Five months ago, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma was sitting beside forward Katie Lou Samuelson when she heard he named called as the fourth overall pick in the 2019 WNBA draft. He congratulated her on the accomplishment before she walked up to the stage at Nike Headquarters in New York City.
Moments later, Samuelson was visibly shaking when she was interviewed on ESPN.
‘‘It was kind of shocking,’’ Samuelson said then. ‘‘I started sweating a little bit. This is definitely something I’ve been dreaming of. ... This is something I’ve always wanted to do.’’
To be honest, Auriemma was also caught off guard by the pick.
“I was surprised that she went to Chicago,” he said, “because I wasn’t sure Chicago was in a position where they needed Lou to come in and play 25 minutes right away. So you never know how that’s going to work out.”
Auriemma feels his staff puts his players in the best possible position to be successful in their professional basketball careers and beyond.
The proof is in the numbers. Over the last 10 years, there have been 15 Huskies players picked in the first round.
Samuelson was No. 14. She was followed by forward Napheesa Collier, whom the Lynx picked sixth overall.
At the draft, Samuelson was filled with hope and excitement. She believed she could have an immediate impact on the Sky — a team with new leadership who was trying to make the playoffs for the first time in two years.
Sure, there might be some ups and downs — that’s to be expected. But Samuelson — a two-time finalist for the Drysdale Award, which is given to the top shooting guard in women’s college basketball, who averaged 18.5 points in her senior season with the Huskies — was confident in her shooting and ability to play different positions.
And GM/coach James Wade also seemed assured Samuelson would make a smooth transition to the WNBA. He recognized she had some areas of her game she needed to improve upon — like her defense — but he like her versatility as a shooter and thought she would be able to play with every player on the court.
But the way Wade talked about utilizing Samuelson after the draft is different than how he ended up using her this season and how he said he’s planning to employ her in the future.
Samuelson didn’t earn consistent playing time. She finished averaging 2.4 points in 7.6 minutes per game, which is the least amount of minutes averaged by a first-round Connecticut pick or fourth overall pick in the last 10 years.
For perspective, the 15 Connecticut players who’ve been picked in the first round over the last decade averaged 23 minutes, and the fourth overall picks during that span averaged 18.33. Guard/forward Gabby Williams, who the Sky picked fourth overall in 2018, averaged 23 minutes.
And while Samuelson struggled to earn consistent minutes with the Sky, Collier became one of the faces of the future of the WNBA.
Collier, who was named Rookie of the Year in a tight fight against fifth overall pick Arike Ogunbowale, started all 34 games this season, averaging 13.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 33.3 minutes.
”I’m not surprised by either Lou or ‘Pheesa,” said Auriemma, who keeps tabs on his former players in the WNBA. “That the transition is going to be much more difficult for Lou than Pheesa, no doubt about it.”
In Auriemma’s eyes, it’s a matter of circumstance.
Samuelson was playing behind starters Allie Quigley and Diamond DeShields. On the bench, she was also competing with veteran forwards Kahleah Copper and Cheyenne Parker for playing time.
It also didn’t help that while Collier remained healthy the entire season, Samuelson’s development was stalled for a month this season when she unfortunately broke a bone in her wrist during a time when she was expected to take on more playing time since forward Astou Ndour joined Spain’s national team at this year’s EuroBasket Tournament.
Auriemma has talked to Samuelson this season. He said she was frustrated with missing time this season due to the injury and that she knows she has room to grow.
“Lou is probably sitting there saying, ‘I have a lot of work to do and I have a lot to learn and I’ve got to figure this out,’” Auriemma said.
Samuelson will play for Flammes Carolo Basket Ardennes in France this offseason. Like Allie Quigley did early in her struggling WNBA career, Samuelson will receive more opportunities overseas, which helped her develop her skills and grow more confident.
“Where Lou is right now is probably not as important as where she can go this year in Europe, [and] next year when she comes back,” Auriemma said. “That to me is what’s important.
“She’s on a good team, she’s on a team that made a playoffs, she’s on a team that’s accomplished a lot of good teams and I think her opportunities now are going to come later on and I think she’s going to have to be prepared for those opportunities.”