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WNBA Free Agency: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

ByQueen Ballers Club|@queenballers| February 1, 2022If you buy something from a link on our site, Queen Ballers Club may earn a commission.
sami-whitcombs-podcast

If you love listening to WNBA podcasts, there’s a new gem you have to add to your list. The New York Liberty’s sharp shooter and two-time WNBA Champion Sami Whitcomb has released Shooting the Shot sponsored by Jett Capital Advisors and Hoops Heaven. It’s a series of intimate, behind-the-scenes conversations with some of your favorite players in the league. And today is the perfect day to click subscribe!

In her second episode, Learning from Legends, with Washington Mystics’ elite defensive guard Alysha Clark, and the Seattle Storm’s storied point guard Sue Bird, Sami digs into Alysha’s rocky start going pro as she made the transition from post player to guard, and how she navigated her evolution in the league as she proved her value – most importantly, to herself.

The hoopers also cover the fascinating ways Alysha uses film to inform her play, and other methods she taps into to prepare to guard some of the toughest assignments in the game. Alysha and Sami also both reveal their thought processes around free agency (spoiler alert: it’s not all about the money, folks!).

Plus, Alysha dives into setting goals and even how her injury recovery is coming along. Finally, the mini-Storm-Championship-reunion squad covers how Sue thinks about developing her game (don’t miss invaluable lessons from a GOAT) — and whether she’ll be playing for more than one year.

So today, we’ll share some key parts of the pod so you can learn too, if reading is more of your thing than listening. And if you prefer to skim, we’ve added some quick takeaways at the bottom. Let’s jump right in!

Learn from Sami Whitcomb’s podcast: Learning from Legends

In this episode, Sami welcomes Alysha onto the show, and the duo begin by discussing what she’s been up to recently. In exciting news, Alysha’s getting ready for her return to the court!

Sami: “Today I’m so excited all the way from DC, we’ve got Alysha Clark – one of my all-time faves: current Washington Mystics player, former Seattle Storm teammate of mine. Welcome and thank you so much for taking the call today Alysha.”

Alysha: “Aw thanks Sami, I’m happy to be here. Well, there.”

Sami: “Before we get into it, just update everyone. I know you have fans all over the world. Where are you? How are you doing? Then we’ll kind of get into the nitty-gritty.”

Alysha: “Well you make me sound a lot cooler than I actually probably am. I’m currently in DC. I’ve been here since the start of the season, and all last season just rehabbing. Just getting ready for camp in April, and that’s really about it honestly, there’s not a whole lot going on. I rehab, I workout, I come home, I cook, and repeat.”

Sami: “Yeah, I mean the life of a professional athlete, I get it. Well that’s exciting though. I love hearing you talk about being, or getting ready, I should say, for training camp that’s around the corner. We’ve all definitely missed you in the league, so I’m really excited. But we’ll get to that.” 

Alysha Clark’s welcome to the WNBA

Alysha’s start in the league was rocky: twice she went to training camp but didn’t get signed to the team. That comes with a whole lot of mental baggage. But ultimately, she managed to carve out a role for herself, where there wasn’t clearly one. Here’s how.

Sami: “First though, I just want to dive into you and your story. We’ve talked about this a number of times over the course of our friendship: how we can kind of bond over how it’s been a bit of a struggle carving out a role in this league for ourselves. I think yours is, in particular, incredibly intriguing and inspiring, honestly. Because it’s hard to imagine you not being this incredible defensive stopper. But also just like an integral player in the league.”

“So to me when I first heard that I just couldn’t believe it. So I guess, if you don’t mind, I want to explore how you became this defensive GOAT, because that doesn’t happen overnight. I know you came out of college actually like an offensive weapon. You averaged the most points in the league your senior year – all of those things – that’s incredible. But you’ve really transformed as well now into this defensive mastermind – it’s actually incredible. And I’ve been able to witness what goes into that. But not everybody knows that there’s actually a lot of prep that goes into those kinds of things too.”

“So we’ll start with your journey – the sort of ups and downs of your initial initial seasons in the league, different teams you were on, not finding a role – finding a role, and what led you back to Seattle and into that position where you turned into the stopper that you are now.”

Alysha: “I was drafted in 2010 to San Antonio. You know obviously coming out of college I was a post player. So coming into the league I knew I was going to have to transition into a guard. And so going into camp, Dan [Hughes] was the coach the first year…[And he was] like ‘OK. We’re going to take this time to help you transition into a guard.’ So all camp that’s all they’re doing – teaching me the nuances, helping me learn basketball from a completely new position as an adult, and both years I was cut on the last day of training camp.”

“The first year that I wasn’t ready as a three to play in this league yet. And then the second year, they said they wanted to keep a bigger player. So for me, especially after the first year, that was really tough for me.”

“Because up until that point I’d been able to outwork or learn or work my way into learning something, and that was really the first time that it didn’t work out for me. And so that was a tough pill to swallow.”

“And I’d already had people doubting that I was going to last or make a roster in the league, just because of my position. And nobody’s been able to make that transition. You know Swin Cash is one of them, probably only a couple that have been able to make that transition from and post to a guard. So I knew I had an uphill battle in terms of the actuality of it happening. So after the second time I got cut I went overseas, and just worked on being a guard, like facing the basket. And so I was like ‘I’m going to give it one more chance, if I don’t make it I’m just going to figure out something else to do with my summers and just play overseas.’”

