The Los Angeles Sparks were all smiles and laughter during their 2022 media day session. This team can sense the energy from an active offseason and the intrigue that goes along with it.
Los Angeles not only gained talent this winter but also acquired some of the league’s biggest personalities, all of whom are relieved to be united together on the new-look Sparks.
“Sometimes, you have to wait for good things to come your way,” Chennedy Carter said in reference to her trade to LA. “They don’t come easy, and they don’t come quick, but it’s all about timing and putting in the work.”
With the acquisitions of Carter, Elizabeth “Liz” Cambage, Jordin Canada, Katie Lou Samuelson, and Lexie Brown, the internal expectations are high.
Historically, the Sparks are consistently one of the better defensive teams in the league. Just last year, Los Angeles allowed 77.1 points per game, good for second in the WNBA, while forcing a league-high 18.2 turnovers per game.
However, Los Angeles’ offense was another story. The Sparks scored a league low of 72.8 points per game while shooting just 41.1 percent from the field in 2021. Some of their scoring woes had to do with injuries. Two of LA’s top scorers, Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver, played fewer than 20 games last season, while Chiney Ogwumike played just seven games. Additionally, 2021 draft pick Jasmine Walker missed nearly the entire season with a torn ACL.
The Sparks had a number of different lineups throughout the season, and they ultimately struggled to find any continuity, recording their worst season since 2007.
The new additions should add more firepower to the offense and take some of the scoring load off Nneka. Coach and general manager Derek Fisher is hopeful that Los Angeles will perform at a much higher level than in 2021, but Fisher also recognizes that it may take time for the team to gel together.
“We have to be realistic about some of the time it will take to establish a rhythm and figure out how we create success with this version of our team,” Fisher said.
Several players repeated his sentiments regarding the importance of having patience and allowing the chemistry to form over the course of the season. But there is a belief within the organization that, at some point, the talent will come together and match its potential on paper.
Win or lose, one thing is for certain: The Sparks will be the most fun team to watch in the league in 2022.
A Team of Misfits Ready To Silence the Doubts
Cambage wasn’t shy when it came to contrasting Fisher’s coaching style with her former coach Bill Laimbeer’s approach. And Carter struggled to name a single player she enjoyed playing with prior to joining the Sparks.
Meanwhile, Samuelson and Brown are both on their fourth teams and looking to prove themselves as valuable role players. Samuelson has shown flashes in Europe of what she can do as a lengthy perimeter scorer, while Brown was arguably the best playmaker and defender during the debut season for Athletes Unlimited.
The consistent theme from LA’s new additions early on is that they feel like playing for the Sparks is a chance at a fresh start. However, with all the excitement of having so many new pieces together, Fisher realizes that some of the buzz comes with a dose of skepticism as well.
Those questions start with figuring out how Cambage will ultimately fit in Los Angeles. Standing at 6’8” (though Cambage insists she grew an inch this offseason), she is currently the tallest active player in the league and was fourth among centers in points per game last season, coming in behind only Tina Charles, Brittney Griner, and Sylvia Fowles.
However, Cambage often got into foul trouble and sometimes struggled to play at the pace Laimbeer tried to play at. When Becky Hammon became the new coach for the Las Vegas Aces, she articulated that her team would become more perimeter-oriented, and it became apparent that Cambage wasn’t likely to return in 2022. Those plans are just fine with the Australian center, who has voiced a desire to play in Los Angeles since her rookie season.
Now she’ll provide the Sparks, who have struggled in the past against teams with dominant bigs, with a low-post scoring presence. Assuming Nneka stays healthy, Los Angeles should have no trouble scoring against anyone. On defense, Cambage can also patrol the paint with her shot-blocking ability and force opponents into taking contested shots.
Beyond the basketball court, Fisher recognizes that there will be questions regarding his players’ personalities meshing together, including Cambage. But to Fisher, those questions are healthy for the Sparks and the league as a whole.
“Off the court, it gives us a different interest level; fan, media, everyone is more curious of what our team is going to look like,” Fisher said. “Is it going to be great, or is it going to implode because of what people have seen or heard about her that they don’t really know?”
The overwhelming belief within the organization is that because so many of the new acquisitions have chips on their shoulders, they’ll ultimately bring out the best in each other.
“I think there are a lot of players who everyone knows are great but haven’t had the opportunity to show out,” Cambage said. “I’m looking forward to seeing these players get their opportunity to shine.”
Homecoming for Canada
With all the noise Los Angeles made in some of its other offseason moves, the acquisition of Canada fell pretty far under the radar this winter. After all, it’s not every day that a backup point guard gets recognition as a critical piece for her new team.
But the Los Angeles native is just that. In her first two games playing for the Sparks, she’s averaging 15.5 points per game and 7.0 assists.
Arguably, her top moment of the season thus far came against the Sky when she drew a foul from guard Dana Evans with seconds left to go in the game and drained three free throws to send the game to overtime. It was that shot that allowed the Sparks to then go on a run before closing the game with a win.
“I definitely believe that she was capable of having these types of performances more consistently throughout the season if the opportunity was there,” Fisher said of Canada’s 21-point, eight-assist performance against Chicago. “I’m really happy for her.”
When discussing the final roster, one of the reasons Fisher pursued both Canada and Carter was that while he felt like his guards played solid perimeter defense, he needed more perimeter scoring. So far, Canada has provided that, shooting 55.6 percent from the field. Given how much attention both Liz and Nneka receive on the floor, Canada should continue receiving open looks. Assuming she continues knocking down quality shots for the Sparks, it should make Fisher think twice about taking her off the floor once Toliver arrives.
While Canada’s fast start isn’t something Fisher necessarily expected, he believed she had untapped potential that would start to show itself with more opportunity.
So far, Fisher has yet to be proven wrong.
Leaning on “Big Sister” Nneka
Becoming an elder statesperson isn’t typically what comes to mind for most 30-somethings. However, as the second-oldest player on the team, 31-year-old Nneka has established herself as someone who can help players get centered and push the right buttons to help them improve.
“She’s the most mature player I’ve ever played with,” Carter said of her first experiences with Nneka. “She helps me lock in and nitpick on little things to make me better.”
Nearly every young Sparks player echoed those sentiments, referring to Nneka as the big sister or mom of the team. Of course, as the oldest of four, Nneka has plenty of experience taking on a mentorship role.
While she enters her 11th season with a wealth of experience under her belt and is never shy when it comes to correcting her teammates on the court, the last thing she wants is for teammates to view her as an intimidating presence.
“I try my best to be as approachable and non-judgmental as I can be,” Nneka said.
That approach will serve her well this season with a group that is hungry to prove critics wrong but still has some growing up to do. A majority of the roster has fewer than five years of experience. Additionally, many of Los Angeles’ returning younger players weren’t around for the 2020 playoff run and haven’t played on a team with playoff expectations.
If there’s anyone who can mentor LA’s youth and teach winning habits, it’s Nneka. She won a championship ring with the Sparks during her MVP year and has been part of a playoff run every year prior to 2021.
While this season is sure to have its ups and downs as LA brings its new players into the fold, Nneka’s calm but commanding presence can go a long way in helping the team soothe some of the growing pains expected to occur this season.