Top 2015 prospect Katie Lou Samuelson is the youngest of three talented Samuelson sisters. Bonnie and Karlie both play basketball for Stanford, Katie Lou is on track to exceed the high standards set by her siblings.
There was a point during this summer when Katie Lou Samuelson’s knee began to bother her a bit. It was nothing serious, and the worry of injury has since alleviated, but it hinted at just how busy she’s been, just a few months past her 16th birthday.
Since she ended her sophomore year of high school at Mater Dei, Lou (which she prefers to go by) has played basketball for the United States (twice), navigated another frenetic July schedule of AAU basketball, and attended Mater Dei’s summer workouts whenever she wasn’t in the air or on the road.
And then there were the fabled shooting sessions with her dad, Jon. It was as steady a stream of hoops as you’re likely to find at this level, so it was only natural that there would be some wear and tear.
This past season for Mater Dei, her first since transferring from nearby Edison High in Huntington Beach, Calif., Lou took the state by storm, averaging 20.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.2 blocks while shooting 54.2% from the field and 43% from three. There were times when the 6-3 wing was unstoppable. One year after earning MVP honors for the Sunset League and being named California Freshman of the Year, Lou upped the ante, taking the Trinity League MVP and California Sophomore of the Year. Her name was bandied about for the Gatorade National Player of the Year award.
Lou also managed to compile a 4.2 cumulative GPA through her first two years in high school while opting for the same challenging courses as her sisters. Her list of potential colleges comprises the “who’s who” of today’s premier programs: UConn, Notre Dame, Stanford, UCLA, Louisville and Kentucky. She enjoys history, and calls Larry Bird her favorite basketball player. When she finds the rare snippet of spare time, she likes playing racquetball with her older sister Karlie, or hanging out with friends.
Oh, and about those sisters — Bonnie (the eldest) and Karlie, the middle child, both play basketball for Stanford. For the ’13-14 season, Bonnie will be a junior and Karlie an incoming freshman. They may be the first two sisters to have their names in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. — a reward for their exploits in the Elk Hoop Shoot Free Throw Competition, which each has won twice.
This blinding success is a testament to their parents, Jon and Karen Samuelson, who resolved to instill in each of their three daughters the importance of commitment and activity.
Jon and Karen met years ago at a barbecue in England, where they both played professional basketball — Jon for the Gateshead Vikings, Karen for the Vikings’ sister club. Karen, from Sunderland, was an All-England level netball player (think basketball with hoops but no backboards) before she switched to basketball at age 20. Jon was something of a legend back in Southern California, a 6-7 point guard who teamed with his two brothers at Sonora High School on the way to a Southern Section 2-A title in 1983. At Chapman College, he played with the likes of Steve Lavin and Jim Saia, both of whom have coached college basketball at the highest levels.
It might have been expected that the three Samuelson daughters would begin playing basketball moments after leaving the crib, but Jon and Karen never foisted the sport upon them. Both worked as physical education instructors at Ladera Vista Junior High, and saw firsthand the profound benefits that result from staying active. They encouraged the girls to play the classic circuit of seasonal sports, switching from soccer to basketball and the like. They stressed the importance of academics and the pursuit of piano. (Lou says she used to be able to play “pretty well” when she was younger.) Idle minds, these were not.
They recognized the importance of time management, and wanted Bonnie, Karlie and Katie Lou to learn to challenge themselves. “We knew that would set them up for life,” Karen said. “They had to learn early that they had to work hard to get where they wanted to be.”
Above anything else, both Jon and Karen wanted their daughters to comport themselves with dignity. If they lost a game, there was no pouting. The girls learned instead to look at setbacks as opportunities for improvement.
Photo courtesy of the Samuelson family
By age 10 or 11, Karen recalls, Bonnie had decided to go all-in with basketball after finding success in the Elks Hoop Shoot competition. Karen had heard about the contest through her students, and her girls loved it. Bonnie and Karlie won the national competition twice — Bonnie hit 24 out of 25 free throws in the 2005 final — and Lou participated in it from ages 8 to 13.
Lou tagged along with Bonnie and Karlie wherever they went, in that inseparable manner of young siblings. More and more often, they hung out at the gym. When her sisters played games, Lou sat on the bench, sometimes with a friend, and got water for the players. She always had a jersey, and on some occasions, she even got to play. It wasn’t until she was 9 or 10 that she really began to take an interest in the sport, Lou says. Back then, it was just fun to do what her sisters did.
But before she played, she watched. She got a sense for the rhythms and cadences and nuance of this wonderful game. Looking back, Karen realizes that Lou saw everything. When she began playing, it showed. “She wanted to show her sisters ‘I can do this, too.’ I can do these drills. The coaches noticed how eager she was, and they’d throw her out there on the court if they were short on players. These kids were three years older than her.”
