In some ways, it feels almost unfair to award a player the Most Improved Player trophy after eight seasons of service. It’s been done once before, in 2004, when Wendy Palmer received the honor while playing for her fourth team, having been selected in the inaugural 1997 draft.
But it’s also unfair that a player should have to break several WNBA records in a season, having received her one and only All-Star nod in her rookie season, and still be saddled with the expectation of continued brilliance without the rewards. And all that is why Courtney Vandersloot should be on your radar for Most Improved Player of the 2018 WNBA season.
Vandersloot has been with the Chicago Sky for her entire career, which she began as the third overall draft pick in 2011. She was voted into the All-Star Game her rookie season and made the All-Rookie Team, starting 26 games and finishing eleventh in assists per game.
Eight seasons later, she’s set to lead the league in assists for the third time in her career and for the second consecutive season, and she is currently sitting at 8.6 assists per game and 241 assists on the season.
But she’s also broken and set records all over the place — this, again, despite not receiving an All-Star nod since 2011. Vandersloot notched the seventh triple-double in WNBA history, dishing a career-high 15 assists in a game where she almost tied Ticha Penicheiro’s single-game assists record of 16. Vandersloot’s performance also set Sky records in assists in a half (10) and assists in a game.
She followed up her triple-double with a spurt of double-digit assists efforts that brought her to 50 assists across four games, the first time a WNBA player had ever achieved that feat, bringing down a legendary Penicheiro record of 46 assists in the same time frame.
Then, Vandersloot became the first WNBA player ever to record 20 points and 15 assists in a game, which also brought her to No. 10 on the league’s all-time assists list. And, of course, just two games later, she dished 10 assists to break Penicheiro’s single-season assists record — with two games to spare. (For the record, Vandersloot already holds the single-season per-game assists record that she could very well break.)
There’s no doubt that other players have a strong case for Most Improved Player. But comparing them to Vandersloot, it’s relatively amusing that other players haven’t had to put up these staggering numbers to enter the conversation.
Because somehow, Vandersloot this season has improved upon what was already an underrated yet Hall of Fame-caliber career in spite of playing on the league’s tenth-place team. But then, she’s been in Chicago for her entire career. To be able to adjust to eight years of change, from coaches to teammates to home courts and so on — and improve so vastly upon a career that could have stagnated within her first few years (as happens to too many former college stars) — is nothing short of remarkable.
When the conversation turns to Most Improved Player, it’s for good reason that rookies and other players in the first few years of their careers are in consideration. After all, the difference between a player’s rookie season and her second year can be astronomical — Kelsey Plum is an excellent example of this.
This year, though, it’s high time to consider a player who’s been around the whole time, but who might be best known for being overlooked — for All-Star nods, for overall league recognition past her rookie season, for her consistent top-level play — by nearly everyone on a regular basis but her teammates, Gonzaga University fans and Chicago Sky fans.
.@Sloot22 continues to drop DIMES at an incredible rate— WNBA (@WNBA) August 1, 2018
With tonight's 14 AST performance, Vandersloot records the most assists (50 AST) over the course of 4 games topping @TichaPenicheiro's previous record (46 AST)! #WatchMeWork pic.twitter.com/cppXGWHcsm
In reality, there might not have been much for Vandersloot to improve on, considering her deserved (yet still understated) hype heading into the WNBA. But even still, it takes a special kind of player to improve so drastically and in such historic fashion — and it truly takes a veteran’s touch.