February 24, 2021
Sami Whitcomb aims to help lead a team of ‘gym rats’
How Whitcomb's career evolution mirrors how the Liberty want to operate
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In the Seattle Storm’s 105-64 romp of the New York Liberty on August 18, Sami Whitcomb scored as many points as Breanna Stewart and almost dished out as many assists as 2nd-string point guard Jordin Canada. A year earlier, she scored 18 points in the Liberty’s regular-season debut at the Barclays Center, once again defeating the Liberty.
Whitcomb’s performances against New York did not go unnoticed. How she played was so notable. The Liberty just had to make her one of their own.
On February 18, 2X WNBA champion Whitcomb was officially introduced to the New York media as the third of the team’s three new off-season acquisitions including Betnijah Laney and long time teammate Natasha Howard.
While Whitcomb has been lauded by many for the mastery of her role in Seattle, the sharp-shooter made it clear that she wanted something different in New York, and like Howard, she wanted more. And monetarily she will get more. Whitcomb’s 2021 salary will jump over 121 percent from what she made in 2020.
While it is clear that the move to New York is a chance for Whitcomb to be valued at a rate more worthy of her resume, she views this more as an opportunity for a greater on-court role where she can grow too. Her aim is to be as “valuable” as the team has “deemed” her.
“I think I’m at a stage now where I’m excited about the opportunity to grow into a larger role, well I hope,” Whitcomb said when asked about the role she expects to play on the Liberty.
While not much is known yet about the specifics of Whitcomb’s updated role, something that remains constant is how she’ll adapt to its newness. Erica Ayala reported on Locked On Women’s Basketball that New York Liberty legend Teresa Weatherspoon called Whitcomb someone who “when she’s called, she makes it work.”
“When she’s called, she knows her role,” Weatherspoon told Ayala in 2019. “And that is, when I get it and when I’m open, I’m shooting. She does that so, so well and she doesn’t go away from that.”
While Weatherspoon rattled off Whitcomb’s qualities that make her exceptional including openly calling her “underrated” and a “Liberty killer,” in her new role, it’s the 2X champion’s goal to get folks like Weatherspoon to talk about more than her sharp-shooting.
On Thursday, Whitcomb expressed that it is her hope that head coach Walt Hopkins and his staff can give her a greater set of responsibilities within the Liberty’s motion offense including not only her shooting but on the distributing end as well. Before Sabrina Ionescu fell to injury in 2020, the Liberty ran a backcourt that included guards that both could handle the ball and facilitate. And Whitcomb isn’t the only guard currently on the roster who has the court vision and basketball IQ to do so. Layshia Clarendon, Marine Johannès, and even Jazmine Jones — due to her unplanned stint at point guard last season — are all capable of playing both the one or the two when needed.
But what makes Whitcomb a consonant with the Liberty isn’t just her floor-spacing ability. That helps, but what was most attractive to Hopkins and GM Jonathan Kolb was her “meliora” (always better) mindset which includes her blue-collar work ethic and proven success, her willingness to use the three-ball methodically and with intention, her decision-making skills, and her understanding of team dynamics.
Whitcomb’s philosophy and development function as a symbol of who the Liberty want to become. Her story and her journey to hoisting two championships came without shortcuts. And according to Kolb, winning “the right way” is exactly how New York plans to do the same.
New York’s evolving blue-collar Identity
While the Liberty viewed Whitcomb as a conspicuous force on the Storm, Whitcomb also had to be impressed by the Liberty and feel confident in their direction. Could she bet on Brooklyn?
Whitcomb noticed New York’s burst of energy, willingness to compete, diligence and toughness last summer in Florida. “I just think you could tell that they were really taking steps in the right direction culturally,” she said.
Adding Whitcomb in addition to Laney and Howard further solidifies what the Liberty want to be known for. And no, it’s not the three-pointers, but rather, the togetherness and fight that defines competitive teams.
“I think the pieces that you’ve seen them add, we’re all sort of that makeup as well as in our DNA, we’re hard workers,” Whitcomb said on Thursday. “We are blue-collar. We compete. And I think that’s going to be probably the makeup of this team, the DNA of this team and I think that’s really exciting.”
Her journey to the league, one defined by hard work, or a path that she couldn’t have planned for herself, is also what explains her fit on the Liberty. Her journey consisted of getting cut by the Chicago Sky in 2010, followed by years of playing in Europe and Australia, and then finally joining the Seattle Storm in training camp seven years after her first WNBA camp.
