For the first time all season, the Los Angeles Sparks can actually play 5 on 5 basketball at the end of practice using their own roster of 12 players. After playing weeks without Candace Parker, Alana Beard, Alexis Jones and Maria Vadeeva, the new reality of a healthy roster means the Sparks will finally get to see how good this team can be. But it also means the Sparks face new challenges.
In with the new, but not out with the old
The Sparks will have to partially reinvent themselves again, after willing themselves to an 11-8 record with eight active players before the WNBA All-Star break. In practice this week, Coach Fisher has been grappling with the challenge of introducing the returning players while maintaining roles for the rest of the team.
”I think our biggest adjustments will be figuring out our own roster and figuring out how to now create a new seven, eight, nine player rotation that doesn’t alienate or lose those that have been here. We have seven or eight players that [have] been holding it down without people so they shouldn’t just get thrown out as if they have no value just because other players are coming back,” Fisher said.
”So I think that’s going to be our biggest challenge honestly, while we’re playing against good opponents and we have to be mindful of them. For sure, we’re going to hang our hat on our defense and we want to try to continue to improve in terms of our execution offensively and being a team that in the half court we can still get quality shots,” Fisher added.
Although Riquna Williams is in the midst of a 10 game suspension by the WNBA for her role in an alleged domestic violence incident, Williams is still practicing with the team. She provides much needed depth at guard and ball handling in controlled practice situations.
With Candace Parker, Alexis Jones, Maria Vadeeva and Alana Beard all but recovered from recent injuries, Coach Fisher will have his work cut out for him. Fisher said he must dwindle his talented roster down to a consistent seven, eight or nine person rotation, but also keep players who receive the infamous Coach’s Decision – Did Not Play (CD-DNP) designation, engaged and ready to contribute at a moment’s notice.
Relying on versatility
To be successful, Fisher must take advantage of the versatility of his roster, by figuring out if perennial All-Stars Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Chiney Ogwumike can play together in the Sparks frontcourt.
Fisher told Winsidr that he is open to the possibility of revisiting the ”Three Sisters” lineup because 2019 WNBA All Star Nneka Ogwumike has proven she is capable of playing positionless basketball, specifically by shooting 41.7% from beyond the three-point line.
Candace and Nneka can be interchangeable at the small forward, power forward positions. Their versatility allows Chiney to patrol the paint with her energetic style of post play.
Another versatile option for Fisher is 6’4 Forward/Center Maria Vadeeva. She only played in the first game of the season for the Sparks, but she dropped 24 points in her singular appearance. The Russian national team member has also proven she has an inside out game, giving Fisher another player to pair with Candace and Nneka in his ultimate quest to usher positionless basketball into the WNBA.
Some players won’t be happy, but they have to be ready
Meanwhile, all 12 players have proven themselves capable to Fisher at various points before the WNBA All-Star break. But in a 40 minute game, the reality is that there are simply not enough minutes and frankly not enough shots to go around to keep everyone 100-percent satisfied.
6’7 rookie Center Kalani Brown is one of the players likely to see a minute reduction. She has accepted this reality as she grows into her role as the Baby Enforcer on the Sparks.
“Just being ready when my number is called,” Brown said. ”It goes back to what Coach said, he didn’t draft me to sit. Whether that’s two minutes, 30 seconds, I’m going to give my all, 100%, whatever minutes I get.”
Another player likely to see her role decrease is Tierra Ruffin-Pratt. She is having a great season. TRP has started 18 of 19 games for the Sparks while shooting 41.7% from 3 so far this season. The veteran knows her role doesn’t change even if her minutes do.
”My role is always going to be the same, be a defender, try to guard the best perimeter player out there and shoot the open shots when I get them, ” said Ruffin-Pratt.
Coming back home
The Sparks made it to the All-Star break with a 5-2 record at home and a 6-6 record on the road. They maintain a respectable ranking 4th out of 12 teams in the standings after wearily playing 12 out their first 19 games on the road. For their certified status as true road warriors, they will be rewarded with finishing the season with 10 of the final 15 regular season games at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.
Taking care of business at home would likely put the Sparks squarely in position for a top two seed in the WNBA Playoffs. It could also provide them with the hallowed playoff bye until the semi-finals.
”I think we have to have a hunger and a desire for more because we’re capable of it,” Fisher said. ”[But] until we play a few games with everybody back, I’m not sure what our highest level is going to be.”
Whether it’s a gift or a curse, the Sparks ceiling remains unknown. Until Chelsea Gray, Alana Beard, Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Chiney Ogwumike play consistent minutes on the court together, we won’t have an idea of their potential.
”I think it’s going to be a work your way back into things to try to get your feel but also with that being said we have 15 games left and we want to put ourselves in the best position so we will monitor it and keep an eye on it,” said two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker, as she returns from a sprained ankle that has sidelined her for several weeks.
Various combinations of the Sparks All-Star lineup has the potential to create matchup and talent nightmares for opponents, which could lead the Sparks to becoming true WNBA championship contenders sooner than later.