August 14, 2021 

Sami Whitcomb has always been improving with nothing to prove

Her Most Improved Player campaign shouldn't come as a shock

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Before scoring 30 points against the Atlanta Dream on June 26 in the New York Liberty’s 101-78 win, Sami Whitcomb’s shooting efficiency was down. Earlier that week in back-to-back blowout losses against the Chicago Sky, Whitcomb wasn’t efficient. While she scored in double digits in both contests, she shot a combined 3-15 (20 percent) from three and 9-24 (37.5 percent) from the field.

In the following game in Atlanta, Whitcomb turned up the heat, shooting 7-12 (58 percent) from three and 10-16 (62.5 percent) from the field.

When she was asked what she did to create such a stark change in her performance and what she had to do to prove to herself and the fans that a mediocre series against Chicago wasn’t going to define her, she smiled and then chuckled. She didn’t feel like she had anything to prove.

“I wasn’t trying to prove anything or prove that I’m not a certain player or I am a certain player,” she said. “I was kind of just trying to just play my game and to just relax into it a little bit. And so I think that was kind of just the key for me, to just not force too much, really.”

While Whitcomb’s confidence in herself and her worth as a player is apparent, not all WNBA experts were sold on her ability to take on the larger role that the Liberty carved out for her when they signed her to a two-year deal in February. In a mid-season review panel conducted by Just Women’s Sports, one expert didn’t see the level of success that Whitcomb has had for the Liberty coming.

“Did anyone in the league think [Sami Whitcomb] would be this good playing this many minutes?” the expert said. “She is shooting close to 50 percent from the field, 45 percent from the 3-point line and tallying career-highs in nearly all statistical categories.”

Current Mystics small forward and former Storm teammate Alysha Clark has been far from surprised by Whitcomb’s first season with New York. Taking on a larger role wasn’t going to be an issue for the 33-year-old who had spent the previous four years as a spark plug providing “instant offense” for the Seattle Storm.

“Sami has been a starter,” Clark told The Next. “Sami has been the go-to player of offensive teams overseas. Sami is used to putting up 30 points. Like, these are all things that she’s used to doing and has been in positions to do throughout her professional career, although it wasn’t the WNBA the whole time. This isn’t new to her.”

But Clark acknowledged that hopping from one role to the next from one league to the next isn’t a simple mental adjustment and not all professionals can do it as smoothly as Whitcomb has during her first season with the Liberty. While Whitcomb is now into the 2021 Most Improved Player (MIP) race alongside Brionna Jones, Jackie Young, Kahleah Copper and Marina Mabrey, Whitcomb has been exponentially improving for years. But what has gotten Whitcomb finally into a discussion for one of the WNBA awards has been her distinguishable work ethic, attention to details and defense, and understanding of what winning leadership looks like.

Liberty assistant coach Jacki Gemelos remembers playing against Whitcomb when both were competing in the Pac-12. When Gemelos was at USC and Whitcomb played for the University of Washington in the late ‘00s, Gemelos thought Whitcomb was an average player who didn’t move as well as the other guards. Gemelos has followed Whitcomb’s career ever since their college days and saw the former Washington Husky blossom. Whitcomb transformed her body by slimming down and acquiring more muscle and used her already sharp basketball IQ as means for her all-around improvement.

After going undrafted in 2010 and going through a WNBA training camp with the Sky post-college, Whitcomb worked her way through and over what Gemelos saw as mediocrity. Before landing on the Storm in 2017, Whitcomb hopped around for six years, playing on clubs in Germany, Slovakia, France and then Australia, including on the Perth Lynx in 2015 with current New York Liberty teammate Betnijah Laney.

Flash forward to present-day Whitcomb and her reputation is defined by her commitment to refining her craft. Current Storm head coach Noelle Quinn remembered that, as both her teammate and coach, the amount of work that Whitcomb waged remained consistent. It didn’t matter whether she had an efficient shooting game; her routine of arriving at the gym early, getting a certain amount of shots up and making sure she got a workout in didn’t waver.

Phoenix Mercury and Australian Opals head coach Sandy Brondello equated Whitcomb’s work ethic to what she’s seen from Mercury stars and Olympians Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith.

Clark agreed and was quite forthright, noting that Whitcomb’s work sometimes goes unnoticed by the casual fan or those on the outside looking in.

“Sami works her ass off,” she said. “You know she’s constantly in the gym, working on her craft before practice and after practice on the road trips. She finds time to do it, she sacrifices and really commits to it, and I think that’s why, for a lot of people that don’t see that on an everyday basis.”

Something those on the outside might not notice immediately is how Whitcomb’s defense has been integral to the Liberty’s success. A sharpshooter who can also play defense? On a team that wanted to play defense seriously from the jump this season, you better believe it. Let’s start with the obvious.

Whitcomb is averaging 5.4 defensive rebounds per game, which is just 0.4 less than Mercury center Brittney Griner’s career average.

“I can’t say enough about Sami and her rebounding,” Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins said after New York’s July 5 win against the Dallas Wings. “I don’t know, I’d love to hear if one of you guys has the numbers on shooting guard/lead guard rebounding, but Sami, she’s got to be among the tops in the league.”

To answer Hopkins’ question, according to WNBA Stats, Whitcomb is only second to DeWanna Bonner (who is considered a guard/forward) in total rebounds, with 121 to Bonner’s 140. The closest traditional backcourt players to Whitcomb are the Dream’s Courtney Williams with 117 and Liberty teammate Sabrina Ionescu with 108.

But once again, this gang style of rebounding that the Liberty are forced to do because of their lack of frontcourt size is not new to Whitcomb. Because of her many years hopping from overseas team to overseas team, she’s played this way before and she understands why it has to happen.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s something that overseas, I usually, I actually normally average around this for rebounding, so it’s not different,” she said after she hauled down seven rebounds in a 99-96 win over the Dallas Wings.

