As the 2022 WNBA season rounds out exuberantly over the last few weeks leading up to the postseason, the Los Angeles Sparks seek to solidify a playoff berth. The season started rough for the Sparks; a 3-6 start, a slough of consistent injuries made it difficult to fully integrate a roster returning only five players from last season, and an eventual mid-season firing of Heach Coach and General Manager Derek Fisher. The culmination of difficulties LA faced in the first half of the season made their mid-season shift that much more impressive and enjoyable.
The Sparks won’t be confused as a title contender at the moment, but Nneka Ogwumike has played at an MVP-level pace the whole season. Brittney Sykes has played a more significant role as a ball-handler and playmaker. The team is 7-5 over their last month of play and 5-3 in July. The offense has a smoother flow and rhythm; buckets come much easier than they did earlier in the year.
Filter through the lineup data of the Sparks on the WNBA stats page or at PBP Stats, and you’ll find two consistencies amongst the most positive on-court lineups: Lexie Brown and Katie Lou Samuelson. That jives with what plays out on the court; Brown and Samuelson make the Sparks better. Both are amidst career seasons in Los Angeles, establishing new highs in nearly every category of the game and doing so efficiently.
The pair had been labeled fairly strictly as shooters coming into the year, and shooters they are. Eight players this season are shooting 40% or better from deep on four or more attempts per game, according to Her Hoop Stats, with Samuelson and Brown in that group. However, with both playing career highs in minutes per game, already eclipsing their career mark for total minutes played in a season, they’ve shown the multi-dimensionality of their games.
Shooting incredibly well on volume and with variety (off multiple types of actions and motion), they get guarded in a way that allows them to showcase their bevy of skills. Going under on a ball-screen for Brown or Samuelson is well…
I would categorize letting them get a clean shot off as a mistake! That’s where the fun part comes into play. Opposing teams have adapted in kind, which is what opens the door for either as playmakers and drivers.
Brown is a reasonably natural ball-handler, having excelled as a playmaker in college at Duke and Maryland before her transfer. Give her the pocket in a pick and roll, and she’ll nail the roller in stride, throw two to the ball, and she can hit an escape dribble and hit a slip off the backfoot.
With the windows her shooting affords, Brown is capable of painting the court.
Samuelson operates more with outside-in playmaking, utilizing her vision and height to draw the defense from off-ball movement in sets.
She’s adept at quick decisions and clearouts, relocating into space and moving the ball emphatically. It seems minute, but it’s integral to good offense and spacing. Few players move the ball and then move themselves quite like Samuelson.
So yes, Samuelson and Brown are shooters, but with more run, they’ve been able to showcase their games to the fullest. More complementary handlers and scorers on-court amplify star players, and the duo embodies that notion with their play.
Per PBP Stats, the Sparks have a +19.8 point differential in scoring with Brown and Samuelson on the court compared to when they’re both off, a 105.9 offensive rating as opposed to an 86.1 offensive rating. In other words, they drop from what would rank as the second-best offense in the league to 2020 New York Liberty levels of offensive production.
This season highlighted the growth of two talented players coming into their own and ascending to new heights on the court. It’s also a testament to how each has worked to find their place in a league short on opportunities.
“I think that my game has been a little undervalued and underrated, which I feel like a lot of players in this league feel that way because it’s so talented,” says Brown.
“Finding a fit on this team with amazing teammates who make my job easier and knock down shots and get them the ball… finding my rhythm has been really nice. Being able to showcase my all-around game on both sides of the ball this season has been really exciting for me.”
Brown and Samuelson are both playing on their fourth team in their young careers, Brown playing in her fifth season and Samuelson in her fourth. Brown was drafted 9th overall in 2018 to a Connecticut Sun team already bringing three future All-Stars off the bench in Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones, and Betnijah Laney. Developmental minutes on a team that went 21-13 were few and far between.
“The rotation becomes small really quickly, you rarely see a team going through their entire roster to win a game or a championship, and that’s just the reality of sports. But you have a lot of time and practice to prove yourself, hone in on your skills, work on your communication, watch film with coaches, be a sponge for your teammates that have been in the league for a while, and just put your head down and work. That’s the biggest thing for me; I haven’t really had so many opportunities to showcase the hard work I put in, but the hard work is still being put in, and that’s something that I really value about myself. I always enjoy hearing from previous coaches, they can say a lot of things about me, good, bad or indifferent, but the one constant thing is I’ve worked really, really, really hard, and that’s something I’m proud of” says Brown.
Playing overseas was where Brown continued her growth and development overseas, excelling in a stint with Charnay in the French League after the 2021 W season, averaging 21.3 points per game. The French League is very competitive, and multiple W players play there in the off-season. Still, Brown’s visibility was low despite her play, “The French League is a really competitive league, and I enjoyed playing over there, but no one knew I was playing.”
Knowing she was a free agent and unlikely to re-sign with Chicago, Brown opted to leave France early and play with Athletes Unlimited. She carried over that strong play in AU’s inaugural season, allowing her to get more visibility back in the United States while still honing her game and skillset.
