As amazing as Gonzaga Bulldogs point guard Courtney Vandersloot's career-high 34 point scoring performance against the Iowa Hawkeyes was on Saturday, it might not have come as unexpected for the Gonzaga fans that have watched her closely this season.
"Obviously, Vandersloot had another great game for her," said Iowa coach Lisa Bluder after Gonzaga's 92-86 win. "She's terrific. It will be fun to watch her play at the next level. She's a very, very good point guard."
Fans that have watched Vandersloot often are probably already accustomed to just how good she can be.
For Gonzaga fans, it's probably no longer extraordinary to see the 5-foot-8 senior make lead passes on a fast break like the one on Saturday that bounced into the hands of fellow senior Claire Raap at just the right time to make a layup in stride with 6:32 left in the game. Nor would anyone be too surprised to see her receive a pass with one hand and whip a one-handed swing pass in one fluid motion to an open Kayla Standish, who was then able to score a driving layup with the defense scrambling to recover. And with every game from this point on potentially her last before getting a shot at the WNBA, her calmly decisive yet aggressive moves to the basket to college 11 free throw attempts were probably not that surprising if perhaps uncharacteristic.
"Courtney had a few more turnovers than normal, but what I was really proud of was that she continued to look for her shot, hit some threes and then I thought what was most important was that she went 11-for-11 from the free throw line," said Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves after the game. "You know when you have your point guard shooting like that late in the game you're in pretty good hands.
"She kind of showed it all tonight: tremendous passes, perimeter game, driving to the basket, tough shots, and then the composure to hit free throws. I think everybody got to see how great Courtney is."
Her 47.82 free throw rate was well above average and her true shooting percentage of 61.06% was excellent. When you consider all she was doing for the team as a scorer, the fact that she had a low assist ratio of 17.57% is understandable. That she handled the ball as often as she did and still only had a turnover ratio of 12.55% is somewhat remarkable - there aren't many point guard in the nation who can use up 35% of their team's possessions as a scorer and remain as efficient as a distributor.
But to understand what truly separates her from any other number of great players now or in the past, you have to take account for the subtleties that were actually magnified even as she was using up an unusually high percentage of Gonzaga's possessions as a scorer against Iowa.
Vandersloot navigates the court as effortlessly as any player in college basketball in a way that isn't fully appreciated by merely dropping the cliche that she's "two steps ahead of everyone else" - while she appears to have a natural gift, but to make the plays that she made against Iowa require a level of creativity and risk-tolerance that most players simply don't have, particularly not in a big game environment.
Perhaps she's always been a competitive and confident enough player to pull off plays that other players don't even think about, but after losing in the Sweet 16 last March, she's come back even better this year.
"[She's] a little more determined, stronger, experienced," said coach Kelly Graves after the Iowa game. "I think we fall down and have to learn from it to get back up. She's that kind of competitor. She's going to have to do it for at least one more game. I know UCLA has a game plan for her and they are going to come after her."
Vandersloot's combination of confidence and ability to make people better is something that Naismith Hall of Famer and Gonzaga point guard legend John Stockton recently compared to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky in an article by Dave Trimmer of the Spokesman Review. As Stockton didn't want to exaggerate too much, a better way to describe what Vandersloot possesses might simply be something Brian McCormick calls game awareness.
To summarize, McCormick describes game awareness as the ability for a player to respond creatively (considering multiple alternatives and choosing the best one) to the situation as it unfolds rather merely running a scripted play. Creativity not only maximizes the opportunity to score on a give possession, but also disorganizes the defense by keeping them guessing. Changes of speed, one-handed swing passes, and perfectly placed lead passes are all part of that game awareness. And it should obvious why a risk averse player lacking confidence would struggle to pull that off, as she described in Trimmer's article.
"The things he does are all based on confidence," Vandersloot said in the article. "The things he was teaching, I was thinking that had to be a low-percentage pass or low-percentage shot. The fact is, if it’s done with confidence it becomes a high percentage. That’s what he always harped."
Part of what comes with the confidence to turn a "low-percentage pass" into a high percentage one is that occasionally a player like Vandersloot will make more turnovers than normal. However, what great point guards are able to do is counterbalance that risk of accruing turnovers while taking risks with an increased ratio of assists. That is essentially the thinking behind the use of John Hollinger's pure point rating, a metric that essentially credits a player for taking the risk of committing a turnover as they attempt to create assists on a per minute basis. And perhaps a simpler indicator of a strong PPR is a player whose assist ratio well exceeds their turnover ratio rather than looking at raw assist to turnover numbers.
So perhaps to put Vandersloot's performance this season in perspective, Stockton owns among the best PPR marks of all time in the NBA, topping out at 15.56 in 1990. This season, Vandersloot doubled nearly doubled her PPR to finish the season at 11.63 while playing at a level of basketball that shoots a lower field goal percentage and generally has more turnovers than the NBA. Statistically, that's actually a somewhat remarkable feat especially when considering that she has been much more aggressive as a scorer this year with the graduation of Heather Bowman and Vivian Frieson.
Of course, advanced statistics aren't necessarily needed to prove how great she is, but as Hollinger wrote that level of efficiency definitely says something about a point guard's quality. That Vandersloot's 34 points brought her within 10 points of becoming the first college basketball player ever to amass 2000 points and 1000 assists makes it obvious that she's a great player. Not even Stockton can claim that and it's not exactly the type of thing that she's terribly concerned about anyway.
"I guarantee you Courtney is not going to be counting it down in her head," said Graves of the milestone, echoing Vandersloot's words after Iowa that she would be fine scoring no points as long as it meant her team won. "She wants one thing and those who know Courtney know there is only one goal for her tomorrow and that is to win the game. If she goes scoreless she would be fine with that as long as we win."
Yet for all the gaudy statistics and lofty praise as a "transcendent" and historically good point guard, what really stands out about Vandersloot is ironically the more subtle game awareness that truly helps her team win games. It's something that can only be truly appreciated from watching her make rather risky plays look startlingly routine.
Statistical summary of Gonzaga vs. Iowa:
Statistical MVP: Courtney Vandersloot
Perhaps you can forgive Vandersloot for her below average -0.91 PPR given her scoring effort. But perhaps it will also help to note that she had a defensive rebounding percentage of nearly 20%.
Key player: Kayla Standish
It was Standish whose post play really stood out on Saturday, she and Vandersloot combined for 53% of Gonzaga's overall production. Like Vandersloot, it's her efficiency that really stands out - only missing five of 20 shots on a combination of jumpers and post plays and committing four turnovers at a usage percentage of over 30%.
Key statistic: offensive rebounding percentage
Gonzaga did recover from a seven point halftime deficit mostly because of increasing their field goal percentage to 57.1%, but in a game between heavily perimeter oriented teams both Standish's post play and the team's 20% offensive rebounding advantage made a huge difference. Note: "perimeter oriented" meant Iowa playing an offense with all five players beyond the arc at times.
Iowa statistical MVP: Kachine Alexander
A fierce competitor and one of the best all-around guards in the nation, Alexander did what she could to help Iowa. Most notably, she had a team-high PPR of 2.56, a game-high free throw rate of 38.46, and a team second-best offensive rebound percentage of 12.43.