For the first time since an offseason trade sent them to New York, forward Natasha Howard and sharpshooting guard Sami Whitcomb, who are thriving with their new team, will face off against the Storm.
The matchup at 4 p.m. PT Wednesday at the Barclays Center in New York will be a bittersweet reunion for Seattle and the Liberty standouts who helped the Storm to a pair of WNBA championships in 2018 and 2020.
“That’s one of my good friends so we’ve been close for several years,” center Mercedes Russell said when asked about Howard. “She’s always looking out for me and I’m looking out for her.
“Playing with her for three years, I know she’s a versatile big. She has quickness and an array of moves. She’s tough to guard, but I’m excited to play against her.”
Howard, a 2019 WNBA All-Star and the 2019 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, started 89 of 90 games the past three seasons with the Storm and she averaged 13.6 points and 7.3 rebounds.
“Natasha was a player who created shots just by screening and moving and cutting and offensive rebounding,” Storm coach Noelle Quinn said. “Offensively, she fit us perfectly because it wasn’t as if we needed to run a play for her. … She excelled in that way. Obviously, running the floor. Her agility and her ability to finish well around the rim. She just was a great fit for our system.”
Retaining the 29-year-old Howard became fiscally impossible for the Storm, considering All-Stars Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and quite possibly the 40-year-old Sue Bird will become unrestricted free agents after the 2021 season and in line for big paydays.
The Storm moved Howard to New York for the No. 1 overall choice in the 2021 WNBA draft, which Seattle dealt to Dallas for forward Katie Lou Samuelson.
So far, it’s been a win-win situation for the Storm (16-6), the Liberty (10-12) and particularly Howard, who received a four-year, $889,000 contract, which is believed to be the fourth-biggest contract in WNBA history.
With New York, Howard is the No. 1 offensive option, much as she was in Seattle in 2019 while filling in for an injured Stewart and averaging 18.0 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 2.1 assists – all career highs.
Howard tallied 12 points and seven rebounds in her New York debut and registered 17 points and six rebounds in her second Libery game before suffering a MCL injury in the fourth quarter that sat her out for three months.
In her return Sunday, Howard finished with 30 points on 13-for-22 shooting during an 88-78 defeat against the Minnesota Lynx.
“That’s my friend, so I’m happy that she’s healthy,” Russell said. “But then, I was watching the film and she was just moving on that court. Honestly, it was good to see her back on the court healthy. She’s going to be a challenge for us, but our team is built defensively. We’re excited for the challenge as a team and we’ll see how the game goes.”
Containing Whitcomb might prove to be equally challenging for Seattle, considering the fifth-year veteran is having a career year and has emerged as a candidate for postseason awards.
The former Storm reserve, who spent the previous four seasons in Seattle, is attempting a personal-best 6.1 three-point attempts per game and leads the league with 58 three-pointers.
Whitcomb has started all 22 games for New York while averaging 12.1 points and 29.5 minutes – both career highs.
“She’s playing a lot more minutes,” Quinn said. “More minutes, more shots. She has a quick trigger. You know with Sami it’s about not losing sight of her. It’s about getting to her in transition and making those looks a little bit more difficult. She’s a tough shot-taker and maker. It’s not enough to be in her space. You need to be in her space with an arm up and contesting ready to defend her.
“The other thing that Sami has added to her game is getting to the basket a little bit more and getting to the free-throw line. It’s not enough to run her off the three-point line, now she’s a threat in the paint as well. We can’t lose sight of her. We have to find her in transition and in the half court we have to give her a lot of attention and just make it difficult.”
Whitcomb, who starred at the University of Washington and earned a spot with the Storm in 2017 as a training camp invite, became a fan favorite in Seattle.
Similar to Howard, the 32-year-old Whitcomb cashed in during free agency and signed a two-year $300,700 deal with the Liberty. Her $150,350 salary more than doubles the $68,000 she received from the Storm in 2020.
“First and foremost, I’m proud for Sami,” Quinn said. “As her friend and as her former teammate, I love to see her succeeding because she works so hard. It’s daily. It’s a mindset for her. It’s innate. She doesn’t skip a day. She doesn’t cheat the grind at all. It’s no surprise to me that she’s having a great season in New York. What New York needed was a veteran leader and that’s what she’s shown.”
— Storm forward Breanna Stewart and guard Sue Bird will miss their second consecutive game Wednesday and are scheduled to return when Seattle faces New York on Friday.