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Sami Whitcomb: Basketball Wizard of Aus

ByMyles Ehrlich|@MylesEhrlich| March 29, 2021
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Sami Whitcomb, fresh off her second WNBA championship with the Seattle Storm, is on the move again. This time, she’ll head to the New York Liberty, but Sami’s no stranger to being the stranger at this point. She’s played all over the world: Australia, France, Germany, Slovakia, and Turkey, in addition to the United States. 

Sami’s journey has been far from conventional, but she’s found success along each stop. It’s evident in her game, too, which has continued to evolve each successive season. Despite possessing one of the quickest releases in the W, Sami is more than just a shooter. She’s a creative playmaker and a committed defender, utilizing her experience to maximize her effectiveness on the court.

In this piece, we’ll follow along with every step of Sami Whitcomb’s basketball journey, starting from her childhood all the way up through to today, from her first WNBA cut to her latest and largest guaranteed contract. 

Sami Whitcomb’s basketball evolution

Samantha Allison Whitcomb, born July 20, 1988 to Jan and Sander, grew up in Ventura, California. She’s got one brother, Jacob, though more recent pictures must exist than this one. Although her parents divorced while she was young, basketball helped Sami to maintain a relationship with her father. She picked up the sport when she was about 12 years old, Sami said in a promotional video for the Perth Lynx.

“I went to basketball basically to kind of make him proud,” Sami told ESPN’s Sean Hurd. “I thought it was something we could do together. He ended up being my first coach on my local YMCA league growing up that I played in.”

Once Sami started high school, she and her dad got into a rhythm: she would play the games, he would break down her performance. This foundational critical analysis resonates today in Sami’s blue collar play, in her mechanically perfected shot, and her determined preparation and effort.

Sami attended Ventura county’s Buena High, where she was a four-year letterwinner, and helped the team win three Channel League titles. As a senior, she averaged 17.3 points per game (PPG), 10.5 rebounds per game (RPG) and 3.6 steals per game (SPG). 

In 2019, Sami would come back to visit Buena High, her perseverance making her a perfect role model for the girls’ basketball team.

“So much rejection, but she wasn’t going to quit on the dream,” Buena High coach Dave Guenther said. “I thought it was important for our players to hear. Some people may think scholarships fall off of trees, but Sami has never stopped working.”

Sami Whitcomb’s college basketball career

Sami would travel north up the PCH for college, leaving California to play basketball for the University of Washington Huskies. Her college grind would be a continuation of the max-effort work ethic she’d developed during those postgame recaps in the car with her dad, and a preview of the globe-spanning career still to come.

As a freshman, she started just four of 21 contests, missing eight games after hurting her right hand in practice. She scored just 4.3 PPG, but showed off her range, making 15 threes (fourth on the team, despite the limited minutes) on 37.7 percent shooting. The Huskies, led by six seniors, went 18-13. Washington lost 79-60 to Iowa State in that year’s NCAA tournament. Sami failed to score in her 12 minutes of tournament action; she would never return to the dance.

As a sophomore, Sami took a leap. She started 30 of 31 games, leading the team with both 62 made threes and 62 steals, notching the first of two consecutive Pac-10 All-Defensive honorable mentions. Only teammate Katelan Redmon (11.8 PPG) scored more for the Washington Huskies than Sami (11.2 PPG).

However, as a team, the Huskies struggled to a 13-18 record. Despite winning two-thirds of their games at home, they stumbled when away from Hec Edmundson Pavilion, tallying just two wins in 13 contests. Washington’s season ended in the Pac-10 conference tournament, where they lost by 19 to Arizona State.

Sami’s game continued to evolve in 2008-2009. She led the team in scoring with 12.8 PPG, leading the team in scoring 13 times. She also led the Pac-10 in steals. Despite Sami’s improving returns in her junior season, the Huskies continued to struggle.

