More than Undefeatable: The Grit of Gabby Williams

In part two of a four-part series for the WNBA “More than Undefeatable” campaign, the second edition focuses on Gabby Williams of the Seattle Storm.

Basketball is incredibly alluring for its sheer variance. Ball movement and team connectivity at their highest heights are marvelous. An isolation scorer with every move in the book, slick handles, and silky finishing craft can be just as dazzling. A five-player unit totally in sync on the defensive end, pre-rotating, moving as one, and stifling in the half-court is suffocating for the opposition but grin-inducing for fans. 

There is not a single way to play basketball that is right. Even with ten players on the court, individualism, flair, style, and technique shine through. I’d be hard-pressed to find a player who better blends basketball’s individual and team facets than Gabby Williams of the Seattle Storm, a holistic hooper with a penchant for inventive play.

“I just try to mesh,” says Williams.

“I don’t like to put myself in a box or describe a certain thing I do or what kind of player I am; I just try to help the team in any way I can. I get the Swiss Army Knife analogy a lot, and that’s the type of thing I try to be.”

And that’s exactly what the Storm needed and envisioned when they made the trade for Williams in the off-season. Filling into the starting line-up at the small forward spot, Williams has found more stability after constant role changes with the Chicago Sky. 

She missed last season in the W after a contract suspension due to her national team commitments and was subsequently traded to the Los Angeles Sparks, one of the two teams she sought to be traded to, the other being Seattle. 

“My few years in Chicago were really difficult for me… having to play point guard and then my position switching every other day. It was really hard for me to find a rhythm, but I did it because the team needed me to, and I think I grew and learned a lot from it.”

Playing in France helped Williams regain her joy in the game, getting back to playing more on the wing. She could tap back into her game and feel comfortable on-court again. She helped France to a podium finish in the Tokyo Olympics, taking home the Bronze medal and a second-place finish at EuroBasket.

Williams was born and raised in the United States, but her mother is French, so France is a home away from home.

“I know a lot of players struggle being overseas, but I don’t have a problem with that. I mean, most of my family is in France. I’m someone who tries to embrace the culture, try to appreciate being there, so I feel lucky at 25 to have been able to live in so many different places and experience so many different things that some people aren’t able to for their entire lives.”

When Williams got the call about another potential trade to the Storm, she was ecstatic. She’d played at UConn with Breanna Stewart. She played with Briann January in Sopron, her team in Hungary. Jantel Lavender had played in Chicago for a season alongside Williams.

Seattle was a new environment, but there was already an established connection; she wasn’t coming in completely unfamiliar with her teammates. 

As the Storm looked to reload for Sue Bird’s last season, Williams fit the bill of what the Storm lacked at times: more athletic on the wing, some secondary ball-handling, good decision-making, and a defensive stopper. As this Seattle team has continued to evolve throughout the season, Williams’ role also has.

“I feel like this season, it’s been more gradual, just trying to learn everyone, learn what I can do, especially coming into a team that was already established. On the other hand, there’s things I can do that you don’t have to teach. Running in transition, playing good defense, rebounding. So you add the other things on little by little, and the team started finding me as well.”

We’re hitting the point where the question is more of what can’t Williams do.

To start the season, she was primarily off the ball. Williams is a willing shooter, but at a career 25.1% from deep, defenses are willing to help off of her. Noelle Quinn and the Storm coaching staff turned that into a weapon in a sense.

While she isn’t the true lead guard of the team, Williams is used as a hub to get the offense started. She leads the break, brings the ball up off of inbounds, and creates sets in the half-court. She’s quick getting downhill and has a phenomenal passing vision at the wing spot. 

Empowering her with the ball in her hands and allowing her to push pace and tempo forces defenses to guard her like she is a shooting threat. That, in turn, gets Seattle’s best shooters moving off the ball and used as outlets in actions that shift the defense. It hits different when Sue Bird or Jewell Loyd, two of the more dynamic shooters in the sport, can come off of a variety of off-ball screens and actions to mask what they’re going to do on the ball.

