Vandersloot a True Student of the Game

Chicago Sky point guard Courtney Vandersloot had every reason to approach her second year in the WNBA with a little more confidence, even a little bravado. With a successful rookie campaign behind her in which she was selected to both the Eastern Conference All-Star team and the WNBA All-Rookie team – while setting a Sky record 127 assists in a single season – Vandersloot has shown she can hang with the players in the league.

Now, the second-year player is midway through her second season in the league. She’s acclimated to the speed and talent of the competition, and she’s shaken off the wide-eyed nerves that rookies typically display. This year, there are no surprises and no excuses.

“This season is different and that is a good thing,” Vandersloot said. “We made a lot of changes – changes for the better. It’s our second year with (Sky coach) Pokey (Chatman) and… we expect a lot from ourselves just like I expect a lot from myself. I’m not a rookie anymore and I learned a lot over the year.”

Vandersloot’s offseason hoops education took her to Istanbul, Turkey, where she played for Besiktas Milangaz, opposite the men’s team which featured another American star point guard – the New Jersey Nets’ Deron Williams. It was Vandersloot’s first foray outside of the U.S., and she was pleasantly surprised with life in Turkey.

“The transition was pretty good, easier than I thought,” she said. “I was a little worried, but once I got over there it’s still basketball and it’s still competitive and professional. The culture and the language are a little bit different, but other than that I enjoyed my time and I can’t wait to go back.” Chicago fans need not worry about where her loyalties lie, however. “I’m very glad to be back here playing for the Sky,” she added.

Vandersloot has the speed, the smarts and the jump shot to get by in most games, but what separates her from the majority of players is her passion as a student of the game. When the WNBA’s all-time assist leader, Ticha Penicheiro, signed with Chicago in February, Vandersloot saw it as an opportunity to learn from one of the league’s Top 15 greats. In exchange for Penicherio’s mentorship, Vandersloot offered to give up her jersey number, 21, to Penicheiro, who’s worn that number throughout her 15-year WNBA career.

“Ticha never approached me for the number,” Vandersloot said. “I gave it to her because it’s a part of her. I felt that she deserved to wear that number more than I did. And her return is that I am going to learn a lot from her this year, so it was a good thing for me and for her as well.”

When they’re not playing head-to-head in practice, Vandersloot turns to Penicheiro on the sidelines during games for extra words of wisdom and motivation. “I’m already learning a lot from her,” Vandersloot said. “I’ve been picking her brain. If I ever have a question, I usually would go to Pokey, but she has to deal with a lot so I just go to Ticha now. It’s kind of like having another coach out there. I can’t wait to see what else I can learn from her throughout the season.”

Penicheiro is one of a long line of excellent coaches and players who have helped shape Vandersloot’s game. Another is fellow Gonzaga University alum and former NBA great, John Stockton. Vandersloot admits she was awestruck to work one-on-one with the NBA’s all-time assist leader as he divulged the key to making the perfect pass – confidence. So far, all the education is paying dividends for Vandersloot and the Sky. Vandersloot is averaging 4.9 assists per game – up from her mark of 3.7 last season – and is currently ranked seventh in the league in that category. She’s also developed a solid mid-range jump shot that has boosted her scoring average from 6.5 points last year to 7.4 points through 17 games this year.

Vandersloot is often billed as the Chicago Sky’s point guard of the future, with multiple playoff berths and deep runs at the title to be expected. But at the current rate she’s learning, the 5-foot-8 point guard is confident her time is now.