Washington compiled an 8-22 record, though they did stun a mediocre Oregon team to escape the first round of the Pac-10 tournament. The victory was, at the time, the first ever by a number 10 seed. The primary reason they cruised to that victory: Sami Whitcomb. Sami scored 28 points—one off her career-high to that point—while hitting six threes.

As a senior, Sami led the Huskies in a bunch of statistical categories: scoring (13.0 PPG), rebounding (5.6 RPG), and assists (2.5 assists per game [apg]). Her 46 steals were second on the team. On January 29, 2010, her career-best 32 points led the Huskies to an overtime win against the rival Washington State Cougars.

Sami’s other milestone game as a senior came on February 27, 2010, again against the Cougars. This time, though, she struggled to shoot, scoring just a dozen points. She made up for it in other areas, though, pulling down 13 boards and swiping six steals, both personal bests. Washington improved upon its previous season, but still finished just 13-18, mirroring the record from Sami’s sophomore season. This prevented Sami from playing on the largest college basketball stage for a second time.

Over the course of her four years at UW, Sami accumulated impressive counting stats. She averaged 10.6 PPG, but saw her scoring average climb every year, tripling from the 4.3 PPG she put up as a freshman up to 13.0 PPG she averaged as a senior. Sami led the team in both her junior and senior seasons, and her 1,205 points rank 15th all-time in program history. At the time of her graduation, Sami had more steals than anyone else in Pac-10 history. She was also a terrific student, named three times to the Pac-10’s All-Academic team

“Getting to compete in the Pac-10 was really special,” Sami told University of Washington Magazine. “And I just loved being in Seattle.”

Of course, that would not be the last time she played in the Pacific Northwest. In 2018, when the Seattle Storm won the title, Sami became the first University of Washington alum to ever win a WNBA championship.

Sami’s basketball life post-graduation

Despite her strong collegiate career, Sami went undrafted in the 2010 WNBA Draft. The Chicago Sky brought her into training camp, but she ultimately did not crack the roster. While she debated next steps, she returned to the University of Washington as a video coordinator. At the time, Sami believed this would be the end of her playing career and the start of a transition into coaching. 

“It’s definitely different on this side,” Sami told the Seattle Times. “I’m still incredibly grateful for the opportunity I had with the Sky. It was awesome and I’ll always cherish that, because I know a lot of people don’t get that chance.”

Despite a year away from organized basketball, Sami couldn’t shake the itch. In 2011, she signed to play overseas with ChemCats Chemnitz, a German club. There, she averaged 11.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.1 APG, and 2.0 SPG.

She returned to Germany again for the 2012-2013 season, this time joining the Wolfenbüttel Wildcats. This time around, Sami put up 18.9 PPG, second only to future WNBA hooper, Emma Cannon, who averaged 20.7 PPG. Despite finishing tied for second in the standings with a 13-9 record, the Wildcats folded before the playoffs, due to financial issues. Even so, Sami was named Guard of the Year and to the league’s First Team roster.

Let’s break the linear timeline here and stay in Europe; we’ll double back shortly to cover Sami’s play in Australia. Sami’s European career continued onto Slovakia’s Spisska Nova Ves in 2013-2014, where she played just 15 games. She would not play in Europe again until 2018-2019, but she then spent two seasons with France’s Basket Lattes, putting up some impressive lines

In March of 2021, Sami joined the Turkish team, Galatasaray, for a month-long stint ahead of the EuroLeague semifinals. In four Turkish League games and two EuroLeague contests, Sami put up 14.3 PPG. In EuroLeague, she ran into a tough draw in Fenerbahce, a team featuring WNBA talents like Satou Sabally, Kayla McBride, Jasmine Thomas, Kia Vaughn, and teammate Kiah Stokes, and ended up losing the aggregated two-game set by seven points, despite splitting the games.