But that never bothered Lou. If she made a fullcourt pass, only to watch an opponent intercept it, she made sure it didn’t happen again. She realized that if she wanted to be out on the court with her sisters, she’d need to accelerate her learning curve.
She tested herself in games of one-on-one with Bonnie and Karlie. In the system the girls set up, if you got scored on, you subbed out, and the other sister rotated in. Bonnie was always the tallest, so she won the majority of these makeshift matchups, but sometimes she’d let Lou score on her. Not so with Karlie, Lou remembers now, chuckling. The two youngest sisters were the same height then, and sometimes their games grew quite heated.
Jon, who’d always been known as an excellent shooter, began to instruct the girls individually. He devised drills, drawing upon the ones he’d used in his youth. Other kids would come and watch these clinics, and parents began to ask if Jon would teach their children. “We’d just say ‘Join in’,” said Karen. Jon’s sessions quickly grew.
They focused almost exclusively on shooting, alternating between 15-footers, 17-footers and threes, adding in some step-back jumpers as well. They do those drills to this day.
They eschewed the bad habits and lapses in consistency that often arise when players look to do too much too soon. It was only as they approached high school that the girls began focusing upon additional offensive tools. No one enjoyed this more than Lou, whom Karen says is always in hot pursuit of some new wrinkle to add to her already prodigious offensive arsenal.
In addition to the work with their dad, the girls trained with Jason Wright, a renowned shooting instructor who counts Brandon Jennings, Candace Parker and Tina Thompson among his clients. They work with him still, with Bonnie often jumping into drills when she’s back home from Palo Alto. “Jason will challenge them, teaching Euro steps, having them do pushups and get up and take shots,” said Karen. “He has these noodles where he’ll hit them while they’re shooting or going to the basket. It makes it more game-like, when you’ve got people running at you and hitting you and you have to get your shot up quick.”
Bonnie Samuelson #41 cheers after scoring during the 2012 Final Four. (Photo by Kelly Kline)
After watching Bonnie, the Samuelsons felt Karlie and Lou would be best served playing for a high school with a penchant for preparing its players for high-level college basketball. It was readily apparent how important conditioning, strength and a staunch commitment to defense become at the next level — even now, in early August, Lou says that is exactly what her sisters are doing at Stanford. “We know a lot of the stuff that goes on on the other side,” said Karen. “Everyone thinks it’s all glamorous, but it’s hard, hard work. The time management is huge. You’ve got to start looking at where you fit in. I want her to think about her game. She doesn’t want to be just a shooter; she wants to be able to do all these things that she’s been practicing.”
Thus, last summer they decided to transfer from Edison to Mater Dei ahead of Karlie and Lou’s senior and sophomore seasons, respectively. Mater Dei’s superb academic reputation and commitment to community service enticed, as did its sterling basketball. In just seven seasons, girls' basketball coach Kevin Kiernan has led the Monarchs to three state championships and two national titles. In 11 seasons at Troy High, his previous stint, he nabbed three state crowns.
Kiernan had watched all three girls cycle through his basketball camps. He’d knew they were tremendous players who’d immediately make Mater Dei better on the court. What he wasn’t expecting, however, was to find a wealth of intangibles in the Samuelsons. These girls got it.
The girls made an instant impression, bolstering the Monarchs with their buoyant approach to the game. Their new teammates welcomed them immediately. Out on the court, the sisters thrived, that inherent trust of siblings and years spent playing together paying dividends. “When I was doing bad, Karlie could get one me, and I wouldn’t take it to heart,” said Lou. “I know she’s telling the truth; she’s telling me exactly what I need to do to get better.”
Karlie and Lou could assess situations out on the court within instants; they pinpointed weaknesses and areas to exploit. In addition to Lou’s offensive pyrotechnics, Karlie played in all 32 of the Monarchs’ games, and posted averages of 17.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists in addition to endless stories describing her all-out hustle.
Lou slotted into the three spot in Kiernan’s offense, previously occupied by former Monarch and current UConn star Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. It’s the scoring spot. “Lou’s the tallest player on our team,” said Kiernan, “so we’ll post her up if we have mismatches. But she’s out on the perimeter quite a bit. We’ll get her good looks, and run stuff inside and out. Then in transition she can pull up from 25 feet. She’ll hit some shots that would be a bad shot for anybody else, but she’s got such a quick release it works. She’s got the green light for us. We want her to shoot.”
