The forward/center spent much of her freshman year just hoping for the end of each practice. With her 6-foot-3 frame, she showed flashes of potential, but she was too consumed with convincing herself of her own ability to consistently make a meaningful impact.
"Sam battled last year so much with confidence and conditioning and wondering if she could survive the practices," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "She spent so much time concerned with whether she could make sprints and hang on to the end of practice and that was coming from a place of weakness."
All along, Mitchell's belief in the Bardstown, Ky., native never wavered. Much of the time Mitchell spent coaching Drake was simply trying to communicate that belief to her. Eventually, Drake found out she was the only obstacle in her own way.
"She had a terrific summer and I just tried to put it to her, 'There's nothing that you can't get through,' " Mitchell said. "Finally she proved to herself she can really perform at a high level."
Drake's evolution was on full display in UK's final game before a brief break for Christmas. She scored 18 points in a 90-61 win over Samford to follow up on a career-high 21 points on Sunday against Notre Dame. She connected on all six of her field goal attempts with her only miss on the night coming on one of her seven free throws. She dished a pair of assists to boot and committed no turnovers.
"The confidence I have right now is positive confidence," Drake said. "I'm trying to keep that up and I'm getting help from all the coaches and my teammates, knowing they have my back and I have theirs. That's something we're really working on."
Her confidence was never clearer than on her touches with her back to the basket. She instantly read the defense and made a quick decision on what to do with the ball and almost always made the correct choice.
"She was so decisive," Mitchell said. "Her first play, she caught it in the high post, ripped through and went to the bucket. Those are good signs."
Recognizing Drake's improvement, UK has made a conscious effort in both games and practices to prioritize post offense. From the beginning of the season, Mitchell has wanted to get to the point where throwing the ball into the post was the first offensive option. Now, the Cats are finally able to do it.
"I think the plan all season was for us to be improved in that area and the last two days were real productive from a practice standpoint because we really did try to slow things down and have our guards find post players," Mitchell said. "A lot of that is my job as a coach to construct a practice plan where that's the emphasis."
However, Drake isn't the only one of UK's forwards and centers playing at a high level. Azia Bishop (13 points) and Samarie Walker (10 points) joined her as double-figure scorers as UK went almost exclusively to a lineup with two bigs. For Drake, who has spent much of the season as the only player over 6-feet in a four-guard lineup, that's a welcome development.
"It's a big help," Drake said. "I don't have to have all the pressure on me. Having another forward out there gives us a chance to have another big scorer inside and work on our post game."
The chemistry between Drake and Walker was particularly evident, even though the Connecticut transfer was playing just her second game in a Kentucky uniform.
"They did have some nice connections tonight, Samantha and Samarie in particular," Mitchell said. "Those are two big, athletic players who, if we can get that going, it would be nice. It is nice to have some depth in the post."
With Drake's continued improvement and Walker's proficiency in the post, Mitchell could have a pair of players who regularly demand double teams.
"Anytime you can have post players who draw double teams, it opens up a lot and not only from kicking it out and shooting," Mitchell said. "An effective post game helps you tremendously and it's exciting to have some options there."
With his more frequent usage of a lineup with two forwards, Mitchell has not yet figured out how exactly that affects the pressure defense that is so much a part of what UK does as a team. Drake and Walker both have the ability to play in that style, but again, Mitchell sees he needs to build confidence in the two sophomores.
"The thing we have to figure out there is how we're going to press with those two," Mitchell said. "They're very fast and athletic, but they're not as confident in the press as when we go four guards. We'll have to figure that out."
Having to determine how to play defensively because Drake and Walker have become so effective offensively is a problem Mitchell certainly doesn't mind having.