August 20, 2023
Sunday Notes, Week 12: Is Courtney Vandersloot, a superstar, overlooked? Let’s discuss
Every superteam has at least one star who is overshadowed – not underrated – and Courtney Vandersloot is one of a handful of Liberty players in that boat.
Welcome back to Sunday Notes, your weekly journey into trends and analysis around the WNBA. Today we’re looking at: the cognitive finesse behind Courtney Vandersloot’s continued playmaking prowess, why Jordan Horston is a budding star and how an Ariel Atkins contract extension reflects the Mystics’ future plans. For reference, since this notebook comes out on Sundays, I define “this week” as the prior Sunday through last night.
To be clear, no one in the WNBA is currently tanking on purpose. That being said, let’s see where our teams are right now in the lottery standings and where they project to end up (chart vaguely organized by rightmost column):
|Team:||Games back in lottery:||Games back of No. 8 seed:||Strength of schedule remaining (out of 12)*:||Likely finish:|
|Indiana||———||5.5||8th-strongest (fifth-easiest)||Top lottery odds|
|Phoenix||11.5||4.5||3||Second-best lottery odds|
|Seattle||18.5||4.5||5||Third- or fourth-best lottery odds|
|Los Angeles||13.5||———||7||Either third-best lottery odds or No. 8 seed|
|Chicago||25.5||1||4||Either worst lottery odds or No. 8 seed|
|Minnesota||26.5||-2||11||No. 7 seed|
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New York Liberty
On each superteam, some star must be relatively overlooked. For the Comets, there was Janeth Arcain. For the 2015 Lynx, there was Anna Cruz. For the 2018 and 2020 Storm, there was Jewell Loyd. And for the 2023 Liberty, there is Courtney Vandersloot.
Not that these players were not appreciated — far from it! Arcain is something of a cult favorite, Cruz was well-respected for her brief but crucial contributions, Loyd was considered a budding star and Vandersloot was even an All-Star this year. But Vandersloot being an All-Star is something we take for granted at this point; she’s made four-straight appearances. As a result, I think her possession-by-possession contributions that help make New York so dominant may not be getting their full due.
As an aside, it’d be fair to argue that Betnijah Laney is the Liberty more deserving of the “most overlooked player on this superteam” title. But it seems she’s getting her flowers more often than in past years, and, more importantly, I needed a compelling narrative point to introduce this section.
Vandersloot is quietly having one of her best years as a playmaker. She leads the league in assist rate for the seventh season in a row, and by a greater margin over No. 2 than she had in half those other years. She ranks sixth in the WNBA in assist-to-turnover ratio, per Her Hoop Stats, her 2.88 mark the fourth-highest of her career. She’s on pace to finish 2023 with the third-highest offensive wins above replacement of her career, per Positive Residual. And given her struggles shooting 3-pointers this year, that value has had to come as a passer.
Vandersloot this year has been able to pass to as much finishing talent as anyone in WNBA history ever has. But with how much defensive attention is paid to Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones at all levels and Sabrina Ionescu on the perimeter, every inch of pressure Vandersloot is able to relieve for them is that much more important.
Exhibit A is the passing clinic she put on last Sunday in Indiana, where she totaled a season-high 14 assists. The following two clips include a push pass that is much more physically difficult than she makes it look and requires hitting Stewart perfectly in stride to keep the shot open, and one in which she uses her defender overplaying a coming screen to force help on a drive before a jump pass that ensures the trailing Jones 3-pointer stays wide open.
Even the simplest passes can require significant spatial analysis to pull off. Against Phoenix this week, a ghosted pistol screen from Ionescu caused a defensive miscommunication that left a two-on-one with Vandersloot and Jones. Vandersloot throws up a nifty pump fake to take Brianna Turner out of the play, but the most important aspect is her deciding to use the pump to open the dump-off pass to Turner’s left instead of a pocket pass to Turner’s right. Choosing the former allows Vandersloot to place the pass exactly where only Jones can get to, fully removing Moriah Jefferson from the play.