Whitcomb explained that it’s not only her will at play here, but it’s a function of how the Liberty are meant to play. They play smaller and as a result of that, bigs like Kylee Shook and Reshanda Gray have a different priority. For them, it’s boxing out and then Whitcomb and the backcourt have to corral the ball.

“It’s just really hard to rebound or to box out the bigs and then for the bigs to also get the rebound,” she said. “That’s almost impossible [when] you’re trying to hold off Brittney Griner. You can’t then expect to necessarily get the rebound, so it’s sort of that mentality of like, that’s their job. Their job is to hold [their player] off; it’s our job to go and get the ball.”

But competent defense ought not to be judged only on defensive rebounding or steals, a category in which Whitcomb is currently tied for her career-high with 1.1 per game. A more obvious indicator of her improvement defensively is the fact that, during her final season with the Storm and then her first with the Liberty, the number of points per possession she’s given up while guarding the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls has decreased by over 30 percent. According to Synergy Sports, Whitcomb gave up 1 point per possession in 2020 and in 2021, she’s giving up a tad under 0.7.

But there was a time when Whitcomb’s defense wasn’t as effective as it is in 2021, and Clark remembers it. Whitcomb would charge or lunge for a steal and miss the ball. Those days are long gone.

Whitcomb wasn’t afraid of a challenge and won’t stray away from exuding aggression on defense.

“We always used to be like, ‘Sami, stop going for steals if you’re not going to get it’ because it’s so like a high risk, high reward,” Clark said. “That’s just how she plays, and you know we would always joke about it … [but] right now she’s so solid and sound.”

Now, what about on offense? I’m going to stick to some offensive skills that don’t stuff the stat sheet and haven’t yet been mentioned. In the Liberty’s final game before the Olympic break against the Connecticut Sun, Whitcomb’s value came off the ball rather than on it.

With the Liberty down 5-2 in the first quarter, Ionescu and Shook initiated their pick and roll at the top of the key. Brionna Jones and Jasmine Thomas read the offense well and trapped Ionescu. Whitcomb, standing far to Ionescu’s left on the left wing, took her right hand and pointed to the weak side, where Michaela Onyenwere had a boatload of space. Ionescu drove around Jones and found Onyenwere in the corner. Jonquel Jones’ lightning-fast recovery stopped the Liberty rookie from doing any damage, but she drove toward the block to find Shook near the top of the key without an orange jersey close to her field of view. Shook took two steps back, caught and all of a sudden the score was tied at five.

While some might argue that Whitcomb’s pointing might have given the open player away, it still has value to a young team like New York. Whitcomb initiated the Liberty’s ball movement rather than letting the ball stick on one side. And once the ball moved, Onyenwere could then continue that rhythm and find the open player.

Whitcomb directs traffic not only on offense but on help-side defense as well. She’s the player who literally grabbed the ball out of Griner’s hands when New York played Phoenix during a West Coast road trip in June.

Gemelos views Whitcomb as a coach on the floor and is someone who has taken to her new leadership role as one of the Liberty’s captains.

“She sets the standard for this team and I think because we have her, she really is the glue and she does make things flow,” she said. “Even if there are certain things the coaching staff might miss or not touch on, she’s always right there to touch on those things because she’s so smart. She’s been around the game for so long. She’s really locked in, she’s really focused, she’s really stepping up to the plate.”

That focus trickles down to the younger players. Whitcomb has been instrumental at setting examples for professionalism and showing the rookies and second-years what it takes to win at the WNBA level. According to Ionescu, even if her shots aren’t falling, Whitcomb “plays her heart out” and will do anything it takes to see New York finishing with the W.

But Whitcomb doesn’t embrace her veteran status with arrogance. While Clark has acknowledged how competitive Whitcomb is, with the Liberty guard sometimes competing even to get in line first or walk the fastest, Whitcomb has almost no arrogant bones in her body.

She knows that she, too, has to continue striving for improvement. “It’s really nice to see a player like that come into this year [who] is such a leader for us but also has just been wanting to learn and get better and see where she can improve,” Ionescu said.

Sami Whitcomb talks to a group of young people at the Libs Academy and the Brooklyn Nets Youth camp. Photo credit: The New York Liberty’s Twitter account, @nyliberty.

Not to mention, when Whitcomb was asked about potentially getting an All-Star nod, she shrugged it off immediately. “I mean, I think that’s probably ridiculous,” she said. But when she was asked about Laney’s nomination, she beamed with pride, noting that she was very close to crying when she first heard the news.

Even when it came to the 3-point shooting contest, which Whitcomb participated in during halftime of the All-Star Game, she explained that its significance to her would be both getting to represent the Liberty’s success rather than her own and having the opportunity to earn a donation to Mary’s Place, a shelter for women, children and their families in Seattle, if she won the contest.

This is par for the course with Whitcomb. During the Storm’s playoff run in 2018, Clark received a text message from the Liberty guard that she would never forget. It was one of those long bubble messages about how she saw everything Clark was doing amid not being super recognized. Whitcomb could see how hard she was working.

“[She] just wanted to make sure I felt seen,” Clark said. “I cried reading it because I was just like for her … she could be worried about her own minutes and her own productivity or whatever, and she took the time out to just help make me feel good about the effort and the things that I was doing out there on the court.” 

As the Liberty enter their final 11 games to try to cement their first playoff appearance since 2017, it won’t matter to Whitcomb if she’s honored for an award like the MIP. She knows how much she’s grown and how well-rounded of a basketball player she is. She doesn’t need others’ approval to know where she stands in this league.

Written by Jackie Powell

Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.

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