How Katie Lou Samuelson Weathers the Storm

Sitting at 18-8 with six games left in the WNBA regular season, the Seattle Storm have the third best record in the W. They’re 2nd in offensive rating, 4th in defensive rating, and 2nd in overall net rating. Simply put, the Storm are a fantastic team that are poised to make a run to defend their WNBA title in the postseason.

Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird, and Jewell Loyd rightfully dominate headlines as the three All-Stars who power the Storm. Third year forward Katie Lou Samuelson is a lesser known but important cog who has impressed after bouncing around the league.

The fourth pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft, Samuelson had a rocky start to her career, finding her way to her third team in three seasons when she was traded to the Storm this past offseason. As Samuelson has cemented herself as a starter in the W this season, she has brought stability on both sides of the ball for the Storm.

Off-Ball Defense, Connectivity, & Rotations

Samuelson blocks Bec Allen of the New York Liberty

As I talked about on a podcast recently with Em Adler of The Next, the Storm really lack lineup versatility due to their current roster construction. Samuelson is the only player in the regular rotation that can consistently slide between the 3 and 4, making her invaluable to the Storm.

Seattle plays fairly aggressively on defense, largely out of necessity. They run an active hedge-and-recover scheme on ball screens, not dissimilar to the 90’s Sonics. Jewell Loyd is a fantastic point of attack defender. Sue Bird maps the court well and is often in the right place, but she isn’t the same defender she once was. Mercedes Russell is a solid positional defender and active helper, often utilized as the player who hedges out on ball screens. Breanna Stewart’s otherworldly ability as a helpside rim protector (2nd in blocks per game in the WNBA, 13th in Block % per HerHoopStats) is essential in allowing for the aggressive scheme. 

Katie Lou Samuelson factors in as a defensive turnkey. While she isn’t often tasked with the primary defense at the point of attack or backline at the rim, Samuelson is usually guarding secondary actions and deterring drives off-ball. She is relatively small for the 4 position, but her court vision and defensive awareness makes up for her frame.

For instance, this play stands out as a highlight of how Samuelson bridges the gap in Seattle’s defense. Sydney Wiese sets a pindown for Tina Charles to run pick and roll with Natasha Cloud. This action pulls Ezi Magbegor, the 5 in this lineup, away from the rim as Stephanie Talbot switches onto Charles and then again onto Cloud. Samuelson immediately calls for the switch and communicates with Canada to cover the corner.

While this play looks rudimentary and is largely a product of scheme, this is the kind of defense that gets blown up with ease without proper communication. Instead of an easy Charles (leading scorer in the W) bucket, there’s a deflection because of proper rotations.

Samuelson finishes out the possession sliding well and maintaining positioning at the point of attack off the inbounds. She’s not the strongest defender at the point of attack because of a pretty high base, but she is fantastic at sliding and using her length to contest and prevent easy looks.

She has also played well as a switch defender in short spurts, timing her switches well, and using both her hands and feet to keep ball-handlers in front of her. Layshia Clarendon is one of the best downhill drivers in the W and Katie Lou flexes her ability to hassle a driver on a switch with quick twitch aggression and active hands.

Below is one of my favorite clips I’ve seen watching Samuelson on defense. Kia Nurse is a fantastic driver and Samuelson shows her ranginess as a defender.

That’s what stands out about her as a defensive player. While she’s not tasked with necessarily the most difficult assignments, there’s difficulty in the sheer variance in her assignments as a player. There just are few players who provide the consummate versatility (on top of positive ability) that Katie Lou Samuelson provides on the roster. The point of attack defense and rim protection are the Storm’s slices of bread, and Samuelson is the peanut butter that binds the two.

Kickaheads, Connective Passing, and Release Valve

Whereas Katie Lou is more of a binding agent on defense, she’s a major fulcrum of the Storm offense. Her offensive weight can’t be told through a 25th percentile usage rate. Samuelson helps to maximize the Storm’s stars through quick decision-making, connecting plays, and exacerbating advantages created by Stewart, Loyd, and Bird. If Stewart draws a double team and the full attention of a defense (there are four defenders in the paint lmao, Stewie is GOOD folks), her teammates must quickly capitalize to punish the dented defense. Samuelson does just that with connective playmaking.

Katie Lou sees Napheesa Collier zone up on the back end due to the double, recognizes that Collier will close to her on the X out, and immediately swings the ball to Jewell Loyd who’s canning 38.5% of her threes. These types of plays are what elevate Seattle from having a good offense to a great one.

Samuelson also excels as a post-entry passer, a boon for a team deploying Breanna Stewart.

She’s also well utilized to open sets and trigger plays for the Storm. Using her height and vision to initiate an offense allows the Storm to get really funky using their stars off-ball, warping and putting strain on a defense with their scoring gravity.

Where Samuelson’s playmaking shines most is in the open court during transition. Her ability as a kickahead passer and a knack for crosscourt dimes makes her a threat off live turnovers and grab and go’s. The Storm are only 8th in the W in pace, but they thrive off of early offense opportunities when the opposition isn’t set.

I love this play.

Samuelson doesn’t get the assist, but her decision making sets the course of the possession. The easy read would be to kick the ball to Stewart in the corner, space out, and let her get to work as one of the best individual scorers in basketball. Instead, Samuelson looks her off and flips the ball back to Sue Bird, then spaces out to the weak side, drawing the defense and causing confusion/miscommunication between the weak side defenders, opening a lane for Bird to drive and dump off to Mercedes Russell who was trailing the play.

This corner cross is one of the better passes I’ve seen over the past month. Just awesome placement and ridiculous velocity on the ball as well.

Samuelson supplements her passing with efficient scoring as a shooter and release valve play finisher. Without her ability as a scorer, she wouldn’t have the same opportunities to open up the offense. This season has been huge for her as she’s made a monumental leap in scoring efficiency, currently in the top ten in two-point percentage, and in the top quarter of the league in true-shooting. These are massive steps up considering struggles with efficiency during her first two seasons.

The three point shot has really started to fall for her, especially from the corners, shooting league average on just about three attempts per game.

As she’s been guarded as a real threat from deep, she’s found opportunities to attack off the bounce as well. These flashes lead to wondering whether or not there’s more creation in her future if the shooting consistency remains on higher volume or even blossoms further.

Samuelson’s jumper from the elbows is absolutely wet as well. Her comfortability coming off of second-side actions or as a release valve in a broken play has made her invaluable as an outlet in Seattle’s offense

Samuelson’s growth as a player has helped to balance out the Storm, smoothing out possessions and stabilizing the flow of the offense.

The Seattle Storm’s ability to contend lies in the hands of their stars, but the play of the rest of the roster will elevate what this group does in the postseason. Katie Lou Samuelson is still ironing out and expanding her skillset, but the flashes are there and the consistency has really started to show through for her as well. Wherever the Storm go in the postseason, expect Samuelson to play a significant part in their success.

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