The Los Angeles Sparks are arguably the deepest team in the WNBA. Between vets and youth, the Sparks have a combined 65 years of WNBA experience on their 12-woman roster.
Half of the team are skilled veterans highlighted by All-Stars Candace Parker, Seimone Augustus, Nneka Ogwumike, Chelsea Gray, and Riquna Williams. The other half of the Sparks are talented young players with three or fewer years of experience. Aside from Sydney Wiese, who signed a contract extension through 2022, the young players are still looking to make their mark in the league and earn long-term contracts.
Heading into his second year as head coach, Derek Fisher’s goal is to lead Los Angeles to the 2020 WNBA Championship. By all accounts from current and former players, Fisher has earned the reputation of a player’s coach.
“You don’t even have to say it. He already knows,” said Sparks rookie guard Te’a Cooper while sharing her initial impressions of her new coach. “The way he teaches, (shows) he’s been in that situation.”
Fisher is focused on helping all 12 players fit into his versatile, free-flowing, yet triangle-based offense: “There’s no one person bigger than the LA Sparks,” Fisher said.
After returning to LA as a free agent in the offseason, guard Kristi Toliver decided to opt-out of the 2020 season. Toliver’s presence as a player, who has also worked as an assistant coach in the NBA, will truly be missed.
Without Toliver, Fisher said he’s planning to start Gray, Williams,Ogwumike, Parker, and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt. Fisher used this lineup frequently in 2019, including during the semi-finals playoff series where the Sparks were swept 3-0 by Connecticut.
Sparks Sixth Woman Chiney Ogwumike, who played back up forward and center for LA in 2019, has also decided to opt-out of the 2020 season. Center Maria Vadeeva could have filled that role; however, Vadeeva will remain in Russia this season. The organization said Vadeeva will rejoin the Sparks in 2021.
Los Angeles native forward Reshanda Gray, who was signed by the Sparks after being waived by the New York Liberty, is hoping to fill the void left by Chiney and Vadeeva. Gray has the potential to emerge as the primary frontcourt player off the bench in the Sparks rotation.
Chelsea Gray is not just playing, but thinking basketball this season. Gray is a more than a capable isolation player. However, with so many other talented players on the roster, the floor general knows she has to pick her spots. Gray, who is known for her no-look passes that often left Derek Fisher breathless last season, is also a clutch closer.
“I’m happy with 6 points, 10 assists and we win by 30,” Gray said. However, Derek Fisher has been known to draw up ISO Gray plays at the end of quarters, relying on Gray’s one-on-one skills.
But Gray said her role on the Sparks depends on the flow of the game. Sometimes she’s looking inside for Ogwumike, other times she’s going full isolation to beat her defender off the dribble. Gray believes her ultimate success will come in knowing that she’s got game too.
Nneka Ogwumike is the personification of efficiency. Head Coach Derek Fisher already dubbed her the WNBA’s MVP before the season begins.
Ogwumike is pulling double duty, serving as both the team’s captain and the President of the WNBA Players Union.
With that in mind, Ogwumike said health is her priority. Coach Fisher said it is important for the Sparks organization to have Ogwumike’s back so she doesn’t wear down during the accelerated 22-game regular season.
Speaking of efficiency, I asked Ogwumike if she was willing to accept my challenge of shooting 60 percent from the field in 2020?
“It’s a goal now that you said it,” Ogwumike answered with a smile in her voice and a mask on her face.
“Nneka is just one of those players that’s going to work. Her entire career represents that,” said Parker. “It’s really fun for me because I think we bring out the best in one another.”
Candace Parker is ready for a challenge. Parker’s ultimate quest is two-fold: staying healthy and helping her teammates. She is working hard to stay healthy by taking care of her body. She said the best way she can help her teammates is by being on the court.
“My biggest wish right now is that we all stay healthy and have the opportunity to be out there to play,” said Parker.
Parker’s multiple injuries forced her to miss half of the 2019 season. Parker showed flashes of her greatness, but struggled to find consistency on the court.
By all accounts, Parker is looking and, more importantly, feeling healthy. A healthy Candace Parker is a happy Candace Parker, and a happy Candace Parker is a happy Sparks team.
If the Sparks can come up with a plan to keep Parker fresh for the 22-game regular season, she could be a problem matchup in the playoffs. Even at 34 years old, Parker is still the personification of positionless basketball in the WNBA.
“I don’t think things went as well as we would have wanted last year and we were still in third, so it’s just more motivation going into this year,” Parker said.
Tierra Ruffin-Pratt is the heartbeat of the Sparks. She’s willing to play full-court defense, just to slow down opposing point guards. Ruffin-Pratt always accepts the toughest assignment and prides herself on being a defensive stopper.
“TRP, you got it,” jokingly said Gray, when asked whether she wanted to switch defensive assignments with Ruffin-Pratt in 2020.
However, TRP opted into the bubble for more than the love of the game. She’s playing for social justice and the memory of her cousin Julian Dawkins, who was killed by an off-duty deputy in 2013.
TRP is ready to show there’s more to her game than defense. She’s been working on her 3-point shot, channeling the spirit of Headband T, a nickname born when she made a career-high six three-pointers against the Atlanta Dream in 2019.
“If they need to be a spot-up shooter, I’ll be that,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “If they need me to be a slasher, I’ll be that.”
Riquna Williams is instant offense. “The Microwave” can heat up and score in bunches. Williams’ role will be a reprise of 2019, as she will be paired in the starting backcourt with Gray.
Williams was effective as a starter last season, as the Sparks went 11-3 when she was in the starting lineup. However, Williams was suspended for 10 games in the middle of the season as a result of a domestic violence incident.
Williams was not as effective in the Sparks pivotal playoff series against Connecticut. She was not effective as a secondary ball handler and never got on track offensively, specifically from 3.
