Sami Whitcomb is a 29-year-old rookie for the Seattle Storm -- she just doesn't play like one
Sami Whitcomb has played from beyond the arc for much of her basketball career.
A sharpshooter from the perimeter, her quick release has caused problems for opponents since she played for the University of Washington, where she earned All-Pac 10 honors her senior season alongside players such as Stanford's Jayne Appel and Nneka Ogwumike.
But Whitcomb was on the outside looking in after going undrafted out of school in 2010 and getting cut by the Chicago Sky in her first training camp. She played overseas for six years in three countries while waiting for an opportunity to finally step inside the line and play in the WNBA.
Now a 29-year-old rookie for the Seattle Storm, there's no outside shot Whitcomb isn't willing to take on or off the court.
Without a shot at the WNBA, and with no looming offers to play overseas right out of college, Whitcomb jumped at the first postgrad job she was offered: as a video coordinator back at her alma mater. Still, playing pickup with the Huskies coaching staff or rec-league games remained the best part of Whitcomb's days.
"I think it just reminded me and reinforced that playing was still where my heart was." Whitcomb said. "I wanted to do everything to make that happen."
I don't call someone a rookie who's been playing professional basketball for a long time. ... With each game she is getting more and more comfortable.
- Sue Bird on teammate Sami Whitcomb
Whitcomb credits much of her perseverance to early basketball experiences she had with her father, Sander, while growing up in Ventura, California.
Whitcomb said she began playing basketball to be closer to her dad after her parents divorced when she was young, believing that she could reconnect with him through games of one-on-one and H-O-R-S-E despite spending less time together.
"I went to basketball basically to kind of make him proud -- I thought it was something we could do together," Whitcomb said. "He ended up being my first coach on my local YMCA league growing up that I played in."
After a varsity high school game during Whitcomb's freshman year, she recalled her dad driving her home to her mother's house. Upon pulling into the driveway, her dad broke down Whitcomb's night on the court for hours, every single aspect -- and he didn't hold back. Analysis of how she could be more productive, what kept her from being more impactful, missed shot opportunities. Whitcomb had played only five minutes in the game. This became a postgame routine for the pair.
"It was tough love," said Whitcomb, who added that the critiques helped her grow and prepared her for future challenges. "There were times where I thought, 'Gosh, if I can handle these criticisms from someone close to me, I'm sure everything else will roll off my back and I could push through anything else.' "
In 2011, Whitcomb finally signed a contract to play in Germany. But during her second year there, the team she was playing for went bankrupt, and Whitcomb landed in the Australian State Basketball League, and that opportunity, she said, "changed everything."
As a member of the Rockingham Flames, Whitcomb emerged as one of the best talents in the league before becoming the top player in the SBL. In two seasons, she led the Flames to two championships and earned multiple league MVP honors.
Whitcomb took her game a step further in 2015, joining the Perth Lynx of the National Basketball League, Australia's top league that has been home to the likes of Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor. Whitcomb averaged 19.4 points and 5.7 rebounds her first season, and her reputation as a 3-point shooter grew.
But Whitcomb wasn't always a shooter, not as a kid nor as a standout high school player in Ventura. But when she arrived at Washington, the coaches warned that her playing time would be limited if she didn't develop an outside shot.
"I worked on it every summer," Whitcomb said. "With all of the time in the gym shooting, I did start to get some more confidence in it and that's when it started becoming something I did more of, then became known for."
Last season in Perth, Whitcomb led the league with 24.6 points and 2.8 steals per game while totaling a WNBL-record 91 3-pointers. Her 567 points were just three shy of the all-time single-season mark set by Taylor in 2002.
"Overseas I just kept shooting. That's probably when my 3-point shot became more of my identity as a player," Whitcomb said. "I just tried to get more efficient with it, get faster with it so that it was something that at the next level would hopefully still translate."
After four seasons in Australia, it's the place Whitcomb now calls home. She and her partner are in the process of building a home in Perth, and Whitcomb has applied for Australian citizenship. But as her reputation in Australia began to peak, so too did interest from the WNBA.
"I keep up a lot with the Australian league, I love the basketball over there," said Storm coach Jenny Boucek, who added that despite a lack of size in the league, the overall IQ and skill level of the NBL is high. "I came across her games over there and was watching her numbers."
The second chance at the WNBA came with a return to Seattle -- an opportunity that surprised and overwhelmed a grateful Whitcomb.
"I very much enjoyed playing in the NBL, there are some really great players there. It's still not the WNBA, which is widely known as the best league in the world," Whitcomb said. "I wanted to come back and see how the six years had gone for me and if I had improved enough to make a roster to be able to contribute in this league."
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As a member of the Storm, Whitcomb spends her days at the end of the bench alongside fellow rookies Lanay Montgomery and Alexis Peterson -- who was just a junior in high school when Whitcomb started her professional career. She's not the go-to scorer she was in Australia -- and she didn't expect that to be her role -- but Whitcomb is the Storm's spark plug off the bench, injecting energy on both ends of the floor. She is the top scorer off Seattle's bench, averaging 5.1 points in 11.9 minutes per game.
Whitcomb acknowledges that she is still a rookie in many ways and admits that some aspects of the WNBA simply don't translate even with years of prior experience. But she views her journey to date as an advantage -- and so do her teammates.
"I don't call someone a rookie who's been playing professional basketball for a long time," said teammate Sue Bird, adding that Whitcomb's experience shortened her WNBA learning curve. "Is she new to the WNBA? Yes. Does she have things to learn? Yes. But I think with each game she is getting more and more comfortable."
Whitcomb's on-court highlight this season, however, came May 26 against New York. Whitcomb scored a career-high 22 points, hitting six 3-pointers in 15 minutes of play -- all in the second half. The performance helped erase a 10-point Storm deficit and broke a WNBA record for most 3-pointers in a half.
"When you're spending the time in the gym and working on your game," Whitcomb said, "those are for the moments like those that you're imagining in your head or dream about."