Okay, let’s rewind, back to 2013, when Sami would play for Australia for the first time, joining the Rockingham Flames of the Women’s State Basketball League (WSBL) for her first of four seasons. According to the Flames’ website, Sami’s addition was a byproduct of fortuitous timing, as she received a call from then-coach Ryan Petrik after the team’s import pulled out.

To say this worked out would be an understatement: 2013 would also be the start of an MVP threepeat for Sami, as she put up huge numbers during her time with the Flames, putting up between 22 and 25 PPG each season. The team would also win the WSBL title twice during that span, including a huge performance from Sami in the 2015 final, where she scored 41 points on 14/24 from the field, including six threes and a perfect 7/7 from the line. 

In 2016, Sami would join the Perth Lynx of the WNBL, where she has continued to play off and on through to today. During her time there, she has set all kinds of offensive records, with her 91 threes in 2016-2017 the top single-season mark. The 567 points she scored were second-best behind Penny Taylor’s 570 in 2002, and only Lauren Jackson (22.2 PPG) bested Sami’s career average (21.3 PPG).

On February 8, 2017, months and months ahead of the WNBL season, Sami finally received the call for an opportunity she’d thought to be gone seven years earlier.

Sami Whitcomb returns to the WNBA 

Months before the Seattle Storm signed Sami to a training camp contract, the then 28-year-old spoke to PerthNow, an Australian publication, and expressed that the W was still an aspiration of hers.

“The player I am now, compared to the player that tried out for the WNBA and was cut is totally different. I’d love to go back and just have a crack. In terms of career goals, it’s always been that last thing that I’ve been reaching for,” said Sami.

Her circuitous path to the league, of course, was very unorthodox. Still, this was the culmination of all that international experience, all the new teammates, the new uniforms, and the new countries. The hard work she put in each step of the way showed, making an immediate impact on the Seattle coaching staff.

“Usually within a few years they’re either good enough to make it or they’re not and they just stay overseas,” Storm assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg told the VC Star. “But she’s been a really great surprise. We didn’t hardly know her coming into camp. She really battled and battled and made it. So it’s a great story of perseverance with her. She’s always working to get better.”

Just as she had overseas, Sami quickly gained a reputation as a shooter. Becoming an immediate long-range threat for a Seattle team that shot 20.0 threes per game—the third most in the W. In just her third game, she keyed a Storm comeback against her future team, the Liberty, scoring 22 points during a huge second half in which she hit six three-pointers, a WNBA record for a single half. 

For Sami, part of the transition to the WNBA was also getting reacclimated with America. She’d been living in Australia since 2013 with her wife, Kate Malpass, who she married in 2017, and gained Australian citizenship in 2018 ahead of that year’s Commonwealth Games. “Australia is my home now,” Sami told the Seattle Times in 2017. “I feel like a bit of a foreigner [in Seattle]. But it’s really exciting. I love that I get to be here. So much has changed since I left.”

At the tail end of the 2020 WNBA playoffs, the couple welcomed their first child, Nash Owyn Whitcomb. Sami skipped the Finals to be back in Australia for his birth (and the stacked Storm went on to sweep the Aces in three games). “I’m really excited. It’s something that we’ve wanted for some time and have been working at for some time because it’s obviously not quite as simple for us as it is for other couples,” Sami told SBL Shootaround in the days before Nash’s birth. “It’s been a long time coming really and it is an emotional journey. It’s been hard to do this apart and obviously I haven’t been able to be there for her throughout this pregnancy, so it was special for me to be back home now for the birth and everything after. We are really excited to be mums and to meet him.”

Sami Whitcomb's offensive stats in the WNBA

During her four years in Seattle, Sami carved out an essential 3-and-D role off the bench, keeping defenses honest so players like Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird, and Jewell Loyd could go to work in space. She also won a pair of championships during that stretch, a member of both the 2018 and 2020 title teams. While her individual statistics didn’t measure up to the video game numbers she’d accumulated with her usage in Australia and Europe, her impact on both ends of the court made her an invaluable asset.