That shooting prowess never ceases to impress the coach. Kiernan and his coaching staff instruct the Monarch players that they need to hoist 300 to 400 shots daily if they want to get better. “But we never have to tell that to (Lou),” said Kiernan. As soon as practice ends, she’ll go shooting. Saturday, Sunday morning, she goes and shoots. I never worry about Lou getting enough shots.”
In what was supposed to be a down year (the Monarchs were coming off three consecutive state titles), with Kiernan fielding a starting lineup that featured one senior (Karlie) and four underclassmen (Lou was one of them), the sisters helped lead the Monarchs to a 30-2 record. They were named co-MVPs of the prestigious Tournament of Champions last December, where Mater Dei took the title in the top bracket. In the final against Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.), Karlie poured in 37 points. Lou chipped in 27, including an 18-point burst in the third quarter.
Karlie and Katie Lou were named Co-MVP's of the 2012 Nike Tournament of Champions. (photo by Kelly Kline)
Couple that with her experience playing for the United States U-16 team this past June at the FIBA Americas tournament. The May tryouts alone were grueling, but Lou did more than navigate the field of 131 invitees — she thrived. Head coach Sue Phillips was blown away by her approach. “It was intense, but she was always the first one there,” said Phillips. “She was attentive during team discussions and extremely receptive during film sessions.”
Needless to say, Lou was one of 12 players named to the USA team that swept its way to a gold medal in Cancun, Mexico. She became a starter, alternating between the three and four. Phillips would switch Lou’s position on the fly, then marvel at the way she never skipped a beat. “Couple her quick learning curve and keen understanding of the game with her ability to make the immediate corrective measure on the court — that’s special,” said Phillips. “She adapts on the fly.”
Back in 2009, three of Kiernan’s Mater Dei players (Mosqueda-Lewis, Jordan Adams and Alexyz Vaioletama) played for the USA U-16 team in the inaugural edition of the FIBA Americas championship for that age bracket.
He knows that after navigating the rigors of those tryouts and that training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo. (not to mention the small matter of the international competition during the tournament itself), nothing can faze you. “It’s a helluva experience,” said Kiernan. “You’re exposed to another level of coaching, you get to hear different voices, you’re playing against great players. It’s a unique confidence builder, something you can’t replicate anywhere else.”
Mosqueda-Lewis led that team with 14.0 points in five games. This year, Lou almost bested the now-UConn star’s 10 three-pointers for the entire competition in one game — appropriately, in the final against Canada, when she went a perfect 8-for-8 from deep. “At halftime, I told my team, ‘Get her the ball!’” Phillips said. “She’d already taken four or five shots at the half, and she’s a great shooter even on a bad day. You could tell she was honed in.”
With that barrage from deep (all of her 24 points against Canada came from those threes), Lou helped make it three gold medals in a row for the USA U-16s. For the entire tournament, she drained 18 three-pointers, the most by any player, and averaged 16.0 points through the five games, second behind USA teammate Asia Durr (18.4 points.)
In fact, Lou’s name surfaced in the leaders of almost every major statistical category. She averaged 5.6 rebounds (11th) and shot 51.9% from the field (fifth). Her salvo in the final bumped her three-point shooting to 52.9% (second), and gave her 3.6 threes per game, more than one better than the next player. She played the most of any player on Team USA, chalking 27.2 minutes (FIBA games are played in four 10-minute quarters.)
Samuelson was the second leading scorer for Team USA during the FIBA Americas. (Photo courtesy of USA Basketball)
Phillips just finished her 20th season at Archbishop Mitty, where she’s won five state championships, the most recent of which came this past season. She’s coached the likes of Kerri Walsh Jennings (who went on to become a gold medal-winning beach volleyball star) and Danielle Robinson, who plays for the WNBA’s San Antonio Silver Stars.
She’s faced Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore, and has no reservations about throwing Lou’s name into that category of “elite” talents. “She really does have a very full toolbox,” said Phillips. “She has a mid-range game, and with her size she can elevate at the rim and finish. I’ve seen her do it.”
You could never tell what kind of game Lou was having by looking at her, which was one of the highest compliments Phillips could pay her. Karen agrees with that, but does add that Lou “gets pissed off when players are hitting her or trying to take her out. That’s the only time, but then she’ll come back ten times harder.”
Kiernan thinks that if Lou continues to develop at this rate, comparisons to former Delaware and current Chicago Sky superstar Elena Delle Donne aren’t too far-fetched. “I’d love to see her get to the place where she can dominate games that way,” said Kiernan. “That’s where she’s headed.”
Then there’s that relentless desire for self-improvement, fueled by the rigors she knows await her at the next level. Lou knows she needs to get stronger, and she’s the first one to tell you that she needs to bolster her defense. Phillips notes that defenders will begin bumping her off her cuts. There aren’t many open looks available at the highest levels of basketball — especially if you’re known as a shooter.