“Third year comes, Noelle Quinn is actually leaving Seattle. Brian Agler and Jenny Boucek come over to Israel to watch me and Camille Little play. Jenny’s from Tennessee, so she’s like I’ve been following you. We would love to have you come to camp – with Quinn there’s an opening for a tweener – and I think you could really fight for that position in camp. So I go to camp in Seattle, you know at the time Allie Quigley was there, so there was essentially only one spot on the roster that was open.”

“At the time, I went in there and I was working hard like I usually do. But a reality came in – like I mean it’s probably going to be Allie. Like let’s be real. They’re not going to take me over Allie. So I was determined to enjoy this moment, enjoy being here again, work really hard and it is what it is. So [Allie] ended up leaving for the Hungarian National team, and she ended up getting two concussions so she was going to be out for the start of the season, and they needed someone for the start of the season. So that was literally why I made the roster. So I was just like ‘Oh wow okay’ – it was just kind of process of elimination. Literally I’m the only person left.” 

The moment Alysha made it

As a player, there are moments of your career that stick with you forever. In this segment, Alysha recaps how one of those first moments went down for her. And funnily enough, Sami shares that she had a similar memory!

“But I’ll never forget going into that office, it was Nancy Darsch and Jenny and Brian and they sat me down…Brian was like ‘You made it, you crossed the finish line, you should be proud of this moment.’ I was elated, I was like ‘Oh my god’, happy, trying to hold back tears. And then in the same breath he was like, ‘But probably around the Olympic break we’re going to make some changes on the roster, and those changes are probably going to be with you. But don’t focus on that right now. We just need you to focus on being able to play all positions 1 through 5. If I need to rest Sue [Bird] or the point guard, we need you to step in and be able to know what to do.’”

“So I went from being happy, to like ‘Whoa,’ spirit kind of crushed, to like ‘Oh God, I’m nervous now. I have to know all these positions, I was just barely learning how to be a guard.’”

Sami: “Let me let me stop you there really fast. How did you handle that then? Was that motivating? Was it ‘Okay I’m just going to make the most of this opportunity, I’m going to make myself sort of like undeniable?’ Or was there a little bit of acceptance of ‘Okay, well if I only have until the Olympic break I’m going to work my hardest – but it is what it is kind of thing’? Like how do you process that in a way that doesn’t prevent you from performing at your best?”

Alysha: “Man I honestly, like in the beginning, it was a little bit defeating. Because it was like you’re here. But you weren’t the one we actually want here. So it’s like trying to block that out and then be present, to be like ‘Oh I’m here’ was really hard. At least the first week I was just kind of in my head about it. But then when I had the vets that I had at the time in Tanisha Wright, Katie Smith, having Sue there, you know all these players to be able to learn from day in and day out. ‘You know what I’m going to make the most of this situation.’ I left, of all people, Tina Thompson [off that list] – you know what I mean, having those vets.”

“I was like ‘OK I’m going to make the most of this situation,’ and I did. But I never unpacked my suitcase.”

“I knew in a matter of a couple months I would be leaving. So I didn’t get comfortable. I don’t even think – I’m trying to remember – I don’t even think I brought Sly [my dog] before the Olympic break. I think I brought Sly after the Olympic break. So yeah it was hard. But once I got through that and allowed myself to feel those feelings, just the veteran presence that we had I was like I’m not going to waste this opportunity. Let me snap back into it. And learn from them. And that’s what I did.”

The journey to becoming an elite defender

While there’s no denying Alysha was born into a big, strong body and athleticism, it takes more than that to lock down elite guards night after night. It turns out one of the key ingredients to her success on the court is challenging teammates pushing her in practice.

Sami: “So how did you – I don’t even know if I actually know this: How did the defensive journey begin? And maybe you’ve always been a hard-nosed defender as well in college, but like you said, you were playing a different position. So it is amazing to me that potentially in college you defended bigs and then now you have to guard Diana Taurasi. And you stop her, you make it really, really hard for her every single night.”

“And I see you do that on every team’s best player. Whether or not they score it is the hardest points of their life, I swear.”

“So I just wonder what’s the evolution of that? Did someone speak to you and say ‘Hey you could make yourself a defensive weapon, and that’ll make you really invaluable.’ or did you just decide this is how I’m going to make myself really invaluable while I’m still trying to figure out how to become sort of an offensive guard in this league. Like what was that, what was that like?”

Alysha: “Well I mean, I’ve always been, like I pride myself on being an intelligent player: you know, being able to have certain instincts both offensively and defensively. And in college, it wasn’t like I was a terrible defender. Like I probably threw the most charges just because of instinct and knowing where to be. But it didn’t have to be like my focal point. I mean I’ve always been a tough player, I feel like I’m a mentally tough, gritty type of player. So when it came to that side of it, I knew I wasn’t going to be kept on the team because I could score. Right? Like the players that we had on the team that year? It’s like OK, I’m not going to be here to score. So I need to find another way.”

“And it was actually Jenny that sat me down, and was like if you can learn from Tanisha and Katie how to be a guard-defender, she’s like you can be an asset to this team. So I was like you know what, okay I’m going to commit to that. So I remember asking the both of them a million questions. And especially T cuz she’s just like, she’s just so tough, man, and so smart. To be able to pick her brain about what it takes to be a good defender. She was like you have to be the dictator on defense, you can’t let the offensive player be the one that dictates how the night or how their game is going to go. And I was like ‘How do you do that!?’”

