Seafoam Film Study – Sami Whitcomb and Helpside Defense

Partway through the second quarter of the New York Liberty’s 85-83 win over the Phoenix Mercury, broadcaster Ann Meyers Drysdale referred to Sami Whitcomb as a cornerback for her ability to ambush offensive players. Whitcomb had started at point guard in place of Sabrina Ionescu (left ankle tendinitis) and did an admirable job running the offense, particularly in the fist half. However, it was Whitcomb’s defensive awareness that stood out early and helped provide the Liberty with a 12-point advantage at halftime, a buffer the team would later need down the stretch.

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Let’s take a closer look at some of the plays Whitcomb was involved in on the defensive side in this edition of Nets Republic’s Seafoam Film Study.

Whitcomb initially begins this sequence as the on-ball defender, but our analysis begins the moment the ball is swung to the opposite wing. Notice that Whitcomb points in the direction the play is going even before Kia Nurse sets the cross screen for Brittney Griner. With the Liberty’s Betnijah Laney denying the entry pass, Whitcomb will move out to three-point line until her teammate can recover to Nurse before she comes back to help with the double on Griner.

While it still results in two points for the Mercury, this is a good preview of how active Whitcomb is when it comes to directing traffic and making reads.

Here is another example of the Mercury prioritizing a post look for Griner, but this time they successfully get the entry in. However, watch as Whitcomb applies a quick double on the catch and for the moment Griner spins towards the basket. Whitcomb does a great job of getting her hands on the ball without fouling. Also notice how, despite Skylar Diggins-Smith pointing for Griner to hit Nurse in the corner, the Liberty’s Rebecca Allen effectively splits the difference, giving Whitcomb the confidence and the time to make a play.

Before the Diggins-Smith and Griner pick-and-roll (PnR) sets up, Whitcomb is again directing traffic from the opposite corner. There may have been some miscommunication on the Liberty’s side or it could just be a good counter from the Mercury offense but Brianna Turner gets open on a dive cut. Whitcomb picks it up in time and gives a good contest but she unfortunately also gives up size and the resulting basket.

As accurate as it was for Drysdale to refer to Whitcomb as a cornerback, a more apt football comparison to use may have been ‘free safety.’ Whitcomb’s ability to roam center field—or in this case the opposite corner—and break on balls was key in the Liberty’s 26-14 first quarter. Before the highlight of this sequence, watch as how Whitcomb is again pointing to a space and likely verbally assisting Kylee Shook. My guess is that she wants Shook to be ready for a post-up on the opposite block or for penetration from the corner.

The moment Nurse brings it back to the top of the arc, Griner sets up shop in the middle of the paint. Nurse fakes a pass to the pin down screen on the right wing, but Whitcomb doesn’t fall for it and perfectly anticipates the entry pass for an impressive steal.

This could be my favorite sequence of the game. First, Whitcomb helps on the initial denial on the Griner post up. When Phoenix doesn’t like what it sees, the team will swing the ball to the opposite wing and try to get a better angle on the entry. The Mercury attempt a PnR to get Nurse a look but Laney and Onyenwere will switch on it. Once this occurs, Phoenix will clear out for the entry and the second that happens, Whitcomb is ready to help on Griner’s opposite hip.

When the ball is reversed to the right wing, Whitcomb is in scramble mode but she will give Laney a slight nudge to force the switch. On the dribble penetration, Whitcomb with go under the screen and call for another switch to pick up the ball handler.

With time winding, Phoenix must throw a quick shot up at the rim and New York comes away with the rebound and the stop.

The final sequence of this breakdown would make anyone that has played in the secondary of a football game proud. Watch as Whitcomb sneaks into the paint immediately upon Griner catching the ball. However, Whitcomb won’t make her move until Griner does, but as soon the Mercury center attacks, Whitcomb is on the scene and violently rips the ball away.

Whitcomb finished the game with 14 points and 6 assists and was a solid fill-in for additional ball handling duties. But it was the guard’s defensive IQ and ability to make Griner uncomfortable – despite giving up nearly a foot in height – that helped the Liberty snap a three-game losing streak.