The Seattle Storm has had its share of detrimental injuries this season.
First, an Achilles tear from Breanna Stewart in the offseason left the team without its reigning MVP. Then, three-time WNBA Champion Sue Bird underwent severe knee surgery, sidelining her without an expected plan of return. And, in the first weeks of preseason camp, coach Dan Hughes was diagnosed with cancer. But the sour cherry on top was losing All-Star guard Jewell Loyd for seven games after she suffered a severe ankle injury on June 25.
In place of Loyd, who is back on a minutes restriction, three-year veteran Sami Whitcomb has risen to the challenge, and is putting the finishing touches on a breakout season. Whitcomb and the Storm (15-13) will host the Indiana Fever (9-19) at 4 p.m. Sunday at Alaska Airlines Arena. Seattle has just six games remaining in its regular season, and, despite the injuries, the Storm are squarely in the playoff picture with the sixth seed.
“It’s exciting on the one hand because you know you’re going to get more opportunities, you never want it to be at the expense of a player being injured of course when it’s your teammates, but it is exciting to know that you are going to be called on to do some more and you’re going to get that chance,” Whitcomb said.
Earning her first career start in the team’s first game without Loyd on June 28, Whitcomb put up career-high performances in the majority of the Storm’s games throughout the second half of its season. She’s averaging a career-high stat line of 7.6 points, 1.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game on top of an average of 21.8 minutes.
“She brings a lot of energy and does what we need her to do,” Loyd said. “She’s been playing really well and a big piece as to why we’ve been so successful this year. I told her, ‘This is what we need you to do. It gives me time, coming back from injury, that I don’t have to rush back because I know you’re doing what you need to do.”
In her previous two seasons for the Storm, Whitcomb was called upon from the bench to bring a spark of energy to the court when starters needed rest. She averaged 13.5 minutes and 4.5 points per game in those seasons.
“Sami is a player that, if I start her, she’s great, if I bring her off the bench she’s great,” Hughes said. “She’s one of those remarkable players that she just wants to play. She doesn’t care if I start her. She wants to play flat out. She’s an incredible energy to us.”
Whitcomb attributes her breakout performances this season to her offseason games in France. After playing five seasons for two different teams in Australia, where the California-native has citizenship, Whitcomb played the 2018-2019 offseason in France for the Basket Lattes Montpellier Association.
She played 16 games for BLMA and averaged a team-high 28.3 minutes, 17.1 points and 6.6. rebounds per game. She led the team to its first-ever appearance in the EuroCup Women Final in April with a team-high 56 completed three-pointers throughout the season (she currently leads the Storm with 54).
“It’s a really physical, tough, competitive league, so I think that challenge was a good precursor to the WNBA season,” Whitcomb said. “I play more over there so getting more opportunity to do those things, to develop those parts of my game, because the level of competition was different and was more than what I had faced previously, it was very challenging.”
After balancing restricted limits, Loyd returned to her starting position on Sunday when the Storm hosted the Minnesota Lynx. Despite one of Whitcomb’s worst performances of the season on Sunday, (she went scoreless with just one assist in 12 minutes of play), Loyd is confident that the extra playing time this season elevated Whitcomb’s confidence on and off the court.
“I think she has taken a leadership role as well as having a voice,” Loyd said. “She’s a veteran. Just because she hasn’t been in the league for five years, doesn’t mean she’s not a professional. She’s been playing for a long time and she has a lot of experience.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Breanna Stewart tore her ACL. She tore her Achilles.