“So just watching her in practice, going against her in practice. And she would talk to me: ‘You see how I’m doing this? You see how I’m into your hip?’ And even Katie Smith teaching me how to guard…I had never done these things. She’s like this is what you need to do, how you get through [screens]. So once I started to commit to the defensive end and really started to understand the nuances of it I was like ‘This is fun!’ And I knew that was the only way I was going to bring value to the team at that time. Every day in practice I made it my mission to help my teammates be better, and make them have to work. So that way when they got into games they were ready. That was honestly my mindset the first two years. Be the best practice player there is so that way, when they get on the floor they’re ready to play against our opponents.”

Film review to use tendencies to frustrate top players

Up next, Sami digs into how Alysha incorporates film review into her preparation for games. It turns out it all began the year that Alysha coached, because she had to get more familiar with preparing and reviewing scouting reports. Since then, she’s become fanatical about it – getting into the details of knowing each players’ tendencies, and even back-up tendencies.

Sami: “We spoke about this when we were teammates in Seattle. You actually would send me some of the stuff that you would use. Which I found so interesting. But also really, really helpful even if I was just going to be on some of these amazing players for a possession or two or a couple of minutes, it was really helpful. Can you talk about the film you would watch and what you’re looking for when you’re watching? Because I know that’s a big part of your prep and your studying in terms of defense.”

“But you also always had – I hope I’m not telling any secrets – you also had all their shot chart percentages, their preferences, sent to you in a very mathematical scientific way almost. It very much broke down the very little things they did, the nuances of their game: they wanted to go right here, but if they were dribbling they would go left, but only for a pull up, and then you know just all of those things. How did you implement that? What did you focus on? Were there things you didn’t really pay too much attention to, things that you did, like what was that kind of process for you?”

Alysha: “Yeah so honestly the way I started breaking down film and watching the defense and stuff was the year that I coached in 2013. I had reached out to Jenny and was like ‘Hey how do you break down game film to where it doesn’t take the entire two-and-a-half hours?’ like ‘What are some keys? What am I looking for?’”

“So she sent me how to do that. So that year that I coached at my alma mater, as I’m preparing my scouts for the team is when I really learned how to start scouting other teams and players. So when I came back to the league that following year – 2014 – that’s when I really started to study.”

“So I would have our video coordinator send specific games or a specific collection of clips of their tendencies. So as I’m watching film, I watch for tendencies. Because yeah the statistical part of it – Jenny’s the one who introduced that to me…So she was like some people can’t handle this load of information, but I feel like you’re a person who can. So she started sending me little stuff before games. So I took that and upgraded it. Like okay, let’s break it down to where I know what a player wants to do on the left side of the floor. I know what the player wants to do in transition. And I know their tendencies in those positions.” 

“And obviously it’s basketball, I’m guarding the best players in the world so it’s not like I’m going to stop them. But if I can make them go to their B and C options, and make that tough, then I’m doing my job for the night. So I want to know what players are doing before they even know what they’re going to do. And it’s a bit obsessive.”

Sami: “I know, for sure. But speaking from experience, when we would defend each other and stuff, I know I’m not the players you’re used to defending in the league. But when we do defend each other overseas it is different. Because I’m more of an offensive threat on those teams. And I just found you always seem to know what I wanted to do as well. Intuitively I felt you knew where I was trying to get to. So I always did feel like OK, I can try option A, but I am going to have to always be ready to counter with something else. I think offensively, when you know that about the defensive player, you know that they are just going to take away option A, it’s very frustrating.”

“I do find that – I think that’s like the best way to describe you. When I watch you as a defensive player, I see how people react to you. You are frustrating! And I think it is such a compliment really. Like that’s how I mean it.”

“But I just was always so impressed at how, no matter who it was and you’d have to guard, such a wide variety: an Angel McCoughtry and then Diana Taurasi. Both of whom are phenomenal players, but quite different in their skill-set in what they prefer to do and where they kind of get their looks and what their spots are. And to see – even just within one game – you go from like a Kristi-Toliver-type player to then guarding a bigger player that maybe wants to post up a little bit more or get in the mid-range more.“

“And kind of do it – I mean to me, I know it’s not effortless for you – but it looks fluid. It looks effortless. I just found that so interesting. But I think what people don’t understand is that there is so much prep that goes into it beforehand, that I just wanted to highlight that. Because I feel like that probably goes under the radar and people just think ‘Oh she works hard, she’s athletic, she’s a big strong body, that’s just her gift.’ And I mean to some degree, sure. But I think it’s also been something that you really had to just like improve on and work on and sharpen and hone in on every single year and it’s actually pretty incredible so.”

Practice as the best preparation reveals Sami Whitcomb’s podcast

Alysha: “Yeah, thank you. And let’s not downplay the fact that I hated guarding you overseas…Obviously your skill set is insane.”

“It was always funny to me, especially this last year when I was just a fan and being able to watch games, hearing the announcers or people be like ‘Oh wow, look at Sami do this.’ I’m like y’all is late man, she’s been doing this! She’s been busting people’s ass like this overseas.” 

