How Karlie Samuelson used a season in Australia to break through with Sparks

Sparks guard Karlie Samuelson reacts after a three-point basket.
Sparks guard Karlie Samuelson reacts after a three-point basket against the Las Vegas Aces during a game on May 25 at Arena.
(Katelyn Mulcahy / Getty Images)
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Signing the sharp-shooting guard who averages 2.8 points per game in her WNBA career was one of the best decisions Shannon Seebohm has ever made. It’s because to the four-year head coach of Australia’s Townsville Fire, Karlie Samuelson’s impact shouldn’t be measured in the points she scores, but instead the three championship trophies she raised in as many seasons.

“Her track record speaks for itself,” Seebohm said. “She’s a winner.”

With three consecutive titles in two top-flight international leagues, Samuelson is finally getting her shot in the WNBA. After the Sparks waived her at the end of training camp, the former Mater Dei star’s perseverance and passion earned her a seasonlong contract in the WNBA for the first time since 2018.

The 6-foot guard cycled through eight hardship and seven-day contracts for four WNBA teams since she played a career-best 20 games for the Sparks in 2018. The latest temporary deal ended on June 6, but instead of amicably parting ways with the Stanford graduate like so many times before, the Sparks shuffled their roster to keep her. Her play warranted it.


The 27-year-old scored in double figures in each of the first three games of the year, and is averaging career bests in points (7.1), assists (1.6) and minutes (23) entering Friday’s game against the Minnesota Lynx at 7 p.m. at Arena. When the Sparks (5-4) re-signed her to a rest-of-season contract, creatively using salary designated for a replacement player as Samuelson’s sister Katie Lou is out on maternity leave, Samuelson exhaled.

Then, never one to rest, she laced up her shoes and took the court for a game in Seattle.

“It’s not like the work’s done,” Samuelson said at a recent practice.

Despite a recent shooting slump, Samuelson’s 44% shooting from beyond the arc still ranks ninth in the WNBA. Samuelson’s shooting is her greatest contribution to a team that lost two of its best floor-spacing wings before the season, but what makes her “the ultimate substitute teacher” in Sparks’ coach Curt Miller’s eyes is that Samuelson can intelligently shape shift into anything her team needs.

“Fight for the role you want, be a champion in the role you’ve earned,” Miller said. “What Karlie Samuelson has done so well throughout her career is be a champion in her role that she’s earned.”

Dearica Hamby scored 14 of her 23 points in the third quarter to help the Sparks open a double-digit lead in a rout of the Dallas Wings on Wednesday.

June 14, 2023

Even with the security of a seasonlong contract, Samuelson’s role still fluctuates daily. The Sparks are working point guard Jasmine Thomas and Azurá Stevens back into the lineup after early season injuries, limiting Samuelson’s minutes. Just when the team was getting healthier, Layshia Clarendon suffered a partially torn plantar fascia in her right foot that will sideline the starting guard for up to six weeks.

Samuelson is always ready to step up for the Sparks, just like she did when Seebohm pulled her aside before a team breakfast early in the Fire’s season. Two starters — including fellow WNBA player Tianna Hawkins — were going to miss the critical road game because of injuries. With a short roster, Seebohm told Samuelson to let her shot fly.

“No problem,” she responded, “I got you.”

When Samuelson got the ball off the opening tip, she took two dribbles and splashed a pull-up three en route to 26 points on nine-for-12 shooting with six made three-pointers.


“After that,” Seebohm said, “she didn’t look back.”

Samuelson was the first WNBL player since at least 1998, when records are available, to shoot better than 50% from the field, 40% from three-point range and 90% from the free-throw line with more than 10 shot attempts of each type. She helped the Fire to its first title in five seasons, averaging 13.6 points, three rebounds and 2.2 assists per game.

The longtime WNBA journeywoman and perennial role player suddenly found herself in a starring role. In Australia, Samuelson was an import player, one of just two international players allowed per team. The coveted spots often go to top WNBA players.

Samuelson didn’t think she would make the cut as an import in Australia. In Europe, where she could leverage her British citizenship to get onto rosters, her stats were modest. She averaged 7.7 points and 3.4 rebounds in the 2021-2022 season for Spain’s Perfumerías Avenida.

Amy Atwell of the Lynx controls the ball against Karlie Samuelson of the Fire during game two of the WNBL Semi Final series.
Amy Atwell of the Lynx controls the ball against Karlie Samuelson of the Fire during game two of the WNBL Semi Final series at Bendat Basketball Stadium, on March 12, in Perth, Australia.
(Paul Kane / Getty Images)

But the first thing Seebohm looks for in a potential import player is the success of their previous team. Samuelson checked every box; back-to-back league titles in two years with Avenida, two Spanish Cup championships and two EuroLeague Final Fours.

“When I started watching, I could see how she was able to impact winning in a lot of different ways,” Seebohm said.


Playing under the higher expectations as an import was nerve-racking, Samuelson admitted. But it was also empowering.

With the Fire, she found herself in more actions than ever. Beyond her well-known three-point shooting — she’s at least a top-five shooter in the world, Seebohm said — Samuelson got to show her prowess off the dribble and how she could facilitate for her teammates. Her tenacious effort on defense never wavered. The expanded role had her more prepared than ever to chase the elusive WNBA roster spot when she signed a training camp contract with the Sparks.

The team that gave Samuelson her first shot in the WNBA as an undrafted player out of Stanford in 2017 has been her most frequent stateside stop. Before this season, the Huntington Beach native played 34 of her 42 WNBA games for her hometown team. Samuelson also played four games with Dallas in 2019, three with Seattle in 2021 and one with Phoenix last year.

Through every waived contract, it’s the pure joy of playing that keeps Samuelson coming back. Even if she’s not with a WNBA team in the summer, she works out with her trainers. It’s her happy place, she said.

Samuelson has seen other talented players give up on coming to WNBA camps after repeated heartbreaks in the league where role-playing veterans like her are often squeezed out due to salary-cap math that makes it more valuable to sign rookies to fill out rosters. The thought of walking away crept into her head last year during her one-game, 10-minute cameo with Phoenix.

The Sparks let an 11-point lead with 3:38 left in the fourth quarter evaporate in a loss to the host Minnesota Lynx on Sunday evening.

June 11, 2023

But with the confidence of her Australian season and her first full WNBA training camp in five years, Samuelson knew she had as good of a shot as ever to make a roster.


“[Getting cut] affects me because it’s difficult, but my confidence is still high,” Samuelson said, citing her successful six-year overseas career. “I’m confident in my game and what I bring to the table. If a team wants that, like they want or need the way that I play, I think I can contribute.”

Samuelson proved quickly just how much she can do by knocking down her first shot of the season three days after the Sparks waived her out of training camp. She unleashed a fierce fist pump after a 26-footer that seemed like a statement to show the Sparks were right to choose her.

After getting skipped over so many times, Samuelson finally got the ultimate vindication of a seasonlong contract. But to her, she’s not playing to make a point.

“I’m not here to prove [something] to people,” Samuelson said. “I’m just enjoying my career.”