When the Los Angeles Sparks begin the 2021 season, as few as two players who have played more than one season with the Sparks could be on the opening day roster. Don’t believe me, keep reading. The only players who have two or more years of experience actually playing for LA are Nneka Ogwumike, Kristi Toliver, Sydney Wiese, and Maria Vadeeva. However, Vadeeva is not expected to join the team’s active roster until after the Olympic break, when she has fulfilled her overseas commitments with the Russian National Team. (More on that later.)
Without Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray, Riquna Williams, and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, the Sparks are a team in transition, literally and figuratively. However, the idea of playing transition basketball is actually a core tenet of General Manager and Head Coach Derek Fisher’s vision for the new era of Sparks basketball. When you analyze the roster, you begin to see that vision more clearly.
After the 2021 WNBA Draft, Fisher said he wants players who are going to “be fast, passionate and make people uncomfortable.” In addition, Fisher’s roster is shaping up to be versatile. Many of the 15 players who were invited to be on the Sparks 2021 Training Camp Roster have the ability to guard two, sometimes three positions. Versatility is an important attribute on a team with a defense identity led by Nneka Ogwumike and Brittney Sykes. Both have been recognized on the All-Defensive Team in the WNBA, with Ogwumike winning the honor five times, four of those being first team awards.
This is a fluid, fun exercise, as this list is being compiled before training camp officially kicks off on Sunday, April 25. Without further delay, let’s rank the six young players on the LA Sparks.
Ranking the Young Players
1. Maria Vadeeva
Vadeeva comes in at number one on this list because barring injury, she’s all but guaranteed a spot on the 2021 roster. When your organization tells the world they are saving your roster spot, so you can join the team after your overseas commitments are complete in August, you are a top priority. I’m not sure if many of the other players on this list would receive that same courtesy.
At 22 years old, Vadeeva’s game can be described with two words: untapped potential. At 6’4” with a solid frame, a willing rebounder and the ability to shoot the three, Vadeeva is the prototype for what you want from your center in 2021 and well into the future. Vadeeva has spent the past several seasons with UMMC Ekaterinburg playing with Breanna Stewart, Brittney Griner, Emma Meesseman, and Jonquel Jones, all fantastic players not only to learn from but also prove herself against in practice.
If Vadeeva is the Sparks post player of the future, the team is likely in good hands. Don’t forget, even though Vadeeva is heading into her third season in the WNBA, she’s still the youngest player on the Sparks roster, and she’s on the previous salary scale from the old collective bargaining agreement.
2. Te’a Cooper
At 24 years old, Te’a Cooper is entering her second year on the Sparks, her second year in the WNBA, and the athletic prime of her basketball career. The 5’8” guard is beloved in the Sparks organization for her tenacity and her willingness to compete on defense. In fact, one of the first glowing public comments about Cooper came from now former Sparks point guard Chelsea Gray. The 2019 All-WNBA First Team guard gave Cooper an unsolicited compliment about how impressive her defense was in preseason practice, before Cooper ever played a game in the Wubble.
Cooper’s journey—from being drafted in the second round by the Phoenix Mercury, to being cut without being able to attend 2020 Mercury training camp, to being signed by the Sparks when Kristi Toliver opted out of the 2020 season—has expedited Cooper’s grit and professional perspective in a matter of twelve months. Similar to Vadeeva, Cooper’s current salary, also makes her a player who can easily outperform her current salary, making ‘Coop’ a bargain on a rookie scale contract for years to come.
3. Jasmine Walker
Walker was so coveted by the Sparks that they traded up to the seventh pick of the 2021 WNBA Draft, with the sole intention of drafting the 23-year-old rookie from the University of Alabama.
At 6’3”, Walker is the prototypical stretch four in the W because she can actually shoot the basketball. As if averaging 19 points and 9 rebounds were not enough, Walker sealed her shot at a spot in the W by shooting 40 percent from three during her senior year. Walker is also a respected defender with the necessary athleticism to compete at the next level. However, Walker’s best shot is literally her shot. Outside shooting will always be at a premium and, when it comes from your power forward, that’s icing on the cake.
4. Arella Guirantes
A self-proclaimed “assassin” with “lottery talent,” the 23-year-old Guirantes’ drop from a consensus top-five pick to the 22nd pick was documented by Winsidr’s Owen Pence in his 10 Takeaways From A Wacky WNBA Draft.
“We got a steal,” said Derek Fisher on draft night, regarding the Rutgers product. Less than 24 hours later, I asked Guirantes what mantra got her through that unexpected drop from the early first round to the late second round.
“There’s no traffic in the extra mile,” Guirantes told Winsidr without hesitation. At 5’11”, Guirantes said she’s never been afraid of hard work and most definitely does not lack confidence. If her desire to play defense matches her documented ability to play offense, it will be impossible to keep Guirantes off the Sparks 2021 roster.
Drafting Guirantes made Fisher’s job paring down a final 12-person roster a lot harder. However, when the draft gives you the opportunity to snag arguably the most WNBA-ready rookie not once, not twice, but three times, eventually you have to make the pick, and figure out the rest later.
5. Kristine Anigwe
Kristine Anigwe’s advantage is that, at 24 years old, she’s entering her third season in the WNBA. The 6’4” Anigwe is a physical player, with boundless athleticism and the type of curious personality that intrigues coaches looking to mold younger players into an emerging team’s identity. Anigwe’s experience also comes at a bargain because her team-friendly contract on the old rookie scale CBA makes Anigwe the perfect player to fill out a roster when salary cap money is tight.
If the Sparks didn’t like Anigwe, she would not have been invited to training camp. Now it’s up to Anigwe to make herself indispensable by showing how she’s improved her game and basketball IQ from the 2020 bubble season, in which she ended the season as a starter in place of Nneka Ogwumike in the Sparks second round playoff loss to the Connecticut Sun.
6. Stephanie Watts
A 24-year-old rookie from the University of North Carolina, whose selection as the 10th pick of the 2021 WNBA Draft seemingly surprised everyone but Derek Fisher, Watts will have every opportunity to make the team because the Sparks front office went into the draft targeting her.
Watts’ ability to be a floor spacer was highlighted by Fisher as a key attribute. Also, her size as a 5’11” guard is coveted in LA, especially with likely starters Erica Wheeler and Kristi Toliver both listed at 5’7”. As exceptional as All-Stars Wheeler and Toliver have proven to be, Watts’ size also allows her to play on the wing and consistently guard three positions. However, if Watts wants to be successful in the W, she must show she can be a reliable three-point shooter.
What Happens Next
It is possible for all three rookies invited to training camp to make the Sparks regular season roster. However, that would likely come at the expense of veteran leadership like Seimone Augustus or Sydney Wiese. If there’s a scenario where all three rookies make the team, it is unlikely that all six of the Sparks’ players under the age of 25 will make the 2021 opening day roster. If that does happen, Fisher would truly put his imprint on Sparks roster, choosing youth over experience. Most likely, though, one or two of the aforementioned young players will be waived.
However, if they make a positive impression during training camp, these young players could instantly become key rotational pieces. For some, WNBA training camp is the just the beginning of a professional journey. For others, their time in the W could be short lived. However, seizing the moment will take heart, unyielding drive and unquestioned commitment. And, after that, if a young player is still waived, they should take solace in knowing that if they stay ready, there’s always the chance of being re-signed by the Sparks or being picked up in the near future by any of the other eleven teams in the WNBA.