Looking ahead to the 2018 WNBA season, no player is harder to project than Sami Whitcomb.
Expectations were so low for Whitcomb in her rookie season that it wasn’t even clear whether she’d make the Storm’s final roster.
“It was very much come to training camp and show us what you have and we’ll go from there,” she said last May, per the Seattle Times‘ Percy Allen. “That was as much as I could ask for, and I’m thrilled just for that chance.”
Whitcomb proved to be a useful role player for Seattle and was a pleasant surprise in a year largely devoid of them. She averaged 4.5 points per game and shot 33.3 percent from beyond the arc.
She also held her own on the defensive end, surrendering 0.814 points per possession, good enough to be in the 74th percentile in the WNBA. That often got overlooked with everybody focusing on her shooting. Whitcomb was a dogged defender, especially when fighting through picks and reacting to the pick and roll. Against second units, she was a real asset on defense.
Whitcomb’s biggest performance came in what was arguably the Storm’s most enjoyable game of the 2017 season. She scored 22 points off the bench and made six three-pointers in an 87-81 win over the New York Libery on May 26. And on a personal level, nothing tops her reaction to hitting a three-pointer to put Seattle ahead 85-81 with 56 seconds remaining.
I can only describe this as that time when your friends tell you they went to your favorite pizza place without you but then say they brought back leftovers that are all yours.
To some extent, the Liberty game proved to be a double-edged sword for Whitcomb. Between that and the Storm’s 94-70 win over the Indiana Fever two days later, when Whitcomb was 3-of-4 from beyond the arc, the secret was quickly out about her long-range prowess.
Take, for instance, how much space Whitcomb is afforded just before she nails her first three against the Liberty. New York’s focus is firmly on stopping Breanna Stewart inside, so it isn’t concerned with putting a body on Whitcomb.
Later in the game, Sugar Rodgers didn’t track Whitcomb during a cut along the baseline and instead looked to guard Crystal Langhorne. It’s probably fair to say Rodgers doesn’t have that mix-up with Tina Charles if Whitcomb had been a focus of the Liberty’s defensive game plan.
Fast forward to June 11, when Whitcomb went 1-of-4 on three-pointers in a 94-86 loss to the Liberty. On her second attempt early in the second quarter, Rodgers had moved to help on a Stewart drive but made sure not to drift too far from Whitcomb. It wasn’t great defense but enough to make Whitcomb miss.
In the fourth quarter, Rebecca Allen fought through a Stewart screen and disrupted Whitcomb’s shot—a far cry from Allen’s defending in that first game.
Consider the fact Whitcomb was a combined 9-of-12 on three-pointers between the victories over the Liberty and Fever. Now, consider she went 25-of-90 over her remaining 31 regular-season appearances.
A 27.8 percent clip from the perimeter is bad enough on its own; it’s even worse when Whitcomb’s offensive value was tied almost exclusively to her three-point shooting. Three-pointers represented 76.7 percent of her total field-goal attempts.
And as much as Whitcomb gained a reputation as a sharpshooter, she struggled in two key areas: spot-up and catch-and-shoot situations. According to Synergy Sports, she made just 12 of her 38 attempts when shooting the ball without taking a dribble. She was also 21-of-70 on catch and shoots, including 8-of-34 when she was unguarded.
There could be a few explanations for Whitcomb’s massive regression.
As noted already, opposing teams started respecting her after she went off against the Liberty. Coaches didn’t have to build their entire defensive scheme around stopping Whitcomb, but they knew their team at least couldn’t give her too much space off the ball or fail to follow her through screens.
General fatigue may have been an issue for Whitcomb as well. The 2016-17 WNBL season for the Perth Lynx began Oct. 7, 2016, and ran through March 5, 2017, when the Lynx fell to the Dandenong Rangers in the semifinals. Whitcomb played 37 minutes in that game, and according to Australiabasket.com, she averaged 32.1 minutes per game.
A little more than two months after the WNBL season wrapped up, Whitcomb was on the court for the Storm embarking on her first year in the WNBA. It wouldn’t be all that surprising if she simply ran out of gas, especially the deeper into the season she got.
The apparent lack of faith former head coach Jenny Boucek had in her bench players didn’t help Whitcomb, either. Especially when things started turning against Boucek in the middle of the year, she leaned even harder on her starters, at the expense of the team’s depth. Never was that more apparent than in Seattle’s 84-71 loss to the Connecticut Sun last August.
In what proved to be Boucek’s final game, the Sun outscored the Storm 33-9 in the fourth quarter. As Connecticut was blitzing Seattle, Boucek made four substitutions in the final 10 minutes. Two of the substitutions came inside the final minute, when the result was all but decided. Whitcomb played a total of four minutes in that game.
Looking ahead to 2018, at least one of those issues should be resolved. The 2017-18 season wrapped up for Perth in January, which leaves Whitcomb a lot more time to recover and prepare for the upcoming WNBA campaign.
Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess as to how Whitcomb will fare in Year 2.
Going back to his time with the San Antonio Stars, Dan Hughes at least showed with Shameka Christon he’s willing to fit a three-point specialist into his rotation. Coming off a knee injury that wiped out her entire 2011 season, Christon altered her offensive game and largely stayed on the perimeter. Of her 606 total field-goal attempts, nearly 65.2 percent were three-pointers.
Christon averaged 20-plus minutes per game in San Antonio in 2012 and 2013 before her minutes were cut in half in 2014. Still, she scored a little over 7.7 points per game in those first two years with the Stars.
Getting that kind of production from Whitcomb would be a nice return off the bench.
Generally speaking, Hughes put an emphasis on three-point shooting in his 11 years with the Stars. In four of those 11 seasons, San Antonio ranked inside the top two in the WNBA in three-point attempts, and the team was in the top three on six occasions. Although the Stars were ninth and eighth in Hughes’ final two years, that was likely due to his personnel and not any sort of shift in his approach.
That, too, provides a positive indicator for Whitcomb in 2018.
Ultimately, Hughes and the Storm coaching staff can only do so much to set Whitcomb up for success. Her poor shooting from last June and beyond is concerning, as are her underwhelming percentages on spot-up and catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Storm fans want to believe the version of Whitcomb from the Liberty and Fever victories is what the team will get in 2018, but the Whitcomb who couldn’t hit 30 percent of her three-pointers after those two games may be closer to the player she actually is.
Seattle’s season won’t hinge on Whitcomb’s contributions, but it’s a major luxury to have a player who can come off the bench, get hot and almost single-handedly swing the outcome of a game. And for a Storm team unlikely to make many offseason upgrades, it’s imperative Hughes gets more out of the role players who were largely anonymous under Boucek.