In 2020, Williams will need to take the pressure off Gray by increasing her presence as a secondary ball-handler. As much as Williams is known as a scorer, she’s a capable and willing passer.
Sharing the basketball is something Williams will have to do for the Sparks to be successful. Riquna’s selflessness will allow Ogwumike and Parker ample opportunities for easy inside buckets when opposing defenses are slow to react to unselfish ball movement.
Seimone Augustus has a renewed spirit. Money Mone aka Funny Mone is bringing a jovial mood into her 15th and possibly her last season in the W. Augustus is new to the Sparks but her biggest adjustment has been getting used to being treated like basketball royalty.
“Coming in, bringing energy, scoring points… I’m just trying to win,” Augustus shared. Augustus’s goal is to be as close to or at 100% healthy this season.
For now, it appears Augustus will most likely come in off the bench. However, Augustus often spends time practicing with the first team, creating the tantalizing possibility of a Big 4 lineup featuring Gray, Augustus, Parker, and Ogwumike. Even for short stretches, the experience of that lineup could be essential in clutch situations.
Reshanda Gray is a tenacious and tireless 6’2 rebounder who could quickly become a heralded “missing link” for the Sparks. Gray is thankful for the opportunity to play for her hometown team.
“My role is to bring the energy coming off the bench, whatever coach asks of me when my name is called,” Reshanda Gray explained. “Just to be ready and just to be the best me. I want to be able to say when I step off the court, I was the best Reshanda Gray.”
Brittney Sykes is listed at just 5’9, but she has boundless athleticism, providing her with the physical gifts to guard multiple positions, including taller players on the wing. Initially, she’s expected to come off the bench but ultimately has the talent to start on the Sparks and pretty much every other team in the league.
When Sykes told Winsidr she was going to play this season, she said her role would be to get out and run in transition, play with proper pace in half-court offense, and pressure shooters with stifling defense. Sykes and Marie Gülich were acquired in an offseason trade with the Dream for Kalani Brown.
If she embraces that role, Sykes will have an invaluable presence on the Sparks and earn meaningful playing time this season.
Sydney Wiese is a versatile 6’0 guard with the mindset and ability to play three positions.
Derek Fisher has grown to count on Syd the Kid, as she started 16 games last season. Her teammates also believe she’s wise beyond her years.
Wiese will be asked to be an above-average three-point shooter and a dependable ball handler, allowing Gray the ability to occasionally play off the ball.
Wiese, who recovered from COVID-19 earlier this year, is grateful to be playing basketball this season.
“I actually think that the bubble simplifies our lives: you sleep, you eat, you play basketball. You take care of yourself. There’s really no distractions,” Wiese said.
A focused Wiese is a dependable Wiese.
Marie Gülich is the team’s tallest player at 6’5. Height allows the center the necessary length to be a true defensive anchor. Like other bench players, Gülich wants to bring positive energy when she gets an opportunity to contribute.
“I think defense wins games and I will take a lot of pride in defending and getting rebounds and making sure that we can get stops,” Gülich said.
She’s also focusing on taking and making open shots.
Kristine Anigwe is an athletic 6’4 post player, who has enough elevation to be a documented practice dunker.
Anigwe has already played for 25% of the teams in the WNBA in less than two seasons. She was drafted by Connecticut in 2019, traded to Dallas that same year, and then traded again to the LA this offseason.
Anigwe is a realist. She knows she’s a young player with a lot to learn in the W. But, that doesn’t mean she’s not going to fight for playing time and go hard in practice.
“I learned to fight for the role that you want, but accept the role that you’re given, so I’m going to keep fighting for the role that I want and I’m going to keep trying to just be that [youthful energy],” Anigwe said.
“I’m just going to bring that youth to practice, bring the energy, ask those questions, and feel comfortable being in situations where I’m not in my comfort zone so I can actually help the vets out. If I’m going hard every single day, that’s making them better and that’s essentially making me better as well,” Anigwe added.
Te’a Cooper is a potential x-factor for the Sparks. The point guard was drafted in the second round of the 2020 WNBA Draft by Phoenix Mercury. After being waived before training camp, Cooper was signed by the Sparks to fill Toliver’s roster spot.
Cooper’s goal is to bring energy when she’s called into action.
“I’m on a team full of phenomenal vets. I don’t really have to do too much… I just have to be in the right spot, knockdown shots, make good passes, bring energy on the defensive end and I’m good,” Cooper said. “They make my job super easy.”
The rookie has already surprised Gray in practice with her defensive tenacity. Cooper is also hoping to bring her improved three-point shot to the W. Cooper shot 41.5 percent from behind the arc during her final season in college at Baylor University.
Cooper has found an instant connection with her teammates. In particular with Augustus, who Cooper affectionately calls “Grandma”.
“She’s a great young player and we hope to see her do great things in this league,” said Augustus. “I’ll be able to help her get accustomed to what it means to a pro.”
The Sparks can never have too much ball-handling and Cooper’s self-confidence and cool demeanor could help her become Gray’s primary backup. Gray could use the help too, after averaging 33 minutes a game for the past three seasons.
CHAMPIONSHIP OR BUST
In my opinion, the Sparks are at the beginning of at least a two-year championship window due to Toliver, Ogwumike, and Vadeeva not playing in 2020.
Keeping Gray, Ogwumike, Parker, and Augustus fresh and healthy for a playoff run is a must. The Sparks should have enough backcourt and frontcourt depth to do that.
However, Derek Fisher needs to remain steadfast in his desire and commitment to play an expanded roster during the seven-week, 22-game regular season.
Ultimately, the LA Sparks have enough talent to make a deep playoff run. However, just like other title contenders, health will likely decide who wins the Wubble.