After 13 years, the Candace Parker era is over for the Los Angeles Sparks. It is time to set new expectations.
“This is a learning experience,” said Nneka Ogwumike. “But we have a lot of work to do.”
Parker left the Sparks in WNBA free agency to return to her hometown Chicago Sky. Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams, also signed elsewhere during free agency, both choosing to play for the Las Vegas Aces. Even Sydney Wiese is gone, now the newest member of the Washington Mystics.
However, that doesn’t mean a franchise with three WNBA championships (last won in 2016) is letting go of their championship culture or lofty expectations. After two years as head coach, five-time NBA champion Derek Fisher was also named Sparks General Manager during the offseason. Fisher knows his new pace-and-space system will take time. He’s leaning into the philosophy of positionless basketball by adding faster, more athletic players. New additions are being encouraged to shoot three-pointers and play defense with intense passion and versatility.
He saw glimpses of what the Sparks can become in the first few minutes of the team’s opening game of the 2021 WNBA season.
“I think we were doing a decent job on converting on the turnovers that we were creating,” said Fisher. “We were making it hard for Dallas to score the ball during that stretch and we were doing a good job of moving the basketball and playing well together in that first quarter.”
The Sparks got out to an early nine-point lead in the first quarter but eventually were overwhelmed and outplayed by the Wings, 94-71.
Once the Sparks began substituting in less experienced players to replace the team’s starters, a significant drop-off occurred.
“I think that once we started to make some substitutions and even some of our starters, as they started to get a little fatigued, we weren’t able to sustain not just the offensive output but some of the things we wanted to execute defensively as well,” Fisher said.
The Starters aka the vets
Against the Dallas Wings, the Sparks started 5’7” Erica Wheeler, 5’7” Kristi Toliver, 5’9” Brittney Sykes, 6’2” Nneka Ogwumike, and 6’3” Chiney Ogwumike.
“I think what you saw was a very very new team, playing together for the first time,” said center Chiney Ogwumike.
The Sparks definitely missed the interior presence of 6’5” Amanda Zahui B, who sat out the season opener with a back injury.
Another likely variation of the team’s starting lineup could include Zahui B at the center position. When healthy, pairing Zahui B with either Ogwumike will provide the team much-needed height inside.
Regardless, Wheeler, Toliver, Sykes, Nneka, Chiney, and Zahui B are the six unquestioned veterans on the 2021 roster. All of the aforementioned vets know they will have to walk the walk and talk the talk when it comes to leadership.
That’s something Nneka Ogwumike explained in detail to Winsidr after the team’s 23-point loss on opening night to Dallas.
“Honestly, I told my team, win, lose or draw, I wouldn’t want to be with another group,” she shared. “You always have to give credit to the team. Dallas came to play. We buckled under pressure. This is a learning experience but we have a lot of work to do.”
The Bench aka the young players
Second-year pro 5’8” Te’a Cooper will play a pivotal role, as an emerging leader on the Sparks this season.
Cooper is the team’s primary ball-handler off the bench. She’s an emerging floor general. At 24 years old, Cooper will be tasked with relentlessly pushing the pace. That’s an opportunity she relishes.
“This was our first time playing together with this group… I feel like what I can do differently is finish my shots, keep bringing energy on the defensive end and keep pushing the ball,” Cooper said. “Get comfortable with my teammates and really get a feel for the game.”
Off the bench, Cooper will be complemented by rookies 6’3” forward Jasmine Walker and 5’11” guard Arella Guirantes. In addition, 6’1” forward Nia Coffey and 6’3” guard Bria Holmes, both signed to training camp contracts have emerged as players General Manager Derek Fisher felt he had to make room for.
Meanwhile, Maria Vadeeva is a 6’4” center on the final 12-person roster, who will eventually be a great inside-out option in the new era of Sparks basketball. At 22, Vadeeva’s calling card is her soft interior touch with nice range from beyond the three-point line. She’s the embodiment of the skills you want your franchise center to have. However, Vadeeva is not currently with the team due to overseas commitments. She’s not expected to play in the WNBA this season until after the Olympic break in mid-August.
Bonus: Gabby Williams
Looking to 2022 and beyond, the Sparks signed the newly acquired 5’11 forward Gabby Williams to a contract extension. Although she won’t play in 2021, the current roster has been constructed with Williams’ future role in mind. As a potential starter / sixth woman, Williams’ athleticism and versatility would help the Sparks sustain pace on offensive and defense.
2016 MVP and WNBA Champion Nneka Ogwumike did not mince words when sharing what she talked about inside the Sparks locker room at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Friday, May 14.
Ogwumike’s message is similar to what Kristi Toliver has explained on numerous occasions—the 32-game 2021 regular season will be a “marathon, not a sprint.”
Across the W, the 2021 season is extra special because the league is celebrating its 25th season. Sparks captain and Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) president Nneka Ogwumike is up for the challenge: “It’s not how anyone wants to start a season, let alone the 25th but it certainly draws a line for how far we want to go and how much better we want to get.”.