“You were the most frustrating person, especially in practices and stuff, when I was like OK I know Jewell [Loyd] needs her legs for tomorrow. I’ll take Sami today – lord have mercy!”

“People don’t understand: having players like you on the roster, you are just so talented offensively, and having to go against that every single day in practice also helps sharpen my defensive skill set. Because of having to guard players like you that are super athletic, can shoot really well, can pull up off the dribble – like three-level players. And it’s just that people underestimate being able to go against players like that every single day in practice.”

“It honestly helped, because if I wasn’t going against you, I was going against Jewell. If I wasn’t going against Jewell, I was went against Kaleena [Mosqueda-Lewis]. And when Kaleena was on the team it was just me and her because she was so freaking strong. So just that array. It helped prep me for games when I am going from a DT to a Kristi Toliver to a Napheesa Collier – a bigger post guard. It seems effortless but I was also getting that help every day in practice.”

Sami: “I mean it’s just funny hearing how much crossover there is for our stories. Like the fact that even main characters like Jenny and Dan are so involved in our stories, Sue’s involved in both of our stories. Talk about having incredible vets like I just can’t believe that I came on to a team in Seattle that had Sue, Stewie, Jewell, you, and that’s just like you know you know we had Langhorne you know like we had Crystal Langhorne on the team…across the board really, it still blows my mind.”

“So hearing you talk about that. But then hearing you talk about just trying to find how you were going to contribute, how you were going to make yourself valuable. And for me that’s what it was like. I didn’t know the minutes I was going to get, or the role that I was going to have game-to-game necessarily. Throughout the course of that first season. Even into that second season a bit because obviously it was a new coach. But I just wanted to make sure that I wasn’t letting you guys down in practice. That I was making sure that I was making it competitive for you guys. Because that was the prep. Honestly that was what was going to get you guys ready to face these other players.”

“So I was like you know I’m not going to stop Jewell, but I just want to make it as hard as I possibly can for her. So when she gets into a game she’s just feeling like she prepared for that. And then obviously defensively for you guys as well, I want to make sure that I’m doing my best offensively to challenge you guys, so you’re not getting any game thinking like ‘Oh my God this is so hard. You wanted to feel sort like a little bit of a “Whew, OK I don’t have to chase Sami around at least. So yeah, it’s funny to hear a little bit of like just that crossover of people’s stories and even you saying you remember being in that room with the coaches being told you made it. I can still vividly remember when Jenny told me in that room. Like it’s just funny how there are moments that you’ll always remember as a player, and that’s for sure always going to be one that we’ll remember.”

Free agency freeing players from comfort

After that, Sami and Alysha turned to free agency. They dive into what they consider when evaluating the next steps in their career. They reveal how it’s not just about the money, or loving their co-workers: It’s about pushing through complacency and finding new ways to grow.

Sami: “Alright well I want to change topics a little and move into where you are now. I think obviously there’s a lot that we’re not covering in between what we just spoke on and where you are now. But I think I really want to do a little bit of a deep dive so to speak into free agency and what that experience is like for players. Obviously we can only speak from our perspectives.”

“I know sometimes I’ll read articles or comments or whatever when I’m bored and you hear fans or whoever speculate on certain things and it always makes me think how they just don’t know the process. They don’t understand what’s happening or like what’s going on. And fair enough, there’s no reason for them to necessarily know the ins and outs. But I do think that there’s probably a lot of interest in the process of it for players, what they’re thinking about, what’s important to them, what their reasons are going in what they are looking for.”

“So I guess I thought we could both kind of speak to why we were in the position we were in after you know how many years were both in Seattle, winning a couple of Championships, what it was for each of us that was enticing to decide ‘OK, we’re ready for a new challenge’ you know we’re ready for this next kind of step in our careers, and what drew us away, I guess. So I want to start with you and what you’re comfortable with talking about in terms of that experience for you.”

Alysha: “Well this was my first real free agency. Cuz at any other time, I basically signed year to year, until I got my first two years. I signed, and then I signed an extension. And in those years it was kind of like – I’m not going to say nobody else was interested – but I didn’t really have value in the league anywhere else, kind of outside of Seattle. So it was always a no-brainer. It was like ‘No I want to be here.” I felt like at the time during those other years I was quote on quote with a free agent, there was still so much more room for me to grow. So I was like ‘Oh, you know, OK.’ I’m a creature of habit, I’m a creature of comfort.”

“So it was just like ‘No this is where I want to be, where I want to stay’ and I don’t want to jeopardize something good that I have here, for a potential let down somewhere else…It was like a no-brainer. I was like I have a lot more room to grow here, I’m going to keep growing here. So that’s what I did and that’s what I chose, and I’m so happy I did because it put me in a position where after the 2020 season I now actually got to experience free agency for the first time.”

“And honestly, when I was going through the process, when I was initially approached in the process, I wasn’t planning on leaving. You know what I mean? I just wanted to pay respect to actually having a free agency, go through the process, and just be able to bring some little nuggets back and be like ‘OK, hey how about this? Why don’t we work and progress in this way, blah, blah, blah.’”

“And so having these conversations, going throughout it, hearing what these other GMs, other coaches, thought of me and thought of my potential I was like ‘Wow, huh, okay.’  That really started kind of making me think.”

