- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Courtney Vandersloot came flying out the chute as a WNBA player two years ago, propelled by her star-making performance in the NCAA tournament.
After leading Gonzaga to the Elite Eight and becoming a women's basketball darling, an under-the-radar player who had a remarkable four-year career in quiet Eastern Washington suddenly was decidedly less under-the-radar.
But Vandersloot's first two seasons in the WNBA weren't quite a continuation of the momentum she had coming out of college. She was a tentative offensive player, overwhelmed by the jump to the WNBA, and the physicality of the game bothered her. The girl with such great passing instincts in college turned over the ball too much and her confidence was shaken.
"I learned a lot," Vandersloot said. "The last three years I just kept learning, and it wasn't always easy."
But in her third season, Vandersloot is now playing on a Chicago team with a well-rounded pool of talent, the addition of forward Elena Delle Donne already changing the complexion of the franchise. The Sky are 3-0 to start the season, with wins over Phoenix, Connecticut and Tulsa, and Vandersloot is already setting a tone.
After Vandersloot opened the season with a 14-point, three-assist effort against the Mercury last Monday, Sky coach Pokey Chatman said she believes her point guard is poised for her best season yet.
"She's gained 15 pounds and a lot of strength," Chatman said. "I think this is going to be a big year for her."
And thus, perhaps a big season for the Sky, who have been waiting for one. Delle Donne has already established herself as a pro-ready talent on the wing, Epiphanny Prince is one of the league's best scorers, Sylvia Fowles one of its most productive centers and Swin Cash is a veteran with championship experience.
Vandersloot's maturation at the point just adds to the possibilities.
"For me, it's just a matter of another year under my belt, a little more confidence and I've added the weight," Vandersloot said. "As a team, we've added some pieces. We are all really meshing so far."
Two years ago, Vandersloot went from Gonzaga's Elite Eight run to the U.S. national team training camp in Las Vegas to the Sky to begin her pro career. Expectations were high very early.
"I want high expectations," Vandersloot said. "I had them myself."
She set the Chicago record for assists in a season as a rookie, but has characterized that first season as a struggle, saying, "I wasn't learning fast enough."
Vandersloot said Chatman talked to her at the end of last season -- the Sky barely missed the WNBA playoffs -- about handling the "heat" at the point, becoming a more consistent scorer and putting on some weight.
"I spent a lot of time in the weight room," Vandersloot said. "I built muscle, but it was more than just weight-room weight. I also ate a lot of meat and potatoes."
Vandersloot was able to stay at home in Washington through the holidays, working on the regimen provided by Sky team trainers. She left in early January to spend a month in Croatia and then played the remainder of the season in Slovakia, where she said the cuisine complemented her goals to bulk up.
"I liked the food and that helped me, and I cooked for myself a lot with that in mind," she said.
Now that she has gained it, the trick is to keep it on, particularly through the rigors of the WNBA season.
"It's nice not to have to worry about things like, 'I shouldn't eat this late,' or things like that," Vandersloot said.
On the floor, Vandersloot said she has benefited from the collaboration with Chatman, a former point guard who "still thinks like a point guard."
"She understands what goes into it, but her expectations are also very high because she played the position," Vandersloot said.
Vandersloot feels stronger and sturdier in these early weeks of the season.
"I feel like I'm able to handle the physicality better," she said. "I'm a little bit thicker and it's helped me handle pressure. I'm not feeling so vulnerable."