Sparks rookie Zia Cooke shines in WNBA debut

LOS ANGELES — With her first five shots, Sparks rookie guard Zia Cooke could not miss.

Cooke, the former South Carolina star who the Sparks selected with the 10th pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft, scored 14 points in 15 minutes off the bench in the team’s 94-71 season-opening victory over Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury on Friday night at Arena.

“It couldn’t have went any better. We were able to get a team win,” said Cooke, who finished 5 for 6 from the field and scored all of her points in the second quarter. “I think individually, we all did really well. We were all able to perform at a high level and I think this is something that we want to continue to do.”

Sparks coach Curt Miller, who spent the past seven seasons as the head coach/general manager of the Connecticut Sun, credited Cooke for being a spark off the bench.

“I’ll give a shoutout to our rookie Zia Cooke. Without her we may not be sitting here with this result, without her first half,” Miller said. “We were struggling and that bench really propelled us. Everyone off that bench, but Zia in particular, really made some plays for us in that first half. What a rookie debut for her.”

Cooke, whose college coach Dawn Staley was on hand to see her debut, thinks the work she put during training camp helped her stay confident and loose on opening night.

“I think it all comes with the hard work that I’ve put in,” Cooke shared. “Training camp was definitely tough for me being able to adjust to a lot of different things but something my teammates always tell me, just go out there and be me, be myself and have fun. I think that’s what I did (Friday night) for sure was told myself to have fun and let the game come to me and let everything flow for myself.”

The Sparks trailed by 11 points in the first quarter but battled back with a dominant second quarter and had a 13-point lead by halftime to send them on their way to an easy win.

“I think it’s this league and fortunate I have veterans in that locker room that have been around way too long that know that this game has flow and this game has runs,” Miller told the Southern California News Group. “That’s why I brought in as many veterans in camp to win a spot and be a part of this team but I give them a lot of credit, they could have gone away early and that lead could have gotten away from us. We could have never felt like we could battle back but they really did.

“Again, it was that second unit. It was Zia Cooke. It was Karlie Samuelson (13 points). It was Joyner Holmes got a couple of offensive rebounds there when we were struggling to get extra possessions so pleased that bench really sparked us.”

Sparks team captain Nneka Ogwumike, who scored a team-high 17 points, also appreciated Cooke’s stellar debut.

“Everyone knows what Zia can do,” Ogwumike said. “What I love about her is really her innocence. She’s so surprised by things that don’t go well but I love it. She’s a ball of positive energy. She wants to do well. She wants to be ready and for her to come in here and just be herself is amazing. That’s really the types of people that we have on this team.

“People are out here working hard without any guarantees. That goes unnoticed every day and we have a group of people, especially (Friday night), no matter how they made it here that have earned their spot in this win.”

Cooke’s next game will be against the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces, who are led by another former South Carolina star – two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson.

“That’s going to be fun,” Cooke said while rubbing her hands together. “I have to do my scout really well for that one but it’s going to be a lot of legends. Candace Parker, that’s going to be crazy but I’m definitely going to soak in the moment. I think this year, I’m soaking in everything because I’m here and this is my dream.”

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We love to see itttt@dawnstaley came to support @zia_cooke in her first W game, and Z did NOT disappoint

— WNBA (@WNBA) May 20, 2023

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