2021 WNBA Finals: Courtney Vandersloot orchestrates Chicago Sky to brink of first WNBA title

Mercury outlast Sky in OT to even the series 1-1 (1:42)

Brittney Griner drops 29 points and Diana Taurasi adds 20 points to lift the Mercury over the Sky to tie the series. (1:42)

CHICAGO -- Courtney Vandersloot remembers wondering during her second WNBA season if there would be a third. Then 23 and coming off a solid-enough rookie year after being drafted No. 3 overall in 2011, her numbers improved in 2012 -- but her confidence didn't.

"I really struggled that year mentally with even believing I was good enough to be in this league and if I was going to last," Vandersloot said. "I thought maybe the first year was beginner's luck. Like, 'You don't have the excuse of being a rookie anymore, and they're going to expose you.'"

It didn't happen. Instead, she has become one of the WNBA's premier point guards and has led the league in assists for five consecutive seasons. And Vandersloot has directed the Chicago Sky within one victory of winning the franchise's first WNBA title entering Sunday's Game 4 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) of the 2021 WNBA Finals.

The Phoenix Mercury's Diana Taurasi was asked where Vandersloot ranks in her ability to run a team.

"She's as good as anyone, right?" Taurasi said.

Vandersloot has a WNBA postseason-record 87 assists this year. On Friday, she notched her 10th playoff game with at least 10 assists, passing the Seattle Storm's Sue Bird for the league record. Vandersloot, who holds the WNBA record for most assists in a game with 18, is averaging 13.3 points and 9.7 assists in this postseason.

Only Bird, Ticha Penicheiro and Lindsay Whalen have more assists in WNBA history than Vandersloot's 2,178.

She has done it as a 5-foot-8 grinder who says she always tries to be a step ahead on offense and defense because, "I have to be. I'm not going to be able to out-race anybody or out-physical anybody. I have to think my way through things."

Though her Mercury trail the Sky 2-1 in the Finals, Taurasi admires the way Vandersloot has directed Chicago's offense.

"She just does a great job of making sure everyone's in the right spot, of controlling the tempo, getting people the ball at the right place at the right time," Taurasi said. "There's no one better right now in our game at doing that. Then you throw in her improved shooting ... she's a handful."

Yet when former Sky coach and general manager Pokey Chatman drafted Vandersloot with the third draft pick in 2011, the Gonzaga standout froze in shock.

"I was absolutely not prepared for that," Vandersloot said of her name being called after Maya Moore's and Liz Cambage's a decade ago. "I feel like it goes back to even when I was in high school. I wasn't highly recruited. Gonzaga took a chance on me, and it ended up working out.

"To this day, I credit Pokey Chatman. She always believed in me, which was a huge kick-start to my career. But I always felt I had something to prove. I wasn't going to stick in this league because I got drafted high."

Her rookie season, Vandersloot averaged 6.5 point and 3.7 assists. The next year, veteran point guard Penicheiro -- who last month was voted to the "W25," the 25 greatest and most influential players in WNBA history -- came to Chicago for what was her 15th and final WNBA season.

As Vandersloot struggled with self-doubt in 2012, she watched Penicheiro closely.

"I needed her to show me how to be successful in this league," Vandersloot said. "How to manage a team. I noticed that we played a certain way with Ticha on the floor, and then when I was on the floor, it was a little more hectic."

But, as Vandersloot began to realize, that was OK. There wasn't just one way to do it.

"She was a baby then, but everybody could see the potential," Penicheiro said recently. "I'm not surprised at the way she makes teammates better, the way she passes, and when she needs to, she can score as well. I'm not surprised we're talking about Sloot as probably one of the top five point guards in the history of this league."

Vandersloot cites many reasons for her growth, including what she has learned from extensive overseas play. She has picked up things from every coach she has had. Current Chicago coach James Wade said he and Vandersloot have spent many hours talking both in their time with the Sky and overseas with UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia.

"I was a point guard, too, so I get it," Wade said. "I know her ups and her downs, and she knows mine. We can both be moody when we lose. I really appreciate our relationship, because I know what she's thinking, and she knows what I'm thinking."

Wade also helped Vandersloot through a crushing loss that really stung her. With the Sky leading the Las Vegas Aces by two points in the closing seconds of a 2019 second-round playoff game, Vandersloot's turnover led to a half-court heave that won it for the Aces. Vandersloot blamed herself for the Sky's season being over.

"I stew over things, and that loss in Vegas was the worst," she said. "But James was so good about helping me. He was like, 'This isn't the end of your story. Use this as an important, integral part of going forward.'"

Allie Quigley, Vandersloot's wife and fellow Sky guard, said Vandersloot has gained her footing as a true team leader.

"There's been such a growth in her confidence in that over the years," Quigley said. "It started with Pokey, and even our owner, Michael Alter, has given her books on leadership to read and just tried to help her see what everybody else saw.

"Maybe it was just her growing up being the underdog. She was smaller, scrappy, she didn't come from a powerhouse college. I think she's just had that mentality her whole life."

Vandersloot grinned and said she is also "a little stubborn" and resisted being more vocal or leading in a way that didn't seem authentic to her. She was excited to be part of a 2014 Sky team that went to the WNBA Finals, although Chicago was swept by Phoenix.

Then as other Sky stars such as Sylvia Fowles and Elena Delle Donne asked for trades to leave Chicago, Vandersloot became the face of the franchise.

"I had my moments like, 'Well, maybe they were on to something,'" Vandersloot said, chuckling. "I guess I shouldn't admit that, but I do. A big reason why I'm still here is because of them. Because I wanted to change that perception. I know that Chicago didn't always have the best reputation and players didn't want to come here for whatever reasons; I've always felt those to be false. So I wanted to change that idea and be able to get a championship here."

Vandersloot said Candace Parker signing with the Sky this year as a free agent was "the missing piece." But Parker said that Vandersloot's presence was part of why she came. Parker grew up in suburban Chicago, in Naperville. Quigley is from Joliet, Illinois, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago and played college ball here at DePaul.

They are the hometown heroes for the Sky, but Vandersloot -- despite being from Kent, Washington -- has become a Chicago legend herself. She has been through the Sky's good seasons and not-so-good ones. Even this year, the Sky were 16-16 in the regular season, but Vandersloot still believed. And she knew the city would get behind the Sky if they made a playoff run.

"Chicago is such a sports town," Vandersloot said. "There were times -- and I don't blame anyone -- where you'd look around and the [arena] was empty. But you have to put out a good brand of basketball. You have to be able to win, that's what people want to see. We're finally putting it together and people are recognizing it and jumping on board."