Katie Lou Samuelson finds comfort zone with Sparks – Orange County Register

Maybe all she needed was to click together the heels of her Puma sneakers and say it: There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s …

Chicago. Click.

Dallas. Click.

Seattle. Click.

In the fourth season of Katie Lou Samuelson’s whirlwind WNBA career, she’s landed in L.A., where she’s demonstrating that if the sneaker fits, in comfortability and by design, performance figures to follow.

“It’s about finding the team that’s going to take advantage of the skills she has, the way she can space the floor, her length, her basketball IQ,” said Kevin Kiernan, who was her coach at Mater Dei High, where she made a name for herself as perhaps the best high school player in Orange County history.

“The Sparks are.”

A few weeks into her tenure here, Samuelson reflected on the round-trip yellow-brick journey that has delivered her home, where she’s adding another chapter to her local legacy and doing it with the one professional team on the planet that makes it possible for her to finish practice and then drive to meet her family for dinner.

“It does feel right,” she said.

Before she established herself among the greats at UConn, the most successful women’s college basketball program ever, Samuelson was a prep sensation in Southern California, so decorated she could have had her own show on HGTV.

As a high school senior Katie Lou – the youngest of a trio of accomplished basketball-playing sisters – was everybody’s national player of the year, sweeping the Gatorade, USA Today, McDonald’s, WBCA and Naismith selections. Never mind the multiple defenders thrown at her on each possession, she set Mater Dei records by scoring 29.2 points per game and shooting 62% from the field.

Brea Olinda coach Jeff Sink called her “the next Diana Taurasi,” and Kiernan said then that she was the best offensive player he’d seen in 30 years. Three times, the Orange County Register named her its player of the year; in all, the paper featured her in more than 100 articles before she left for UConn.

ROOTED IN L.A.

The Sparks’ marketing slogan this season is “Time to Show.” Samuelson, who turned 25 this week, got the memo: Twice in nine games she has established new single-game scoring highs (17, 19). She’s averaging a career-best 26.6 minutes per game entering the Sparks’ forthcoming five-games-in-nine-days stretch, when they’ll face all three of Samuelson’s former teams, beginning Sunday in Dallas.

But last season’s moniker, “Rooted in L.A.,” a reference to the team’s and the WNBA’s 25th anniversary, also would have worked for Samuelson, whose place and connections within the SoCal basketball community are core-deep.

When she was a kid, once a year her father, Jon, would use a co-worker’s season tickets to bring his daughters to Lakers games, where they would try to predict how many points Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher might score.

Years later it was Fisher, in his role as the Sparks’ general manager, who brought Samuelson home, predicting that her 6-foot-3 frame, her versatility and her shooting touch would complement stars Liz Cambage and Nneka Ogwumike. He traded Gabby Williams – once Samuelson’s Husky teammate – to Seattle in exchange for a first-round pick and Samuelson.

Less than a month into Samuelson’s Sparks tenure, Fisher was out as coach and GM, the team he’d assembled off to a slow start at 5-7.

Being coached by Fisher was, Samuelson said, “just a bit my-younger-self-wouldn’t-believe-the-situation kind of thing.” But really, it was normal – the same way she remembers a film session with Bryant.

Samuelson got to know Bryant while she was in college and would call on him for advice. His daughter Gianna was a fan of the Huskies and of Samuelson.

“She was awesome,” Samuelson said. “I got to go watch them practice a few times and she definitely was feisty, just like her dad.

“And he was really great. Just so, like, normal? It’s the weirdest thing ever because you’re sitting there watching film with Kobe Bryant and yet it’s just like a casual conversation.”

With characteristically granular precision, they studied film together after one of Connecticut’s Final Four losses.

“He looked at every single thing,” she remembers. “‘Oh, what just happened there?’

“What are you talking about?” she’d asked him.

“At the timeout,” he’d said.

“What?”

“Look! Look at what they’re saying.”

“And,” Samuelson remembers, “he’s reading the lips of the opposing coaches!”

Katie Lou had watched a lot of game film, but it had never occurred to her to pay attention to what was happening during breaks in the action until Bryant taught her to appreciate those moments too.

Well before that, the Samuelsons had moments with DeLisha Milton-Jones, working out occasionally with the Sparks star with whom they shared trainer Jason Wright.

“I would see the Samuelson sisters come through and all I kept hearing him say was: ‘Wait ’till you see the baby!” said Milton-Jones, who was enshrined in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame this month. “The baby, she’s good!’”

What most impressed Karlie – who has also had a few short stints with the Sparks and who, like Bonnie, the oldest Samuelson sister, was a Stanford standout – was Milton-Jones’ “super-sparkly” nail polish. For Katie Lou, it was her on-/off-court switch: “One of the nicest people ever. But when you watch her play, just a beast.”

Being a role model, Milton-Jones understood, is about more than basketball.

“All of it is something that they’re looking at, taking snapshots of and applying to their lives,” said Milton-Jones, now the head coach at Old Dominion. “I’m glad that I could’ve been a positive inspiration to them, via nail polish colors or being the fierce competitor.”

Katie Lou gets that, too.

OK TO NOT BE OK

On May 20, 2020, Katie Lou penned an essay on ESPN.com sharing her experiences dealing with depression and anxiety.

She wrote about the mental turmoil she has experienced, including the emotional toll injuries took while she was at UConn, feelings that lingered when she went pro, she wrote: “In college, I thought, ‘Well, in my next journey, I’ll be in a better place emotionally.’ Then starting my pro career, it was, ‘I feel like this because I’m not playing much, and that’s got to be the reason.’ Then you play a little bit more, but that doesn’t help, either. I was constantly in search of a reason why, but I’ve learned that sometimes there just isn’t a specific reason.”

She’d been drafted No. 4 overall in 2019 by the Chicago Sky but played just seven minutes per game as a rookie before being traded to Dallas, for whom she would average 5 points per game off the bench before being dealt again, to Seattle for the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2021.

She encouraged others, especially younger kids in sports, to share their feelings with a professional or someone they trust, because “when I started talking about things that I didn’t think made sense, it made perfect sense to them. And I felt this weight lifted from me.”

Karlie didn’t know her younger sister had written the piece until soon before it was published, and Katie Lou said she was stressing about sharing it until it went live. But the overwhelmingly positive reaction made her believe she’d done the right thing.

Kiernan knows so.

“As a teacher and a coach and A.D., the past two, three years have been tough for kids – and for adults and teachers,” Kiernan said. “When kids were not at school and were by themselves and isolated, that has a long-lasting effect on kids, and we see it. So it was a really timely message and that was really important for kids to know they could talk about this stuff, and that a lot of other people are feeling this way too.”

HOMECOMING GAME

Katie Lou’s recent on-court contributions also have something to write home about.

She and Karlie led their Perfumerias Avenida club to consecutive Spanish League titles during the past two WNBA offseasons.

And now, in L.A., Katie Lou – who this year got engaged to the Orlando Magic’s Devin Cannady and also earned her master’s degree in coaching and athletic administration from Irvine’s Concordia University – will remain a starter, said Fred Williams, the interim head coach.

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