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LIBERTY RISING: How Courtney Vandersloot drives New York Liberty’s historic offense

On Tuesday, Courtney Vandersloot earned the 2023 WNBA Peak Performer Award in assists for the seventh time. Now, on Friday, she’ll face an epic battle with the Mystics’ Brittney Sykes.

Washington Mystics v New York Liberty Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

There is a hackneyed impulse to describe Courtney Vandersloot’s game in the negative, that the now-seven-time WNBA assists leader excels despite mediocre athleticism and size, without flashy handles or a great 3-point shot. In other words, who she isn’t. These shortcomings make her excellence all the more impressive, defining it largely as a result of elite basketball IQ and desire.

This far-reaching cliché, applied mostly to white athletes (and Andre Miller) often has an inverse consequence. We may love an underdog story, but we really crave the exciting, superhuman athletes. Assigning the Gym Rat tag to Vandersloot, even out of reverence, drops her in a bland bucket, and on this super-powered New York Liberty team, casts her to the wayside, or perhaps to “game-manager” status.

Yet, that back-handed compliment is what I feared might become of Vandersloot at the beginning of the 2023 season. While New York’s coaching staff was in the midst of implementing a wildly successful offense reliant on side-to-side ball and player movement, they were just missing that final oomph. Vandersloot wasn’t pressuring the paint, at least not consistently, frequently picking the ball up early on drives:

Now approaching the playoffs, it’s clear that Sloot, in year 13, was merely ramping it up over the course of the WNBA’s first-ever 40-game campaign. I was the fool all along. To finish the regular season, the five-time All-Star was racking up points-assists double-doubles and showcasing anything but deficiencies.

Vandersloot is a master at gauging defenders’ momentum and reacting accordingly, particular in ball-screening situations. On these plays, she creates clean looks at the rim simply by speeding downhill, past defenders (that were originally guarding the screener) that are still planning their next move by the time she turns the corner:

Combine that with a preternatural ability to reject screens and get into the lane anyway...

...and Vandersloot ensures that if both defenders involved in a ball-screen aren’t 100% prepared for the action, there’s going to be a defensive breakdown.

Aside from a cognitive athleticism that is less obvious than, say, jumping high or running fast, what stands out about Vandersloot’s game is that she is the definition of a tight handle. She may not break out a ton of combo moves that cause defenders to hit the ground, but the 2021 WNBA champion can bust out any change of direction without slowing her momentum, remaining unaffected by digs or stunts from help defenders.

And as the season has progressed, Vandersloot has become even more daring in her endeavors, and thus her scoring volume and paint touches have increased, posting a season-high six straight games with double-digit points from August 24 to September 5. A defense having to worry about Sloot getting to the rim, where she’s shooting an absurd 71.7% this season(!), per Basketball Reference, is often the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Thus, Vandersloot matching up against likely All-Defensive guard Brittney Sykes is one of the most intriguing angles in the forthcoming Liberty-Washington Mystics first-round matchup, which I’ll have a full preview of before tip-off this Friday. Sykes, a disruptor off-the-ball or and a hounding defender on it, treated the Barclays Center to a show in the Liberty’s final regular-season game on September 10th, hitting an alley-oop game-winner at the buzzer:

Defensively, Sykes was often matched up with Vandersloot, and held her to just 3-of-11 shooting and just four assists, after Sloot had totaled ten dimes in the three straight games prior. But New York’s point guard still had her moments, including a nasty screen rejection against Sykes that led to an interior assist.

For Washington, there is always the option of having Sykes go under ball-screens, considering that Vandersloot’s set-shot isn’t always conducive to pull-up flame-throwing, but that would take away much of what makes Sykes a physical point-of-attack defender. Yet, given her tight handle and aforementioned court awareness, any opponent’s consistent ball-pressure is merely a chance for Vandersloot to exploit overzealous defense and get into the paint.

Of all the crucial individual matchups in a Liberty-Mystics series, such as Sabrina Ionescu chasing Ariel Atkins off screens and, more obviously, Elena Delle Donne facing off with Breanna Stewart, Brittney Sykes vs. Courtney Vandersloot may be the most pivotal. If football games are won in the trenches, basketball games are often won at the point of attack, and we’ll be treated to two perimeter savants going head to head in the first round.

Vandersloot’s defense is crucial here, too. The veteran PG went from shaky in the first half of the season to guarding opponents’ deadliest perimeter threats in September, including Arike Ogunbowale, Kahleah Copper, and Sykes, all while providing solid screen navigation up top:

The New York Liberty’s success may feel pre-ordained given the talent rostered, that their 32-8 record was an inevitability. But this would be ignoring all the areas of individual and collective growth New York needed to achieve over the season, not the least of which was the coaching staff implementing one of the greatest passing offenses in the history of professional basketball with a roster started nearly from scratch.

It would also be ignoring Ionescu’s newfound willingness to screen for her teammates, a precursor to getting the looks necessary to have the historic 3-point shooting season she had. It would be ignoring Jonquel Jones’ recovery from a preseason foot injury, as she went from struggling in the season’s first half to *whispers* the team’s best player in the month after the All-Star break. Not to mention Betnijah Laney’s evolution from offensive afterthought to constant cutter, spot-up shooter, and most importantly, relentless post-up threat against any and all perceived mismatches. We could go down the whole list, including a newly-stable bench unit, but entering the playoffs, the New York Liberty can now survive subpar shooting performances from Breanna Stewart, and often did in their impressive 19-3 finish.

Courtney Vandersloot has often been the main reason why, consistently breaking through the first level of defense to, as she does, make the right decision. It’s the most important time of the year, and thus, any defenders even thinking about leaning the wrong way will be punished with Sloot’s tight handle and hall-of-fame instincts.

No matter the winner, her battle with Brittney Sykes could be one of the highlights of the WNBA playoffs. Just don’t be surprised if she comes out on top.