“And I’ll never forget on one of the calls they were like ‘It doesn’t matter what we all think. We all think you’re an incredible player. We all want you as part of our organization. We all think you’re an incredible person. But what do you want?’ And when that question was posed to me I was like ‘Okay well’ and I sat there, and after I got off the phone I was like I guess I’ve never really sat back and thought about what I personally want out of my career.”

Sami: “Which is crazy.”

Setting personal goals and shattering ceilings

Alysha: “I just kind of went with whatever was right, and whatever made everyone else happy and comfortable. And I was for it. And at the time it was great, cuz that’s what I was enjoying; that was what made me happy. But then I never really stopped to think, how some of these other players get to do like, ‘In my career I want XYZ’ – I’ve never done that. I’ve never set a personal goal. I’ve never set those types of things in my career in the WNBA.”

“Overseas [I did]. But in the WNBA I never did. Because I was like ‘Oh it’s not going to be a reality. So there’s no point to do it and be disappointed.’ Until the 2020 season, I made my first personal goal. I set a personal goal of being Defensive Player of the Year. I was like I’m more than capable of making that happen. I’m more than capable of being in the running and talk for that. So that was the first time in my entire career that I set a personal goal.”

Sami: “And you were that year. Let me just put that out there.”

Alysha: “So I did that and I sat back and I said ‘Okay what does Alysha want?’ Not ‘What does Alysha want that’s going to make so-and-so happy, that’s going to make so-and-so feel good?’ Job less hectic? What do you want?”

“And when I did that, I realized I’m choosing to be comfortable.”

“The things I said I wanted to do off the court to set up life after basketball were being put on the back burner. And I was like, I’ve been saying I want to do these things and I haven’t done them. And that is honestly like what it was. I was like I need to get out of my comfort zone.”

“I need to take a bet on myself. And if I fail alright cool but at least I made the decision for myself. But if I succeed, cool because I made a decision for myself – and that was hard.”

Sami: “It’s so interesting to hear you say that because in my opinion we’re very much in different categories in terms of caliber of player in this league. And I feel like the words you’re using in the thought process you had was very, very in alignment with mine. So the word comfort that you said. Like that was it for me…I remember just the shock of probably even more for people to hear that you were leaving cuz I’m sure they were thinking ‘Oh she’s a starter. She has such an amazing role on this team…Why would she leave?’ And you know, same for me now like, ‘What’s Sammy going to do? She has this great role for herself there, they’ve won Championships, she’s playing with these players. Why would you leave?’” 

“I think people assume it’s ‘Oh they’re unhappy there.’ It wasn’t even that like, I think we were both truly happy, we loved our team, we loved the organization, we love the city of Seattle. It was so fulfilling in the time that we were there. But you use that word comfort and I think for me it’s always been about trying to realize my potential, whatever that looks like. Like you said if you fail you fail, but you tried at least. You put yourself out there.”

“You stepped out of your comfort zone. That is such a cliche but it’s the only way that you’re able to kind of see how great you can be. Or what your ceiling is.”

“And I think even for someone as great as you, like you wanted to experience that. You wanted to continue to explore how good you could be, and in what areas you could continue to improve and evolve in. And that was much the same for me. It was like ‘All right, well I know lots of people think that that’s probably the best I can do in terms of a role. But let’s see. Let’s see if I can play a little bit more, have a little bit larger of a role. Be a leader on a team, whatever.’ And that’s really what it comes down to. It’s not as simple as that, because there’s so much emotion involved. It’s so, so hard when you are comfortable somewhere and when you do really love the people and who you’ve been doing this with.”

“But ultimately, I think for me – and I assume it was similar for you – I just felt like if I didn’t do that decision then, I think I would have always looked back and I would have always wondered. I would have always had maybe a little bit of just regret that I didn’t just have the courage to kind of like you said bet on yourself. And again, I could live with it not working out. But the not knowing, would probably always, I think as a competitor – would always eat away at you a little bit.”

“So I think it’s not easy and I know it’s not always what people want to hear. They think it must be this contentious ‘She didn’t get what she wanted. They weren’t looking after them or whatever it was.’”

“But sometimes it’s just as simple as you just need that next opportunity to grow, you need that next challenge. And I think as competitors and athletes I mean that’s a real thing that’s a real craving. That’s a real itch we have to scratch in order to be elite I think. It’s what sets players like you apart.”

“So yeah, I just found that really interesting and I wanted to know what your experience was, in terms of similarities with mine, and obviously we had talked along the way. And I remember just being so excited for you that you were able to finally enjoy this process and this experience. Where you did feel like people were valuing you, and you didn’t feel like you had to maybe just not that you didn’t want to stay in Seattle, but that you didn’t have options to really feel like okay if I do want to go somewhere else I can. So it was exciting, from my perspective, to see that you were getting at least the attention and love that you deserve. It was a long time coming.”

Overcoming the grind and doubt of injury

Because 2021 was the first time Alysha missed a WNBA season due to injury, Sami explores how that impacted her mentally. Injuries and hoops go together like peanut butter and jelly unfortunately. But the timing of this particular setback really got to Alysha. What we loved to hear about was way Alysha proactively managed her recovery, how she used it to unlock new skills, and how much she’s missed the game. We can’t wait to see her back out there!

