], the coaches that I played for were really just like, ‘Look, we want you to lead. We want the ball in your hands, we want you to make plays.’ And so I feel like I’ve taken that something that I have done my whole entire life. I’ve always been a pass-first point, I’ve taken it to another level, because I’ve had people really trust me.”
Her college coach, Kelly Graves, has noticed that next level, too. Graves cited the shift in Chicago, noting that prior to 2017, Vandersloot had played four seasons alongside Elena Delle Donne, who often acts as a point forward. He isn’t surprised that, once unleashed, Vandersloot’s play was historic.
“We ran everything through her,” Graves said. “So I saw it up close for four years.”
What’s particularly fascinating about Vandersloot’s dedication to a pass-first mentality is that, even with the offense running through her, she isn’t shooting any more than she did when Delle Donne was still in Chicago. In fact, after topping 11 shot attempts per 36 minutes in 2015 and 2016, she’s been below 11 in three of four seasons since. But Vandersloot said there’s an explanation for this counterintuitive stat.
“We had so many plays run for Elena, especially with Elena on the team, but also before with [Sylvia Fowles, who played on the Sky until 2014] where we ran a lot of things through them,” Vandersloot said. “So they’d have the ball in their hands. And my shot attempts were when players helped off me.”
It was, and is, a flawed strategy, as Vandersloot is a capable 3-point shooter. Notably, despite the increased responsibilities, her distance shooting has improved. After posting just one season above 36 percent from deep in her first six, she’s at 37.7 percent in 2020, which would be her third season in four above 36 percent since 2017.
Graves also pointed out that Vandersloot plays overseas with Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg, where Wade serves as an assistant. Vandersloot said that the time in Europe allows both player and coach the chance to strategize during what is, for many other players, simply the WNBA offseason.
“We have a lot of time, a lot of downtime,” Vandersloot said of her overseas tenure with a laugh. “And whenever we have a chance, we talk basketball, Chicago Sky basketball. We’re thinking, all the time, of how we’re going to be successful, and how he wants me and Allie and everyone on this team here to be our best.”
That manifests itself in the big picture, with Chicago once again ranking among the top WNBA teams in offensive rating — second this season, second last season — but also in the development of young bigs like Azurá Stevens and Cheyenne Parker, who have often found themselves on the receiving end of passes no one else throws quite so well and quite so often.
“She’s the most amazing point guard I’ve ever had the privilege to play with,” Parker said. “She knows how to give me the ball, when you give me the ball, where to give me the ball. So it makes it a lot easier to score.”
Parker said there’s a “eureka” moment at least once a game, even though she has played with Vandersloot for six years. Every Sky player interviewed cited a different favorite Vandersloot assist. Parker picked Vandersloot’s off-hand no-look feed to Ruthy Hebard in an Aug. 22 game against the Indiana Fever.
Before her history-making game, Vandersloot had her own recent favorite, a backdoor cut to Gabby Williams in that Aug. 22 game, visible at the 46-second mark of this video:
“I told Gabby beforehand, if you cut that backdoor as I come off a box screen, you will get a layup,” Vandersloot recalled. “… She cut backdoor and I hit her and it was a layup. She was like, ‘Damn, how did you know that was gonna happen?’ And those are the things that are special to me, because I was able to get her an easy layup on a possession we needed a basket.”
That assist wouldn’t stay her favorite for long. History was waiting for her, via her wife.
“The first play I called for Ruthy,” Wade said when it was over. “And then I said, ‘Hey Ruthy, if it doesn’t work, we’re going to Allie because we know her wife ain’t gonna let her down.’”
Even her marriage, Vandersloot said, helps play a part in her record-setting pace.
“I think that we expect a lot from each other,” Vandersloot said of Quigley. “We’ve grown a lot together, both on and off the court, but on the court especially. I think that when you’re teammates with somebody that you have a special relationship with, that bond brings you closer. I’m always telling her what I see, and she’s doing the same for me. At the end of the day, if I get the ball in her hands at the right time, there’s a good chance she’s going to [score].”
And when she does, the era-defining Vandersloot will claim that assist, like so many others.