What does grinding for years without WNBA interest mean? For Whitcomb, it’s the result of her passion for the game, a drive that she hopes is semipermeable if not already present on the Liberty’s 2021 roster.
“Hopefully what you’ll see in New York, you’ll see us making the most of this new opportunity that we’re all really excited about coming together, working really hard and really creating this culture and this DNA that is all about… all about that, working together, hopefully winning. But I think that’s kind of a brand that you’ll see,” she said.
When the team introduced Natasha Howard on February 12, Hopkins discussed the new makeup of the roster. “We’re really cognizant of getting, you know that that kind of blue-collar nose to the grindstone type of worker,” he said. “You see that in the defensive capabilities of this group.”
And that’s what New York also gets with Whitcomb. Her work ethic has translated to the defensive side as well, proven not only by the eye test but by the numbers. According to stats pulled from Synergy in 2020, Whitcomb was ranked 16th in defensive points per possession out of 100 total possessions on defense.
She values defending just as much as she values being a facilitator or a scoring option. Whitcomb’s on the attack on both sides of the ball and she appreciated how her defensive capabilities were honored and respected by both her new head coach and general manager. “Sami Whitcomb, people talk a lot about her three-ball, but she puts a lot of effort in on the defensive side,” Kolb said in an interview with Danielle McCartan on WFAN.
“Most people sort of only see me offensively,” Whitcomb said on Thursday. “So for me, as someone that is trying to just continue to get better and develop and, and someone that really wants to take that next step right into a larger role, being viewed as a two-way player, it’s really important. So that was really exciting.”
Using the three as a tool rather than a crutch
In 2020, a personal goal of Whitcomb’s was to not rely “so much just on someone else creating an open three” for her. And she delivered. In Bradenton, Whitcomb recorded the highest field goal percentage of her WNBA career at 44.3 percent. So how did she do it? Her shot selection was how. In the #wubble season, only 60 percent of her total shots were from deep, the lowest rate of her career.
It’s no coincidence that a more balanced shot selection led to her most efficient season. And as she looks to continue building on that in 2021, the Liberty ought to do the same. In 2020, New York used the long ball as a crutch. Often the Liberty would fire off three balls early in the shot clock. And these weren’t all open looks. In the plays below, defenders collapse and closeout on all three shots.
When these shots went in, this didn’t prove to be as costly. But when they did not, which was 72.3 percent of the time, the rest of the offense usually didn’t have enough time to crash the offensive glass, and the result was a defensive rebound rather than an offensive one.
In Paris Kea’s case below, the guard takes a step back three without much space from Jordin Canada. The paint, however, was wide open, and Kylee Shook accelerated when she saw Kea slow down her dribble. Shook signaled that she was in the process of rolling past Seattle’s Mercedes Russell and Crystal Langhorne, but Kea fired the shot with Canada’s arm right in line with her field of view. The Liberty used less than 10 seconds of the shot clock, and the three other players were nowhere near the paint, giving Seattle a greater chance to grab the rebound.
According to the coaching website Basketball For Coaches, however, this haphazard approach to scoring is common when teams are first learning a 5-Out Motion Offense. Teams are hyper-focused on running the offensive schemes properly, that they neglect “to look for scoring opportunities.”
And that’s exactly what the issue is with Kiah Stokes’ decision-making in the play above. Layshia Clarendon drove the ball and drew the defense. They kicked the ball out to Stokes on the left-wing, but the weak side was wide open. With a faster and more athletic Natasha Howard charging at Stokes to contest her shot, the opportune decision would be to make the extra pass rather than shoot the three. There was no defender even close to Amanda Zahui B. and Jewell Lloyd was standing feet from Kia Nurse.
In 2021, the Liberty can’t live and die by the three-ball, but rather by the situations that can allow them to put the most points on the board. That consists of easy layups off pick and roll, drives to the basket, and *open* looks from deep. Whitcomb can help them get there, and start to achieve that balance.
But what if the 27 percent shooting from three returns in 2021? How would Whitcomb go about troubleshooting something the Liberty never resolved in 2020? The new Liberty guard believes that no matter what, the roster needs to remain confident in each other. But then secondarily, the solution to the issue relies upon examining the shot quality. Are the shots being taken ones that are within the Liberty’s offensive schemes? If the answer is yes, an off-shooting night can be countered by aggressive defense. But if the answer is no, then that’s a signal to the team that adjustments ought to be made.
