In her fifth WNBA season, Sami Whitcomb has become the most dangerous 3-point shooter in the league. She has proven a perfect fit for the New York Liberty, powering their offensive system with her proficiency from deep. Can her quick-trigger triple also help the Liberty make the playoffs for the first time since 2017?
During her four seasons with the Seattle Storm, Sami Whitcomb was the quintessential “good story,” with the University of Washington product fulfilling the archetype of the inspiring, local success.
Now, in her fifth WNBA season and her first with the New York Liberty, Whitcomb is just flat-out “good.” A certified sharpshooter who can bury opponents with a bevy of 3-pointers, she is an absolutely integral piece for the upstart Liberty, who are in the middle of their most successful season in a decade.
— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) June 26, 2021
Here’s a look back at Whitcomb’s improbable path to becoming one of the most important players on a playoff contender, in addition to an analysis of why she is so important to the Liberty’s success.
Whitcomb’s wandering journey to the WNBA
After a four-year college career at Washington, Whitcomb went undrafted in the 2010 WNBA Draft. When cut from the Chicago Sky after a training camp invite, she abandoned her pro basketball dreams, instead opting to return to Washington to serve as a video coordinator for her former college team.
Yet, Whitcomb’s love for playing the game lured her back. She headed to Germany in the summer of 2011, playing one season for the ChemCats Chemnitz and one for the Wolfenbüttel Wildcats. In the summer of 2013, she jumped to Slovakia, suiting up for ŠKBD Rücon Spišská Nová Ves for one season. Whitcomb also went Down Under in 2013, where she would play four seasons for the Rockingham Flames of Australia’s State Basketball League (SBL). Beginning in 2015-16, Whitcomb joined the Perth Lynx of the WNBL for the first of three successful seasons.
Along this peripatetic professional basketball path, Whitcomb accumulated numerous individual honors. During the 2017 WNBA offseason, her overseas efforts finally helped her earn her another WNBA opportunity, as she signed a contract with the Seattle Storm.
SamBam settles in in Seattle
In her first season in Seattle, Whitcomb averaged 4.5 points in 12.2 minutes per game. However, there were flashes of the player she has become today. In only her third WNBA game, Whitcomb exploded for 22 points in 15 minutes off the bench, powered by a 4-for-4 performance from 3.
The following season, Whitcomb would occupy a smaller reserve role for a Storm team that would go on to win the WNBA title, averaging fewer than three points in 8.6 minutes per game. Yet, it is not necessarily a stretch to say that the Seattle would not have secured the franchise’s then-third championship without Whitcomb. In Game 5 of the tightly-contested semifinals series against the Phoenix Mercury, Whitcomb was the savior, providing clutch shooting and pesky defense to help the Storm survive and advance.
In 2019, Whitcomb enjoyed an expanded role for the injury-plagued and overachieving Storm, playing more than 20 minutes and scoring just over seven points per contest. For the 2020 bubble season, when Seattle again would win the title, she slid back into a reserve role, putting up 8.1 points in her 16.5 minutes per game. Due to the birth of her son, Whitcomb missed the Finals. While Seattle certainly would have liked to have her as an off-the-bench spark, either as a threatening shooter or irritating defender, the Storm swept the Las Vegas Aces without her.
In short, Whitcomb had established herself as an important part of the Storm organization, but, as suggested by her absence, she was not undoubtedly essential.
This season, in contrast, she is crucial, and it is not just because she is no longer on a team led by Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart. More than joining a new team, Whitcomb also has reached a new level.
SamBam blasts off in Brooklyn
It is the full weaponization of her 3-pointer that has propelled Whitcomb’s leap. With apologies to Diana Taurasi, Arike Ogunbowale, Allie Quigley and others, she is the most dangerous deep threat in the W this season.
— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) July 14, 2021
With her quick-trigger release, Whitcomb is firing away to great effect. She is attempting a career-high 6.1 3-pointers per game and, despite this increased attempt rate, she also is shooting the best percentage of her career, stripping the nets to the tune of 43.8 percent, which is the best mark among players with more than 50 attempts. Her 56 made 3s currently leads the league.
While these impressive numbers are a testament to Whitcomb’s shooting skill, they area also a product of New York’s offensive system, for which Whitcomb is a perfect fit. Since taking over the Liberty ahead of the 2020 season, head coach Walt Hopkins has embraced the power of the 3-pointer, implementing a five-out offense system that relies on taking, and making, a high volume of 3s. Last season, the Liberty succeed in taking, but not making, 3s. In 2020, they were second in the league in 3-pointers attempted, but they shot a league-worst 27.7 percent from behind the arc. Importing more reliable 3-point shooters thus was an offseason priority. The two-year protected veteran contract they gave to Whitcomb is proving money well spent, as New York’s system maximizes Whitcomb’s skills and Whitcomb’s skills further maximize New York’s system.
That Whitcomb averages 7.2 3-point attempts and 3.2 3-point makes in Liberty wins compared to 5.2 attempts and 2.2 makes in losses in proof of how her shooting helps power New York’s success. Her June 26 performance against the Atlanta Dream is the best illustration of her value. On her way to a career-high 30 points, Whitcomb tied a franchise record with seven made 3-pointers.
It should be noted that Whitcomb is more than a sharpshooter. She also is averaging career-highs in rebounds, assists and steals, with 5.8 boards, 2.8 dimes and 1.1 steals per game.
What can we expect from Sami and the Liberty during the second half of the season?
Currently, the Liberty sit sixth in the standings, just under .500 at 10-11. The franchise’s first playoff berth since 2017 seems likely. If they do make the postseason, New York would be a dangerous opponent, largely because of Whitcomb.
In a bit of a curiosity, Whitcomb is shooting just over 50 percent from deep on the road, compared to 37.7 percent at home. If the Liberty advance past the first round, Whitcomb’s apparent comfort shooting from behind the arc in enemy territory could help the Liberty secure a second-round playoff upset.
A SamBam dream for the folks wearing seafoam green!