It is the dawning of a new era for the Los Angeles Sparks, one led by Nneka Ogwumike. LA is flying under the radar entering the 2021 WNBA season, but don’t sleep on a team that has a lot of pride and history to live up to.
Potential problems for the Sparks
No more big three
The elephant in the room in Los Angeles is that there is no more Candace Parker, a transcendent talent who was the face of the franchise. There is also no more Chelsea Gray (the Point Gawd), another huge star who was the third member of LA’s big three along with Parker and Nneka Ogwumike.
Without that star power, the Sparks are no longer considered a frontrunner like they had been in recent years. Last year they had the third-best regular season record in the league and were loaded with almost as much talent as the finalists (Seattle and Las Vegas). This year they came in at No. 7 in Swish Appeal’s preseason power rankings.
The Aces, Sky, Lynx, Mystics, Storm and Mercury (teams one through six) all have at least two megastars playing for them, while for the Sparks it’s just N. Ogwumike. No other Spark made Swish Appeal’s Top 30 players list (N. Ogwumike came in at No. 9). Her sister, Chiney Ogwumike, was in consideration and is a former No. 1 overall draft pick, but her best season remains her rookie year of 2014 and she hasn’t been able to put up superstar stats since then. We’ll see how she performs after taking a year off to rest.
Even the No. 8 New York Liberty have a potential big three of Sabrina Ionescu (if she lives up to the hype), Natasha Howard and Betnijah Laney and the No. 9 Connecticut Sun have two megastars in Jonquel Jones and DeWanna Bonner. This is why the Sparks appear to be in the bottom half of the league on paper.
Lack of experience playing together
Two of the Sparks’ best players, Erica Wheeler and Amanda Zahui B., are newcomers who have yet to play with LA’s two longest-tenured players: N. Ogwumike and Sydney Wiese. Also, Kristi Toliver may have played with N. Ogwumike on the Sparks’ 2016 championship team, but spent the next three years in Washington and is therefore new to this LA team after opting out of 2020. Toliver hasn’t played with C. Ogwumike, who joined the Sparks in 2019. All of this lack of familiarity with each other could mean that the Sparks take a while to build team chemistry.
Potential promise of the Sparks
Amanda Zahui B. is underrated
Zahui B. is one of the most underrated players in the WNBA and has the ability to shoot the three and play inside at 6-foot-5. She grew a lot as one of the leaders of the Liberty last year and averaged career bests with nine points and 8.5 rebounds per game. Expect her to have a breakout year in 2021.
Here’s what Zahui B. had to say about her leadership at the Sparks’ media day:
I actually had great conversations with Walter Hopkins, prior to going into the bubble, and Jonathan Kolb, the GM (of the Liberty). And they were just very blunt and honest, (telling me) ‘you have to step up and be a leader.’ We had a lot of young players, including myself. But just being a voice and finding that leadership. And it’s not always easy when you feel like you’re not doing everything right when you’re not perfect. But being comfortable enough that my teammates are trusting me.
I want to be a presence so that we have multiple threats on the court. Everyone knows Kristi shoots the ball, we know Nneka is amazing and fantastic in the paint. I want to be a threat so the focus is not always on them. … But also defending. I want to be able to guard the best post players and get them tired so then we can run on the other side. And obviously bring a lot of energy, that’s in my game, that’s my personality.
Derek Fisher’s adjustments
Head coach Derek Fisher is going to need to do a heck of a coaching job to get this team to jell and excel without Candace Parker. The good news is that he has the opportunity to inject his own coaching philosophies and take this team in a new direction. While it is yet to be seen if he will have success without Parker, the fact that he helped build this roster as general manager means that he likely has a vision about how to coach these players on the court. He drafted two players who are great on the wing in Jasmine Walker and Stephanie Watts in the first round of the 2021 draft. Walker is listed as a power forward, but spends a lot of time on the perimeter.
“(Coach Fisher) recognized that we needed players that were more versatile on the wing,” N. Ogwumike said. “And so as you can see with the players that we have in our training camp, he was able to acquire a few people that are diverse in their skillset when it comes to the wing. We’ve always been a great team of small shooters and point guards and then of course the frontcourt. But now I think he’s really looking to expand that versatility to the wing.
“And on top of that playing fast. With the position that we were left in in the offseason, he wanted to continue his philosophy of playing fast. And we have younger players, we have swift vets. And I think that I see that kind of unveiling itself not just in the selection of who we have in training camp, but also in how we play in practice.”
Kristi Toliver’s championship experience
Toliver is a two-time WNBA champion, with the other title coming in 2019 with the Mystics. She was a key member of both the 2016 Sparks and 2019 Mystics and has seen it all in her time in the league.
Here’s what she had to say at media day:
Zen doesn’t mean I’m quiet. It’s just my demeanor. And I probably haven’t spoken more in a training camp than I have in this one and it’s because I’m 34 years old, it’s year 12 in the league. The knowledge that I have and (that) I can offer our team is something that I’m not going to hold on to for myself. I’m pretty laid back, I’m pretty Zen, if you will. But that’s just my style, that’s my way. But as far as instruction and leading, they hear me all the time.
N. Ogwumike dealt with a back injury in 2020 that lowered her performance level, but at her best in her MVP season of 2016 she averaged a phenomenal 19.7 points and 9.1 rebounds per game to go along with a solid 3.1 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.2 blocks. She is definitely a capable best player and cornerstone.
Here’s what Fisher had to say about her at media day:
She just truly has a desire and a willingness each day to serve others. And I think that says a lot about her. Her basketball accomplishments speak for themselves in terms of what she’s been able to help her teams accomplish at the collegiate level and ever since she joined the Sparks her team’s been in the postseason, has had championship success, she’s a former MVP of the league. For me, I think one player that comes to mind (to compare her to) that I recall from the men’s side of the game is Tim Duncan. That type of player and person that when you have those kind of people as the cornerstone of your franchise, it makes everybody else’s job easier because of who they are.
I think with Nneka we want to continue to explore the versatility that she kind of always shows. But she’s continuing to find ways to be even more dominant on the court. To be a primary playmaker and facilitator. To be a player that we can put the ball in her hands when we need a basket, when we need good decisions to be made. That’s something that she’s looking forward to having the opportunity to grow into. She’s played next to a lot of great players and she’s fit in seamlessly in that way. But this is now an opportunity for her to take more of a leadership role in terms of her performance night in and night out.
Zahui B. added:
Nneka is one of the greatest leaders I have ever encountered. The way she approaches the game, the way she approaches her teammates, the coaches, her knowledge, it’s mind-blowing. I think the first practice we had when she started teaching, I was just standing on the baseline like ‘this is real life.’ I understand why she is one of the best basketball players in the world.
As we’ve mentioned in other season previews, teams seven through 11 in our power rankings should all be competitive with each other. If C. Ogwumike, Wheeler, Zahui B., Toliver and Brittney Sykes, who said at media day that she has her sights set on defensive player of the year, all perform at their best, the Sparks should be able to make the playoffs because that is a formidable group of stars even if they’re not superstars.