But Whitcomb is optimistic that this won’t be a team that struggles quite a much as the group from the year before.
“We’re going to be a team that’s going to be in the gym… I know a lot of these players on the team on their roster,” she said. “They are all hard workers, they’re all gym rats. So I doubt that it’ll be a case of us just missing shots, anything it’ll just be about you know getting a bit of rhythm together and making sure that we’re getting good looks for each other.”
Sami’s smarts on the court
Walt Hopkins characterized Whitcomb as not only someone with a high shooting capacity but as someone who can put the ball on the floor and someone who has the smarts to lead on the court.
From her time in Seattle, Whitcomb has learned and knows when exactly to put the ball on the floor and when to create a shot for herself or someone else. Her desire to develop her game, becoming “dynamic with the ball” and without it made her team around her better. Her goal in coming to New York will be about continuing that journey and building on it.
“I think it made me someone that could then create for my teammates and help us just within our offense because the ball didn’t just die with me as you know I either shot it or I couldn’t do anything else, you know,” Whitcomb said on the impact of her development. “So that I think opened up a lot of things for me.”
How did Whitcomb use her smarts in 2020? In the play above, she sizes New York’s defense and makes an aggressive drive through the lane. While bringing up the ball, she saw that the Liberty defense left a giant hole in the lane. She also knew that she could outrun and stymie Stokes, who shuffled away from the drive rather than actively trying to prevent it. But Whitcomb also knows when to make the extra pass, which was something the Liberty struggled with in their pursuit to move the ball.
The goal of an offense should be to tire out the opposing defense. Before the Storm end this play above with a shot, they make sure the ball was touched by at least three different players. Canada first passed to Russell in the paint. Russell knew that the paint was too crowded for her to take a go at scoring, so she kicked the ball out to Whitcomb. While Whitcomb could have taken a shot, she realized 1) how close Jocelyn Willoughby was hovering toward her and 2) how diligent of a defender Willoughby is. In a split second, Whitcomb made the extra pass to the open shooter in Epiphanny Prince, who had a defender arrive late to contest her shot.
And lastly, Whitcomb’s mastery of a motion offense is put on full display in the sequence above. She draws the defense into the paint, and then kicks it out to Prince who is all tangled up with Neah Odom. Whitcomb keeps her eye on the ball and slowly back peddles when she realizes that Prince couldn’t advance the ball. Once Canada catches a pass from Prince, the Liberty defense shifts even further away from the right corner pocket, where Whitcomb is now standing, waiting for the pass from Canada. Catch and shoot and swish. Willoughby hustles to try to contest Whitcomb, but the rookie was too late.
Whitcomb expects ‘give and take’ between veterans and younger players
Developing chemistry with the 2021 New York group is going to take time, and Whitcomb knows it. But, what she believes is on her side, however, is the familiarity that already exists. In addition to playing on two championship teams with Howard, Whitcomb played on the Perth Lynx alongside Betnijah Laney and she’s of course very familiar playing alongside another Australian Opal in Rebecca Allen. “Familiarity with the players is really important,” she said.
While it’s exciting for Whitcomb that some of the bonds that she believes are necessary to build a competitive team may already be present, she still has at least five young players rising into their sophomore years in the WNBA to get to know.
When it comes to establishing a leadership style and connecting with some of these younger players, Whitcomb envisions a more horizontal leadership structure rather than a vertical one. In her eyes, the leaders won’t necessarily all be the eldest players. She expects a give and take between the younger and the older group.
“I think that there’ll be a lot of give and take with this group,” she said. “You know we have these players who will probably be natural leaders and you know maybe they’re the ones that are the captains, or whatever… and I’m hoping just sort of a connectivity with that where we’re all just trying to be on the same page and it’s less about who has to say it and who has more years or whatever. I think we’re all going to be kind of starting brand new together.”
Whitcomb said the group will buy into the shared goal: getting the New York Liberty back to its winning ways. But when it comes to gaining the respect and trust of the younger players she doesn’t know, she’s got a plan for that, too. The Whitcomb way consists of hanging her hat on hard work and proving to her teammates that she’s as reliable as they come. That’s how she’ll gain their respect and trust.
As Whitcomb put it: “I’m gonna work really, really hard and do whatever you guys need me to do.”
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also covers women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.