When it comes to the Seattle Storm’s WNBA championship hopes in 2022, one former UConn player could hold all of the cards—just not the one you’re thinking of.
There’s no question that re-signing Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart was imperative for Seattle to remain a title threat this offseason. But maintaining the status quo probably wasn’t going to cut it for the Storm to improve upon a fourth-place finish in 2021.
That’s why general manager Talisa Rhea sent Katie Lou Samuelson and the No. 9 overall pick in the 2022 draft to the Los Angeles Sparks for Gabby Williams.
“Gabby is a versatile player that brings a dynamic skill set to our team,” Rhea said in February at the time of the deal. “As we have watched her develop in the WNBA and excel internationally we are thrilled she will be joining us in Seattle and believe she can have immediate impact on our roster.”
Samuelson played well enough in what proved to be her only season in Seattle. According to Basketball Reference, she averaged 17.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per 100 possessions and shot 35.1 percent from beyond the arc. The 24-year-old held her own on defense, too. She boasted a 96.8 defensive rating, per WNBA.com, and allowed 0.859 points per possession, putting her in the 60th percentile at Synergy Sports.
While Samuelson didn’t prove to be a hidden gem or a significanty undervalued asset, she performed better than she had through her first two years in the league.
Still, her departure underlined where exactly Rhea and head coach Noelle Quinn thought the roster needed to be strengthened the most.
The Storm were fifth in defensive rating (98.4) in 2021, per WNBA.com, a rather steep drop from a first-place finish in 2020 (93.3). Based on recent history, that’s something they couldn’t afford to repeat in order to achieve their lofty ambitions.
Over the last 10 years, only two teams have won a title after ranking worse than third in defensive rating: the Washington Mystics in 2019 and Chicago Sky in 2021. The Mystics owned a historically great offense that year, while the Sky were an inconsistent regular season team that finally played up to its level in the playoffs. Neither had a blueprint that’s easily replicable. (Chicago also had a suffocating defense in the 2021 playoffs.)
In short, an elite defense is almost a necessity in the WNBA to win a championship. Was Seattle going to get there with a more seasoned Samuelson? The team’s decision to jettison her leads one to draw some obvious conclusions.
To get back to the blueprint that led them to win two titles in three years, the Storm needed an ace defender on the perimeter, which is where Williams comes in.
The Synergy stats from her last season in the WNBA were a mixed bag.
She allowed 1.032 points per possession in 2020, including 1.182 PPP in spot-up opportunities (dropping her into the Below Average designation). Opposing players also shot 64.3 percent against her in post-ups. Isolating the numbers a little further show some encouraging signs. She held shooters to a adjusted field-goal percentage of 46.2 on jumpers and a 28.9 percent clip on three-pointers.
Those figures all require added context, too, since playing in the “bubble” seemed to favor scorers far more than it did defenders.
WNBA fans didn’t get to see Williams suit up for the Sparks, but her EuroLeague run with Sopron Basket has only raised expectations for her first season with Seattle. In addition to winning the EuroLeague with the Hungarian side, the 25-year-old was the EuroLeague Final Four MVP. Williams averaged 13.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.4 steals in continental action.
The benefits of trading for Williams may extend beyond her defense.
Alysha Clark was an invaluable member of the 2018 and 2020 championship teams. A second team All-Defensive player in 2019 and an All-Defensive first-teamer in 2020, she was the person tasked with shadowing the opponent’s best perimeter scorer.
When Clark left, those duties largely fell to Loyd. It was a challenge she relished, but one that might have been to her and the Storm’s detriment. Beyond the fact the three-time All-Star isn’t on Clark’s level as a defender, becoming the go-to stopper forced her to expend even more energy on the floor. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but Loyd’s shooting efficiency fell off toward the end of each half in 2021:
- 1st Quarter: 47.3 FG%, 43.1 3P%, 56.9 eFG%
- 2nd Quarter: 32.9 FG%, 23.3 3P%, 37.7 eFG%
- 3rd Quarter: 45.8 FG%, 41.5 3P%, 53.5 eFG%
- 4th Quarter: 36.7 FG%, 35.7 3P%, 41.8 eFG%
Her monthly splits tell a somewhat similar story. She started really well before cratering in July. Her shooting ticked upward a bit after she returned from the Summer Olympics but was still worse than her first two months:
- May: 46.3 FG%, 37.8 3P%, 53.7 eFG%
- June: 44.4 FG%, 39.3 3P%, 52.1 eFG%
- July 40.5 FG%, 28.6 3P%, 45.2 eFG%
- August: 37.2 FG%, 37.5 3P%, 44.6 eFG%
- September: 40.7 FG%, 38.9 3P%, 46.6 eFG%
That’s counter to her general trend. According to Basketball Reference, she has had an effective field-goal percentage of 47.2 and 50.6 over August and September, respectively, across her career.
If Loyd doesn’t have to shoulder such a large defensive burden, maybe her offense will get a bit of a boost.
Williams isn’t a perfect facsimile for Clark, who was the archetypal 3-and-D player. She’s a 24.8 percent three-point shooter in the WNBA, and she wasn’t much better overseas (32.9 percent in the Hungarian league and 27.2 percent in the EuroLeague).
But the Storm likely had Clark in mind when they swapped Samuelson for Williams. Clark was the engine for two championship teams; now it’ll be up to Williams to serve in the same role.