When Katie Lou Samuelson left to participate with the USA Basketball 3×3 team in an Olympic qualifying tournament, the Storm was stumbling toward a 1-1 start to the season following a lopsided defeat.
Upon her return this week, the Seattle newcomer rejoins a team that’s riding a five-game winning streak and has vaulted to the top of the WNBA standings at 6-1.
Furthermore, the roster, lineups and rotations have dramatically changed with the additions of Mercedes Russell and Epiphanny Prince as well as a head-coaching swap including former assistant Noelle Quinn and Dan Hughes, who abruptly retired on Sunday.
What a difference two weeks can make.
“I wouldn’t say it feels like a brand new team, but I think you can definitely tell people are starting to get more comfortable and you see people develop chemistry and things like that,” Samuelson said. “That’s something that as we continue to move forward, is going to continue to grow.”
Although the record suggests otherwise, developing chemistry and establishing roles for a Storm team with five newcomers have been elusive commodities considering Seattle has rolled out five different lineups in its first seven games.
In part referring to the frequent disruptions, Quinn plans to bring Samuelson off the bench for Friday’s 7 p.m. game against Dallas (2-4) at Angel of the Winds Arena.
“We’ll integrate her back in slowly and see how she mixes in with that second unit,” Quinn said. “We had a good sample size of what she can provide for us before she left for 3×3. Just working her back into the mix.”
At least for the moment, it’s another setback for Samuelson, who had seemingly found a home after bouncing around the league during her first two years in the WNBA.
The 2019 No. 4 overall draft pick played her rookie year in Chicago before a trade sent her to Dallas last year. The 6-foot-3 forward averaged 5.0 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists while starting 4 of 22 games for the Wings.
On February 10, the Storm pulled off one of the biggest trades in franchise history and swapped the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 WNBA draft with Dallas for Samuelson.
The Wings selected center Charli Collier out of Texas, who is averaging 5.2 points and 4.3 rebounds while making five starts.
Despite missing training camp and arriving two days before the season opener due to playing in Spain, Samuelson won a starting job and had a nice start in her Storm debut (5 points and 6 rebounds).
In her next outing, she tallied 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting, including three three-pointers along with three rebounds and two assists in 27½ minutes.
“It’s definitely bittersweet,” Samuelson said following the 96-80 loss to Las Vegas on May 18. “We wanted to come out with a win and we didn’t get it done today. I’ve been having a lot of fun playing with them. I’m kind of bummed to be leaving right now. I feel like we’re going to make a lot of strides as a team these next few weeks, but I’m excited to go and compete with this 3×3 team.”
Samuelson paired with Las Vegas’ Kelsey Plum, the former Washington Huskies star, Chicago’s Stefanie Dolson and Dallas’ Allisha Gray to secure the USA’s 3×3 women’s team a spot in the Tokyo Games. The sport is making its Olympic debut this summer.
“Nothing beats the feeling of when we officially qualified for the Olympics,” Samuelson said. “We all were so focused on every single game and making sure we played together and took care of business.
“Once we finally won that last game and could soak in the fact that we’re the first group to quality for the Olympics and we have the ability to go to Tokyo, that was the coolest thing ever.”
Admittedly, Samuelson had reservations about a whirlwind four weeks that included winning a championship with a premier women’s team in Spain, a brief stop in Seattle and playing in the FIBA 3×3 tournament in Praz, Austria.
“I actually did the best that I’ve done compartmentalizing things and being in the moment this last trip,” she said. “Before I got to Seattle, I had a lot of anxiety about going there for a week and then I’ll have to leave and then come back. I went inside myself and (said) just enjoy every step of the way.
“I chose to play on this 3×3 team for a reason. I want to be a part of this team that gets to go to the Olympics. That in itself made it easy to just enjoy the moment of being over there. It’s pretty rare that anyone gets to do this. You have to be grateful for every opportunity. And it’s always nice to see my team at home doing well at the same time so that made it a lot easier.”
During Samuelson’s absence, newcomer Stephanie Talbot has started the past five games and will remain in the lineup Friday night.
Conceivably, Samuelson’s return will push newcomer Kennedy Burke out of the rotation. Burke is averaging 3.7 points and 10.0 minutes in six games.
“Our biggest strength is our depth,” said Talbot, who is averaging 5.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 17.8 minutes. “We’re still bring players in like Katie Lou, who has only played two games. To bring her back in, is massive. We have even more depth. It doesn’t matter who starts or who comes off the bench. That’s the strength that we have.”
Samuelson added: “I’m just going to in and do what I do. For me, I’m just looking to contribute any that way I can and make sure that I develop chemistry with people that I haven’t played with yet and continue to grow with the players that I did play with before I left. I think I have the ability to adapt to and fit into whoever I’m playing with.”