Watch this.

Sue Bird sets a screen for Tina Charles, who is setting a screen for her, who is also receiving a pin-down from Breanna Stewart. Charles erases Alysha Clark, Bird’s defender, Shakira Austin is swimming over Bird’s screen to stay between Charles and the basket, and Myisha Hines-Allen is attached to Stewart because she’s an MVP candidate and her greenlight extends to all areas of the court.

With her height, vision, and ability to get off various passes or take her defender off the dribble, Williams makes this set possible by wholly occupying an All-Defensive level player in Natasha Cloud. Sag off of Williams to free safety and congest the lane, and she’ll run an impromptu DHO. Maybe she’ll take you off the dribble anyways and force a rotation before a quick pass and relocation to the perimeter. Her blend of skills on this team is lethal, the perfect complement to a star-studded roster.

Williams loves basketball, but it doesn’t define her. As she mentioned about her game, you can’t put her in a box. She’s a Marvel fanatic, an avid manga reader, and an anime watcher. 

She has a separate Twitter account strictly for anime (@mochatrapuccino) and likes being able to get away from hoops when she’s not on the court.

“It’s been fun to find a weeb (anime-lovers) community and just put out my recs, see what other people rec’d, getting away from basketball, but not getting away from the opportunity to talk.”

Williams wanted a place where she could talk about anime without basketball being brought up. When she would tweet about what she was watching on her main account, she’d routinely get questions about basketball or have comments entirely unrelated to what she was bringing up. She doesn’t hold that against people, it’s her job and her life, but she wanted somewhere without her profile picture or name attached that she could find mutuals and communicate without talking basketball.

“It’s definitely a big part of my identity and one of my bigger hobbies,” says Williams.

She loves Attack on Titan; her profile picture for her secondary account is Captain Levi, a main character from the series. 

What’s on Williams’ watchlist?

“Of course, Attack on Titan, it’s an all-time GOATed series that everyone needs to watch, whether you watch anime or not.”

She also highly recommends Dororo; a re-adaptation of the original 1969 series is on Amazon Prime.

Samurai Champloo is also considered a must-watch, says Williams. “It kind of reminds me of the book The Alchemist. It’s about the journey, not the destination. So if you need soul-searching and some inspiration, watch Samurai Champloo.”

She grew up on Pokemon, Yugi-Oh, and Dragon Ball Z and eventually got deeper into it, finding new series’ outside of the mainstream. She laughs, reminiscing on the 100 anime you need to watch list she made on notes.

Williams compared herself to Captain America in an interview during her final season at UConn. I asked if that had changed in the half-decade since.

“I’d definitely consider myself more of a Black Widow now. I think she’s so much more lowkey, and she gets it done. But you don’t always notice it. Like me, too, I like to stay under the radar. Especially as I’m getting older, I feel like I’m getting more and more introverted (laughs). I mean, I already was, but just more and more staying below the radar.”

It’s an apt description of the character and her own demeanor, but I’d argue it undersells her game. She is constantly putting in the work on the court, always moving, diving for loose balls, forcing turnovers, causing deflections, and doing the minutiae within the Storm’s offense to make things click. Even if her game is lowkey, it pops in consistency, as she does the quiet parts so well that the results can be deafening. Her presence and impact have helped shape the Storm into a more well-rounded title contender.

Gabby Williams’ journey has taken her quite literally all over the world. She’s more than undefeatable for her ability to adapt. Carving out her place in the W and developing into an X-Factor on a championship-caliber team didn’t just happen overnight. It took changes in the environment and finding her passion for the game again to thrive.

You can’t put Gabby Williams in a box on or off the court. She knows who she is, and the Storm have tapped into that all season long. While she may have flown under the radar much of the year, the silent margins of the game that Gabby manipulates become amplified in the postseason. One of the stars in Game One of the first round, look forward to Williams continuing to imprint her game with defensive slides, deflections, and intuitive plays within the offense as the Storm seek to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.