At Mater Dei, she’ll receive the tutelage and training to maximize her potential. Karen can’t say enough about how much Karlie improved in just one year there — Lou will get three. “Coach Kiernan’s practices are college-level,” said Karen. "We know that now, from Stanford. Everything he does — his preparation, his strength work, is college-level. We couldn’t be in better hands.”
This past season, Kiernan brought in a sports nutritionist to speak to the team about the ways healthy eating can improve athletic performance. The players down protein shakes after practice to maximize recovery (USA Today High School Sports.) Then they head to the workout room.
Kiernan says he devotes 70% of the team’s practices to defense. The Monarchs run a full-court press (Karlie and Lou were often at the top of it last season), and utilize stifling traps in their half-court sets. Once Lou was exposed to that defensive culture, she worked relentlessly to become a key contributor.
Even with her two sisters off at college, the family remains as close as ever. At Nike Nationals in Augusta, Ga., this past July, Karen watched Lou take the court for Cal Swish against Georgia Metros, the same team against which the three Samuelsons had taken the court at the same time — so rare given their disparate ages — at the same tournament, years ago. It was only for a moment, Lou said, but it meant everything.
They’ll text goofy movie lines to each other, with Bonnie usually spearheading the activity. Jon joins in on the antics. They’ll mess around in the gym, trying to one-up each other with trick shots once their training has finished. They’ll make dance videos.
That jocularity is one of the girls’ greatest strengths, Kiernan says. They’re the farthest thing from egocentric superstars you’re likely to find.
This season, Lou will have to become a leader, though. Mater Dei will be her team for the next two years. Already, Kiernan says Lou is applying the lessons she’s learned from this whirlwind of a summer. “When she came back from tryouts with Sue (Phillips), the coaching staff said she was really talking — especially on defense,” said Kiernan. “Lou realized how important that is. Sue said that all those girls started talking, and doing what Lou was doing. She’s coming back with that kind of confidence. She’ll be a vocal leader.”
Jon’s buddies from his playing days will once again attend her games for Mater Dei. Karen and the girls all think that’s one of the coolest things they’ve seen. But it makes sense. These guys are coming to watch great players and great basketball. They’ve taken to calling Lou “Louranchula,” noting that her rangy capacity to affect games in so many ways reminds them of Kevin Durant.
She’ll begin taking trips to the schools she’s considering — Notre Dame and UConn are already on the docket for this winter. Everyone asks about Stanford, if she wants to play with Karlie again like she did in high school, but she deflects the question with aplomb. “I’m thinking about what’s the best fit for me,” Lou said. “My sisters both know that. I’m going to look for the place where I best fit in, where I have the best opportunity, and they support that. They’re not trying to pressure me to go [to Stanford.]”
In August, Lou traveled back to Colorado Springs to participate in the 3x3 U18 National Championship, which ran from Aug. 9-11. Playing with top prospects Gabby Green (Oakland, Calif.), Arike Ogunbowale (Milwaukee) and Brianna Turner (Houston), Team Defend went 4-0 on the first day of competition and qualified for the championship round, which they won on Sunday. (Lou also won the three-point shooting contest at the event.)
Now, she can look forward to the FIBA 3x3 U18 World Championships, expected to feature 24 teams. Lou will travel back to Colorado Springs next month for a brief training camp before taking off for Jakarta, Indonesia, where the event will be held from Sept. 26-29.
With so much basketball already on tap, Jon and Karen have learned to help Lou scale back. She doesn’t play in every tournament, and she doesn’t say yes to every invitation. But the opportunity to play for her country, one of her greatest dreams, was simply too tantalizing to pass up. Standing on top of that winner’s podium this past June, just moments after capturing a gold medal, unexplainable feelings rushing through as the American flag is raised, was the perfect encapsulation.
She knows how hard she needs to work, and she’s more than willing to do it. In the end, that may be her greatest attribute. “She loves to play,” said Kiernan. “She never comes to practice down — she almost skips into practice. That’s just a great thing to have. Your best player has to have that.”
For Lou, that’s what basketball is about. She wants more championships for Mater Dei. She wants to play in the WNBA. Oh, and by the way, she wants to win. “She really wants to win,” Karen said, chuckling.
When you find that thing you truly love, it feels like electricity. It’s those final, fateful steps onto your doorstep after a long time away from home, when light is flooding everything for the better. Sometimes words fall short, and it’s better to simply watch. It’s better to look for a player who breathes the sport.
Look — she’s already headed back to the gym to hoist another series of jumpers.