The consistency with which Vandersloot executes such a volume of playmaking and the variety of situations which she’s mastered playmaking from is unbelievable. Now please enjoy some passing highlights of Courtney Vandersloot, who just moved past Ticha Penicheiro for the second-most assists in WNBA history.
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When we last checked in with Jordan Horston, about a month ago, she was entering her breakout era. Since then, she has extended her run of good play to a 12-game streak in which she’s averaged 8.7 points on 49.4% from the field and 40% from three, 3.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 1.5 steals in 20.0 minutes. Her offensive rebounding rate ranks second on the team, behind only Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu. Her usage ranks second as well, and she’s had the third-lowest assisted rate, per WNBA Advanced Stats. Pretty good for a rookie on a bottom-three team in the league.
Horston has been at least the third-best rookie in the WNBA this year, which at face value may seem surprising for the No. 9 pick in April’s draft. But as Hunter Cruse, Lincoln Shafer and I wrote when we ranked her second in this rookie class, she just has to be “good enough at putting the ball in the hoop that teams are happy to get her defense and playmaking on the court.” And suffice it to say that her recent scoring is more than “good enough.”
Here’s the other thing, though: Horston has been way better defensively than we imagined she would be as a rookie. She has been the best per-minute defender on the Storm, a team employing arguably the best defensive center in basketball (notwithstanding Alyssa Thomas now playing the five). Horston ranks top-five in defensive WAR in the entire league, per PRes. More accurately, considering the margin of error on defensive WAR, she’s contextually more like “top 10” than “top 5.” Again, pretty good.
Horston right now is not exactly one of the couple wings you would most want defending a single possession with a championship on the line; much of that value has come from her ranking second in the WNBA in steal rate and top-30 in block rate, per HHS, and as some team personnel around the league have said, much of that production as been the result of Horston blowing an assignment or missing a rotation, but having the ridiculous athleticism to make up for it. The corollary to that, however, is that Horston is only some standard growing pains away from being something like “Brittney Sykes with a 6’6 wingspan.”
Just a reminder that there were multiple players selected ahead of Horston who have yet to make their WNBA debuts.
Speaking of Brittney Sykes: Sykes’ teammate Ariel Atkins signed a two-year contract extension this week, per The Next’s Howard Megdal, with a $200,000 cap hit in both 2024 and 2025. An AAV slightly under the standard max, for a top-five 2-guard in the WNBA and a player who’s probably the best off-ball guard in the league among those who aren’t premier shot-creators, feels like solid market value if not a slight discount for Washington. She has been the model of consistency for basically her entire career, with her per-game averages barely fluctuating from year to year. She has ranked top-10 in pWAR each of the past four seasons.
What is interesting about Atkins’ extension is what it means for the rest of the Mystics roster, because Elena Delle Donne and Natasha Cloud are both unrestricted free agents this winter. If the former receives a supermax and Washington plans to carry its 2024 first-round pick into the next regular season, that Mystics team has eight players’ contracts accounted for: Delle Donne, Atkins, Sykes, Myisha Hines-Allen, Shakira Austin, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Queen Egbo and that first-rounder. If Washington wants to continue to surround Delle Donne’s final teams with as much talent as possible — i.e. sign veteran-minimum players and not 0-2-year minimums — the highest salary it can pay Cloud is slightly over $170,000. That’s a $20,000 pay cut from her current contract.
It’s not in my current purview whether Cloud is deserving of the 13.7% of next year’s salary cap that Atkins is guaranteed or whether Cloud at something like 11.5-12% of that cap is a good fit with the team either. The point is that Atkins’ extension is clearly signaling one of only a handful of possibilities: Delle Donne’s asking price is well below that of a supermax, Cloud is not a preferred fit going forward at her current salary, the front office thinks this will be the winter it can finally find someone to trade for Hines-Allen’s contract, or Walker-Kimbrough is not in next year’s plans. Time will tell.