Sami: “…I just wanted to dive into your rehab. I know over the course of being your teammate you’ve never been healthy. I would say in terms of like you’re always carrying something. Just because of the way you play – you play so tough, heavy minutes the load that you have, particularly because you do play overseas as well – is insane. And so I feel not that you’ve always been injured, but you’ve definitely always kind of carried something I feel like. But you’ve always just played through it. You’ve always been able to just do that…In terms of since I’ve known you, not actually being able to really play long-term this is the first the first time. That’s kept you out a whole season. So what has that been like for you? Obviously there’s been disappointment. But talk about how you kind of push past that. You’re in a new environment now with it. What’s your mind state at now? How was it when you got going?”

Alysha: “I mean yeah there’s always been like something nagging you know. Whether it was a tear in my hamstring in the 2018 season, a partial tear again – it was always something. But I’m the type where if it doesn’t inhibit me from being able to move and play the way I want to play, then I’m fine. So this is honestly the first time in my career as a professional that I’ve been out an entire season. So while it’s like it’s a huge blessing in disguise, because I’ve been able to play so long without having to miss an entire season due to injury, it’s still like, well this is a sucky time because I’m 34. I felt like I was playing some of my best basketball. And I’m not getting any younger. So there’s that part of this like, ‘Oh gosh am I going to come back and be OK? Am I going to be the same? Am I going to be better?’”

“In the beginning, honestly, like if I’m being a hundred percent transparent, like I thought I was going to drown in the beginning. Because there was so much pain happening at one time and like I said I’m a creature of habit, I’m a creature of comfort.”

“So me making the decision to leave Seattle was already like one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make both emotionally and mentally. But now on top of that I’m dealing with a first time injury after how it all happened. That was draining in itself. And then to be in a new situation and not be tight with anyone. I didn’t have my people. For so long in my career I’ve had my people. I’ve been able to feel that level of comfort with my teammates. So it was all so different.”

“And in the beginning it was really, really hard. I didn’t know if I was going to make it through. I was like this is tough. I was alone. I’ve been alone throughout the majority of this process. And that’s really tough. Just to be the person that has to encourage you; the person to push you; the person to give you pep talks; the person to motivate you to get up everyday to do these things; the person to comfort yourself when you’re feeling down. It was hard. So I’ve gotten to the point now where I agitated and pushed to get a team around me to just help. I remember the first time I was going to the PT I’m working with now. Man it’s so nice just to have an appointment to go somewhere to work with someone and not have to do this myself.”

“And it’s been hard, it’s a lot deeper, but I’ll spare you. I’m at the point now where I’m turning a corner. I have 88 days until camp starts. And every day that I’m doing stuff, I have a countdown on my fridge.”

“Because this time off has given me a chance to miss the game. It’s given me time to work on things I’ve never done before.”

“Something as simple as passing. Working on different passing angles and how to read where to make passes; how to get different passes off. I’ve never had time to be able to work on that. So to be able to see that growth from the first time I started working on that to now ‘I’m like wow. I’ve gotten so much better.’’

Sami: “That is the one thing I’ve always heard people say when they’ve gotten an injury or something that sidelines them for an extended period of time…There’s always something they’re able to add that they’re really grateful for, and they feel like you know not necessarily that it happened for a reason, but that they’re able to have a bit more of an optimistic and positive outlook. So I’m happy to hear you say that. So you said you’ve got your countdown for your training camp. Will you be at training camp ready to go? Is that part of your countdown as well for that? Or are you not sure in terms of that stuff? Are you ready to go now if training camp started? Are you allowed to say one way or another?”

Alysha: “If training camp started today I would not be ready to go. But that is the goal, to be ready for training camp. My goal is to be feeling great, ready to go for the start of the season which is a very realistic possibility. Well, not a possibility, it’s going to be. This process has been so long for me. My injury happened on March 5.”

Sami: “But I will say, you got to miss basketball. But when’s the last time you’ve done a full WNBA camp, and looked forward to doing a full WNBA camp? Camps are not always, ‘Oh, yeah awesome – 3 weeks of double days!’ It’s not something you always look forward to. But I love that you’re just like yes 88 days – we in there – I got training camp! Like I’m 34, but I want this training camp! I love that cuz I know for me, I’m like ‘Oh man, training camp. Okay let me come in for the second half cuz this is not my time to shine.’”

Alysha: “Yeah the last time probably was 2014 for me, and that was the year that I coached. And that was the last time I’ve been home early enough to do it. For me, I know it’s a time where – you know between now and then I’m going to play, and be able to play pick up and stuff – but it’s going to be the first time where I get to get back into the routine of it. I’m at the place now where I’ve started running. So you know my foot feels good, my foot is strong. But like the rest of my body was like ‘Hold up! What are you doing?! We have been on vacation.” My joints are like ‘Homegirl, what is happening!?’ So you know just getting back to that acclimation period for the rest of my body. I’m just happy to be in a space now where I’m getting closer to going full in workouts now. I shot threes for the first time the other day and I was like ‘Alright we’re not too bad.’ I didn’t air ball so I was like cool. I only made 10 but still.”

Spotlight on skill development with Sue Bird on Sami Whitcomb’s podcast

Then Sami welcomed a special guest: the great Sue Bird. Sue dishes on why she thinks Alysha is the perfect template of a backcourt player. And shares how she thinks her game differs from other guards. Plus, how she thinks about picking up new skills. Before the gals rag on Sami for a one-of-a-kind Eurostep performance.