Catching her games in January and February, there was an apparent shift in her game; she was handling the ball more, and her confidence heightened, a sentiment she echoed herself.
“My confidence skyrocketed, something I’d been struggling with the last few seasons playing in the W. Making the decision to come home early from overseas and take a chance on myself and on Athletes Unlimited changed the trajectory of my career.”
Finding confidence in a league outside of the W is another direct link in the paths of Brown and Samuelson. Drafted 4th overall in 2019 out of the University of Connecticut, Samuelson found herself in a similar situation to Brown on a solid playoff team with little room for developmental minutes. She found a more significant opportunity in Dallas after a trade before the 2020 season and yet again after a trade before the 2021 season to Seattle. She started all but three games of the season and had the best year of her career, playing both ways effectively for a playoff team… before getting traded again in the off-season to the Sparks.
When asking her what’s been the most significant change this season, Samuelson momentarily contemplates for a split second before reflecting on struggling with pressure during her first three seasons. A two-time American Athletic Conference Player of the Year at Connecticut, Samuelson always knew her role, expectations, and how she could best impact her team. That changed drastically in the W.
“Coming into the league my first year, I really struggled figuring out what was expected from me and what role I was supposed to be playing on the team. I didn’t know if I was supposed to be trying to be a quick guard, trying to be more of a post player… there was a lot of misunderstanding in that sense. It kind of messed with me because I felt like every single day, I was doing the wrong things or wasn’t doing enough or was expected to be like someone else,” says Samuelson.
Finding confidence in a league outside of the W is another direct link in the paths of Brown and Samuelson.
In her second season with the Spanish club, Perfumerías Avenida, Samuelson played alongside her sister Karlie and fellow W player Kahleah Copper as they won the Spanish League and made it to the Final Four of the Euro League. Samuelson re-established her rhythm by averaging 15.2 points per game on 45.5/40.4/90.3 splits.
She’s one of the most prolific distance shooters college basketball has seen, making 41.5% of her near 1,000 attempts at UConn.
Missed shots weighed on her mentally, and that reduced and uncertain role played a significant part in throwing off her shot and confidence. Her time in Europe was substantial in re-discovering that confidence.
“I was putting so much onto ‘I have to make these shots. I have to do this, that’s what I’m known for’ and yes, that is, and I’m always going to be able to do that and just having that around me. People changed the way they guard me; they know to space out more, and so understanding and embracing that part made me know that I’m really good at this. This is what I do. Playing overseas helped me get that back and that rhythm.”
Finding herself as a player again and finding her comfortability on the court was paramount for Samuelson this off-season. She embraced going to a new team and focused on having fun, loving the game, and enjoying playing again, something she felt she struggled with in her first few years in the W.
“Now I know what I can do as a player and what I bring, so I was like, ‘I don’t care what anyone else wants me to do or be. I’m going to be who I am, and that’s either going to be enough, or it’s not going to be enough.’ And once I got that mentality, then I was able to really develop and get a lot better, and that’s been something that I’ve grown from my first year in the pros.”
Samuelson signed a contract extension early in the season with the Sparks, extending her deal through the 2023 season.
The duo played against one another for the first time in college during Brown’s final game at Duke, a win for UConn in the Sweet Sixteen. Both were aware of one another’s games from afar before becoming teammates.
“She was one of the first people to reach out to me about how excited she was to play with me. On the spark, so we’ve just had that connection since day one,” says Brown of Samuelson.
The connection between Lexie and Katie Lou plays out on and off the court. Lexie is an active defender at the point of attack, navigating screens and shutting down on-ball actions. Lou excels as a help defender, particularly making rotations weak-side to help in the paint.
“We have a really good ability to help each other out and know when to switch. I feel pretty comfortable with her as another defensive guard out there, knowing that she’s gonna have my back,” says Samuelson.
While the defense for the Sparks overall is still a work in progress (they’re 11th in defensive rating on the year), LA has found two-way lineups recently that have spurred on their wins in July. With Liz Cambage in health and safety protocols and ramping back up, Chiney Ogwumike has slid in as a starter over the last four games, averaging a double-double (11.8 points and ten boards). With both Ogwumike sisters, Brittney Sykes, Brown, and Samuelson, all on the court together, the Sparks are blitzing teams to the tune of 26.2 points per 100 possessions, according to PBP Stats. The offense hums, and the defense is mobile and active. I’m not ready to say, “this is the lineup that wins them games,” but it’s undoubtedly shown signs!
Regardless of what that most effective lineup becomes for the Sparks over the backend of the season, it feels clear that Lexie Brown and Katie Lou Samuelson will be part of it. Watching Brown and Samuelson re-define their careers, further cement themselves as WNBA players, and supplement one another in all facets of the game has been one of the season’s great joys. Brown summed it up best herself.
“I think we’re the most productive together…I understand her. She understands me. I’m hoping they can keep us together for a few seasons because the two of us can do something really special in this league together.”
Newly hired WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com 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