On February 10, 2021, Sami’s time in Seattle came to a close. New York acquired her in a sign-and-trade for fellow Australian hooper, Stephanie Talbot. Sami signed a protected two-year contract for $150,350 per season. We’ll circle back later to talk more about her new squad.

Sami Whitcomb’s WNBA strengths

1. Shooting threes

Obviously, we’re going to need to talk about Sami’s shooting. It starts with her quick release. “In college, I basically lived in the gym and I worked on it and worked on it so that it eventually became something that I was quite confident in,” Sami told Swish Swish, a French publication. “I started to develop my quick release, because obviously once you become a good shooter, that’s what the defense is trying to take away. So I really started to focus on that, and eventually getting the shot off quick—but obviously trying to make it as well—became a strength of mine.”

To gain a reputation as a three-point shooter, it’s more than just shooting quickly. You’re going to need to take a lot of threes, and Sami knows her role when she steps on the court. During her rookie season, according to Her Hoop Stats, only Jordan Hooper (73.5 percent) had a higher three-point rate than Sami (71.3 percent). Sami would then lead the category in 2018 (77.5 percent) and 2019 (81.4 percent). In 2020, though, her game changed significantly, as evidenced by a steep drop in that three-point rate.

2. Efficiency

This brings us to her game’s recent evolution, which paid immediate dividends in the Bradenton bubble. Efficiency. 

Sami Whitcomb's three-point shooting rate in the WNBA

After taking between 71 and 81 percent of her shots from outside the arc in her first three seasons, that number dropped all the way to 56 percent last season. While that mark was still within the top 10 in the league, Sami’s percentages were much stronger for it. When asked about it at her introductory presser in 2021, Sami told Nets Republic:

I think making the most and taking advantage of hard closeouts and people only identifying me as a shooter. It was definitely something I was working on, and something I was trying to utilize more. Not just for me, in scoring opportunities for myself, but it made me someone who could then create for my teammates and within our offense, because the ball didn’t just die with me, [where] I either shot it or couldn’t do anything else…It created a lot of easier and better shots for me.”

All this contributed to a career-high in field goal percentage: Sami’s 44.3 percent in 2020 was 7.5 percent higher than her previous single-season mark. These increased values allowed her to set a career-high in scoring, with 8.1 points per game (topping 2019’s mark of 7.2 points per game).

3. Free throws

Another reason why Sami’s aggressiveness helps her game? She’s a terrific free throw shooter. In fact, Sami hasn’t missed an attempt from the charity stripe since her rookie season. After going 17/17 in 2018 and 2019 combined, Sami reached the line a career-best 22 times last season, converting every attempt.

4. Transition game

Sami’s transition game is integral to her success: she’s so dangerous in the open court because she reads the fast break so well. With her strong basketball IQ, she can read and anticipate defenses, sneaking out to the weak-side wing or setting up as a trailer to be a secondary option.

Either way, she’s dangerous in space, and often makes defenses pay for losing track of her on the break. According to Synergy, in transition scoring, Sami ranked in the 90th percentile—10th overall—among all qualifiers this past season, scoring 39 points on just 30 possessions (1.3 PPP).

5. Off the ball movement

Being able to shoot is not enough at this level, among the best of the best. You’ve got to work hard to find daylight, to be ready to capitalize on an open look as quickly as possible. Once you gain a reputation as a shooting threat, defenses do everything they can to stay in your pocket.

Offenses will counter this aggression with down screens and weak-side cuts; the best shooters in the W are running nonstop in order to find that hole in the defense. Watch here how quick and decisive all of Sami’s movements are, as she fakes out multiple defenders just to get off a clean look. 

6. Defense

Although her reputation is built around her offensive prowess, Sami’s built a career out of being a pesky defender. Last year’s 1.9 percent steal percentage was the lowest in her four years in the W; she put up percentages of 2.4, 2.7, and 2.6 in the three years prior. The 2.7 mark ranked second in the entire league.