Sami: “It is the great Sue Bird from the Seattle Storm. So thank you, Sue, for being here…So this is so exciting, two of my favorites on the call, thank you guys so much. You guys can’t see this but Megan [Rapinoe]’s actually in the background as well pumping up Sue. So that’s also very special. Don’t want to take up too much of your time. We’ve been chatting to AC for the last like 45 minutes or so, just kind of about, and I think Sue you’d be able to speak to this as well  – but we’ll jump onto like your kind of side of it – the evolution of her game throughout the course of like the WNBA. It’s been pretty spectacular.”

“But I guess a bit of like juxtaposition in like I mean for me at least as a fan of both of you guys, you come in Sue, I mean for my for my money you’ve been GOAT the whole time you’ve always just been this amazing point guard, this amazing player. Whereas AC comes in, has to change kind of positions, and what she’s going to do from a post to a guard, gets cut, blah blah blah, has to become this just elite defensive stopper. So I feel like there’s a lot of growth in her game. I’m curious what do you feel like for you, like where has your game grown over the course of you know two decades in the league? I know you would probably be a bit more critical of yourself, but are there ways in which you feel like – each year did you goal set? Where has your game grown from, what’s it becoming, you know?

Sue: “I thought I was talking about AC!”

Sami: “Well, you can. But I also want you to talk about yours.”

Sue: “This is what I’ll say about AC…Because I’m sure you guys covered her growth. Obviously I saw AC when she first came to the Storm, and just her kind of going through that. So how I would sum it up is, when I talk to anyone from a friend of mine who’s a college coach who’s now kind of having to help develop guards, or whether I talk to people in the WNBA as they’re going through free agency. Nobody’s perfect. But AC is the perfect template of what you want in your backcourt. All of these things she can do.”

“And the one thing I do always say, and I’m not joking, but it’s kind of funny: AC is legit the best post player in the WNBA. I’m not even joking.”

“So we can talk about her three-point efficiency and how that has just gone through the roof with your hard work. All the things you’ve added in your mid-range – you always had that little ‘Boop!’ floater that Megan likes to imitate so well. You had to go from post to guard, so you’re getting better with your ball handling. I mean I could still to this day get better with my ball handling – that’s always a freaking journey. And then the defensive part. I remember that was something you would talk to Tanisha about, and you watched film, and all these things. But then you add that you’re dominant on the block. What about our eye contact – anytime anyone remotely who I knew AC would just get buckets on, we would look at each other like ‘Elbow 3?’ Yup. Game over. Get this person out of the game. You just became this person that nobody can hide a defender on, have to guard you all these ways, and then you’re locking down the other side. So to me it’s just this template that if you could design the perfect player it’d have all those things.” 

“As far as myself in the last couple years, like through time I am who I am. I kind of came to accept it. I will say basketball is different now. When I was growing up you played 1:1 you had 3 dribbles max. And now I think the game is different. So if I was answering this question at 25, I might be like ‘Oh I want to add X, Y, and Z, dribble this, awesome, blah, blah, blah.’ But you know what I think happened to me was: I just knew what I was good at. I identified that, and especially in the last 5 or 6 years – I’m just going to take those things and keep getting better and better and better. And if I can add one little thing, great. So a couple years ago that one thing I added, I was trying to do those off foot layups more. I would get a couple in a game and I’d be like ‘What, what!’ But for me, an additional five layups is adding something to my game.”

“So more so the focus has been, this is what you do well, now just be great at those things.”

Sami: “Just speaking of adding random things to your game. Do you guys remember when I tried the Eurostep in the bubble, and I got blocked by Katie Lou? And I looked over at the bench and you and Stewie [Breanna Stewart] were doing the Euro over on the bench.”

Sue: “The best part about it was, you know Sami plays at a ludicrous speed out there. The speed is just – I mean AC have you guys talked about having to guard Sami in practice? It’s like ‘Oh, f*cking hell!’ It’s a nightmare. But then all of a sudden, she hits the Euro and it was like slow motion. Usually it’s 0 to 100. But it was like 100 to 0. We were like what?”

Sami: “It did not go well. But yes, I feel you on that…I wanted to also talk about Russia and overseas. Like AC and I kind of talked about overseas for us a little bit. But how did that help in terms of developing your game? Did it help? Did you go over there thinking I’m going to like work on stuff, or did you go over to thinking like I’m going to hoop, I’m going to live over here I’mma get paid and I’mma go back? What was your mentality?”

Sue: “No, for me, going overseas was always – so I think what’s always unique about me and my game is I’m a point guard and I only play well when the team plays well – I’m not the person like, ‘Go out there and ball out, go average 20.’ Nah. That’s not how this works. The balling out and the big numbers, that happens when the team is [playing well]. So when I would go overseas it was very similar. I was just trying to win, and trying to play my role in that part. And were there some teams I was on where I had to do more, or I had to do less – absolutely. But it was never about going over there and trying to like [ball out] – I mean I was in the gym, I was shooting and all those types of things. And I was lucky to play on really good teams where we were always competing for EuroLeague and that was the important part. So it was always just eyes on the prize.”

Sami: “I guess that’s where it’s different for at least someone like me. I go over there and I get to kind of be a different player. Or I guess the player I think I am.”

Alysha: “I’mma ball out on these hoes!”

