Courtney Vandersloot’s name was already appearing in a conversation where point guards typically get little traction. Then Monday, the Chicago Sky veteran broke the WNBA single-game record for assists with 18, and everyone was asking the question: How strong an MVP candidate is Vandersloot?
There are, of course, some very tall obstacles: 6-foot-4 forwards Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm and A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces have been considered the MVP front-runners most of the 2020 season. And 6-4 forward/center Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks also is in the hunt for her third MVP. But even after Chicago’s loss to the Minnesota Lynx on Wednesday, Vandersloot — in her 10th year as Chicago’s point guard — deserves to be in the discussion.
Two of the best ever at her position think so. Ticha Penicheiro, who held the previous assists record (16) before Vandersloot broke it, and Lindsay Whalen were both watching Vandersloot on Monday. Penicheiro ranks second (2,599) and Whalen third (2,345) behind still-active Sue Bird of Seattle (2,865) on the all-time WNBA assists list.
“If you take Sloot out of Chicago, what happens to the Sky?” said Penicheiro, who played 15 seasons in the WNBA and is now a player agent. “I think the nods she’s getting in the MVP conversation are very fair.”
Whalen, who also played 15 seasons in the WNBA and is now coach of the Minnesota Gophers women’s basketball team, said, “Courtney is in her prime, and her vision — the timing on her passes — she’s making a lot happen for them. It’s fun to see.”
The Phoenix Mercury‘s Diana Taurasi, although not considered a so-called “true” point guard, is fourth on the all-time assists list at 1,939, and Vandersloot is fifth (1,854). They are all master playmakers, and all but Vandersloot have been a WNBA champion. But there is only one MVP award among them: Taurasi’s in 2009.
“That’s criminal,” Taurasi joked of her lone MVP honor. “Who votes for these things?”
A media panel, other than in 2008 when the league also incorporated fan voting. That year, a couple of point guards — Whalen and Bird — finished second and third, respectively, in the balloting. But Parker, then a rookie forward, won. Runner-up is as close as a point guard has gotten. Last season, Vandersloot received two first-place votes for MVP and finished sixth with 81 points.
The Houston Comets’ Cynthia Cooper (1997 and 1998) and Taurasi are the only guards to win the MVP in the WNBA. Two guard/forwards have five MVPs between them: Houston’s Sheryl Swoopes (2000, ’02, ’05) and Elena Delle Donne (2015 with Chicago, 2019 with Washington).
Taurasi is considered by many the greatest women’s basketball player ever, but, like the late Kobe Bryant in the NBA, she seems destined to finish with just that one MVP.
“I’ve given up on that award about 10 years ago,” Taurasi said.
Taurasi averaged 20.4 points and 3.5 assists her MVP season. Cooper had the highest assists average of any WNBA MVP winner with 4.7 per game (and 22.2 PPG) in 1997, the league’s inaugural season.
Vandersloot’s averages are currently 13.2 points and 9.4 assists. She averaged 8.1, 8.6 and 9.1 assists the past three seasons. Wednesday, Vandersloot had her 35th career game of at least 10 points and 10 assists, most in WNBA history, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. Only Vandersloot (2017, ’18, ’19 ’20), Bird (2003, ’18) and Penicheiro (2002) have finished the WNBA regular season with at least five game with 10 points and 10 assists.
In the NBA, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, only four players have averaged 10 assists in the season they won the MVP award: Magic Johnson (three times), Steve Nash (twice), Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook.
More than any other position, point guards judge themselves on what their teammates do. Vandersloot’s wife, Chicago teammate Allie Quigley, says Vandersloot’s work ethic and leadership set the tone for the Sky.
“If you look at the best point guards who have ever played, men or women, they’re so competitive,” said Quigley, a guard who made the basket on which Vandersloot earned her record-breaking 17th assist Monday. “They have that ‘it’ factor in terms of leadership. They’re the ones that can get into the face of every player on the team, and no one’s gonna take it personally, because they’re the hardest workers. She’s also the most positive and best teammate.”
Quigley — who on Wednesday became Chicago’s all-time leading scorer (3,002 points) — also points out that Vandersloot’s 3-point shot has improved over the years; she hit a career-high 45 in 2018. And her confidence has grown to match her talent.
“I can remember seven, eight years ago, her just not feeling like the leader that everybody saw her to be,” Quigley said. “But I feel like just trusting everyone and trusting herself, and doing that work off the court really helped her finally believe in herself. And I think it’s just all coming together.”
— Ticha Penicheiro (@TichaPenicheiro) September 1, 2020
Sky coach James Wade says Vandersloot, 31, doesn’t get enough credit for her defense, a sentiment Whalen echoed.
“For me, she was always someone who created problems on both ends of the floor, just with how steady she is, and how her center of gravity is really exceptional,” Whalen said. “Defensively, she’s always been there. But it’s been fun to see just her command of that team. She’s just got really full control over everything she’s doing right now.”
The Sky have lost some key personnel like Diamond DeShields and Azurá Stevens this season. They are 11-7 and still hope to establish themselves among the top four seeds, although that got a little tougher with their loss Wednesday. And Vandersloot — who just sort of shrugs at MVP talk — is the clear underdog in the race to Stewart, the 2018 MVP, and Wilson, for whom the first MVP seems only a matter of time.
But for Penicheiro, who grew up in Portugal seeing the NBA only on Sundays on television, the fact that Vandersloot is carrying what former Sky coach Pokey Chatman called “Point Guard Nation” on her shoulders is cool to behold.
Penicheiro, 45, idolized Magic Johnson because there were no women’s games on TV for her to watch. When she got to Old Dominion for college, she found out who Nancy Lieberman was — because all the Lady Monarchs fans kept telling her that her passing wizardry was “just like Nancy’s!”
Penicheiro, who twice had 16 assists in a WNBA game, first in 1998 and then again in 2002, was rooting for Vandersloot to break her record. And she hopes Vandersloot will stay in the MVP chatter. Both Penicheiro and Whalen said it seemed likely someone such as Atlanta Dream rookie Chennedy Carter, a strong scorer, will also one day be an MVP candidate as a point guard. But from the pass-first category of point guards, Vandersloot is making a big statement this season.
“She has tremendous instinct, and plays with a lot of joy,” Penicheiro said. “And the bottom line is, she just makes her teammates better. She makes the perfect pass for the shooter, puts the ball exactly where it needs to be.”