In each of her four pro seasons, Sami has ranked higher on the defensive side of the ball than she has offensively, further evidence of her blue collar effort. “I pride myself in working my butt off defensively, at least,” Sami told Howard Megdal, “and trying to make sure I know the schemes and executing them, so I’m on the same page as my teammates.”

Where can we see continued improvement in Sami Whitcomb’s game?

1. A bigger role

Off the heels of her new contract, expectations are going to be higher than ever for Sami. In Seattle, she had a defined role as a shooter off the bench, but she averaged just 14.3 minutes per game during her years with the Storm.  She spoke to this during her introductory press conference with the assembled New York Liberty media.

“I loved my time in Seattle, and I think I tried to make the most of that opportunity to really develop and grow,” Sami said, in response to a question from Erica Ayala. “I’ll just say I did that within a role they had for me there, which was really exciting—a role that was part of two championships, so that’s something I’m really grateful for. I think I’m at a stage now where I’m excited to grow into a larger role, I hope. Whether or not that’s off the bench or not, I’ll continue to develop and work towards… whether it’s a greater role within the offense or within the systems, maybe a more consistent role game-to-game so I can expand what I can do, more with facilitating, creating, that kind of thing.”

2. Facilitating

Over the past two seasons, Sami has taken great strides as a playmaker. According to Her Hoop Stats, Sami posted middling assist percentages of 13.2 and 8.7 percent in her first two seasons; in her last two, those numbers have climbed to 20.5 and 19.5 percent, which accounts for the top quarter of all qualifiers.

Joining a new roster without a true second point guard (depending on how much Layshia Clarendon plays the 1, or how many games the team will get out of the exciting young guard out of France, Marine Johannès, in an Olympic year) might mean more responsibility for Sami as a facilitator.

3. Leadership

Lastly, Sami is joining a team in flux. After coming off a championship, many of the young players will look to her and Natasha Howard (also joining the Liberty from the Storm) for their big-game expertise. With so many voices in the locker room, will team chemistry be an issue?

“People tend to assume leadership comes from vets or older players. But the exciting part about this group is yes, we do have some experienced players now. We have some that will be natural leaders as well,” Sami told Queen Ballers Club. “But I also think I see leadership in our younger players as well, and I think that I’m excited to see who naturally develops and grows into those roles.”

She continued, “I think there will be a lot of give-and-take from [the captains] to the younger players, and I’m hoping there’s just a connectivity with that. It’s less about who has to say it—who has more years or whatever —we’re all going to be starting brand new together, and we’ll be going on this new journey of trying to get New York back to the winning ways and that good culture. Hopefully it’s all of us. Hopefully, we’re all leading in different areas, and we’re all growing together in that as well.”

What’s next for Sami?

Sami’s next big move is to the Big Apple. Despite coming off a 2-22 season, the New York Liberty’s offseason improvements project a much more competitive team. In addition to Sami and the aforementioned defensive stalwart, Natasha Howard, the team signed Betnijah Laney, who is coming off a campaign strong enough to see her named Most Improved.

They’ve also got Sabrina Ionescu coming back: last year’s first overall pick and the W’s next projected superstar, who was limited to just two-and-a-half games before an ankle injury prematurely ended her rookie year. Also potentially returning, players like Marine Johannès, Rebecca Allen, and Asia Durr, all of whom would make immediate impacts on the rotation (and fit nicely into Coach Walt Hopkins’ system).

Sami is also listed on an absolutely stacked Australian Opals roster for the Olympics, so a trip to Tokyo is likely on the calendar as well.

If you’re curious to see where this season takes her, keep up with Sami on social media. She’s an active presence on Twitter, always engaging with the latest goings-on in the W. You can also keep up with her family on Instagram, where she posts adorable pictures of Sami, Kate, Nash, and Mackie (their adorable pup).

Up next, learn more about Sami’s teammate Natasha Howard’s game.

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