Sami: “Yes, that’s exactly what I say in my head. But yeah it’s a little bit of a different experience. Because I am trying to be that player and do those things. And then I’m trying, when I come back to the WNBA, to figure out how I can incorporate some of those things. But not in a way that’s like ‘OK, take a chill pill.’”

Sue: “I think I’m unique in that way. But what I do think overseas does really well for players is you’re just in that game mode. So when you do come back, you’re like ‘Oh I just played a game 5.’ There’s probably bonus money on it. So I know what pressure is.’ You’re kind of just in that mode. That’s what I miss about overseas now that I don’t go. You have to find ways. You’re not going to get that in pick up.”

Alysha agreed. “I’m dying. The same routine! I’m like if I have to – I was like I can’t do this today. If I have to go back down here and see this Peloton today. I can’t do it!”

Speaking of working out off the court, Sue sent Sami and a bike in the Wubble. You can listen to the pod to find out what happened ahead of Game 1 of the 2020 Playoffs. “I don’t think the world knows exactly what happened in those 48 hours.” said Sue.

The return of the Seattle guard GOAT

While Sami got scooped, because Sue’s return announcement already aired (on her own IG), Sami digs into Sue’s thought process behind making the decision. It turns out fans might be able to give themselves some credit. And the gals try to convince Sue one more year isn’t nearly long enough.

Sami: “OK so last thing I want to talk about. I briefly said this to you, Sue, when I was texting you. Obviously I got scooped on you deciding to announce that you were going to come back. It’s fine. Timing just didn’t work out. I think it’s probably pretty obvious to most people maybe the things that go into you deciding if you do want to if you don’t want to. But I guess if you don’t mind just talking a little bit about your process, and kind of the main things that led you to deciding that you were back.”

Alysha: “She has two more years.”

Sami: “She’s obviously not stopping at year 19.”

Alysha: “She would never. And we won’t allow it.”

Sue: “…As you guys know, when you were here, every year I’d be like I’m on the one year plan. If I feel good in the off season, yeah I’m coming back. Interesting enough as those words were coming out of my mouth the plan was always to come back. It was just like if something derails this. And I think what was different this time was as I entered the season, as the season was going, I was finally starting to have actual thoughts of retiring. Which is the first time that’s ever really happened. So as the season ended, I was honestly saying like yeah for the first time I’m really going to have to think about this. I’m not just going to be like ‘One year plan. My plan is come back unless something happens.’”

“So I was genuinely planning on thinking about it, and then those fans just got to chanting, and in like a blink of an eye things really changed.”

“I remember the 24-48 hours after the season was over, when I was driving home…by myself that was the first time I got emotional. I was boohooing the whole way home like ‘Dang is that it? Oh my god.’ But then it was either the next morning, or the morning after that, and I kinda woke up thinking about fans chanting and all that stuff. And even as quickly as that, I was like, ‘I’m pretty sure I’m going to come back.’”

“I told Susan let’s plan for that. But I also was going to give myself these couple months to make sure it wasn’t the emotion of that. And then after a couple months, I started working out and was feeling pretty good. And that’s when I was like ‘OK, I’m ready to do this.’ There were definitely conversations with different people and that whole thing. But I think in my gut, like I said, a couple days later I already knew. You know how like, what is it that one book, Blink or whatever, where you kinda know – it was kind of like that. Right from the jump I pretty much knew, I wasn’t ready to say it but I kinda knew, even after crying on the way home thinking this might be it. So that’s kind of the gist.”

Sami: “I don’t know if you’re still in that mindset of one more year. Is this your farewell tour? Are you saying this is your last year? Or are you saying I’m coming back for one more?” 

Sue: “Yeah, no, great question. I haven’t really said that decisively, just yet. But it pretty much probably is.”

Alysha: “Owww.”

Sami: “You heard it here first…But actually no, because I don’t accept that.”

Sue: “So you’ll cut this part out? Great.”

Sami: “Yes.”

On a show full of honest discussion about the life of some of the top players in the game today, that’s the only lie that was told!

Takeaways from Sami Whitcomb’s podcast

A couple key insights that jumped out to us from the pod are:

  • The best players learn from other players. Be sure to seek out advice from great players around you, and listen and watch.
  • Even pro players are always improving! Sami works on her offensive-threat game overseas. Sue said her handles can always get better. Alysha added handles to her package.
  • When it comes to overcoming an injury, both Alysha Clark and Kelsey Plum paid a lot of attention to their timelines. Set a timeline and stick to it. Also use that timeline to add consistent structure/routine, and find ways to incorporate other people who can help hold your accountable, because recovery is very isolating.
  • Watch film – for the defensive side, too! Learn your opponents’ tendencies.
  • Bet on yourself! And take on new challenges. You know what you can live with, and through.
  • Stay prepared, and you’ll be ready when the luck hits.
  • Free agency is about more than just the money and winning. Similar to any job it’s also about whether you’re being challenged and growing, whether you enjoy the work and your colleagues.
  • Practice players can really heighten performance from their teammates. Take every role you’re given seriously!

Listen to Sami Whitcomb’s podcast: Learning from Legends

The squad continues their banter from there, so listen to find out what Sue thinks about Climate Change Arena, and what’s different about the fabulous new stadium. Now that you know all about skills development, the isolation of rehab, the thought process behind free agency moves and more, catch the latest free agency rumors swirling.

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