LOS ANGELES — After missing the playoffs for two consecutive seasons with a combined 25-43 overall record, the new-look Sparks have something to prove. The Sparks have an experienced, yet new, head coach in Curt Miller, who comes to Los Angeles after leading Connecticut to the 2022 WNBA Finals.
“It’s a delicate balance,” Miller began. “Obviously, we would love to start out of the gate well, but it’s a long season and we have to continue to work on our pillars and get in our playbook. It is really difficult when you are starting brand new, putting in a whole system and not just incorporating a few players, you’re literally starting from scratch and training camps go so quickly at this level.”
After less than three weeks of training camp, the Sparks will tip off the season against Phoenix at 8 p.m. Friday at Crypto.com Arena. It will be an emotional game, marking Mercury star Brittney Griner’s first game after being arrested and detained on drug-related charges in Russia and missing all of last season.
Rookie guard Zia Cooke, who was selected 10th overall by the Sparks in April’s WNBA draft, is excited to welcome Griner back to the WNBA while remaining focused on helping her team win its opener.
“Of course, we’re going to be celebrating BG as well, but when it’s time to play, it’s time to play,” said Cooke. “I love when the atmosphere is great and I think it’s going to be a great home opener for us.”
Three forwards will be asked to be scorers, rebounders and post facilitators in Miller’s inside-outside, angle-based offense. Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike, who averaged team highs of 18.1 points and 6.6 rebounds in 31.4 minutes per game last season, will look to continue to play at an All-WNBA level. Younger sister Chiney Ogwumike is also back after averaging 7.0 points and 5.5 rebounds in a limited role last season. Dearica Hamby, who was acquired from Las Vegas, has returned to preseason action and is available to play after giving birth in March.
“She’s way, way ahead of schedule, and to her credit, she wants this,” Miller said of Hamby. “She’s motivated. She’s absolutely excited to be back out on the court. Now Dearica is not in the condition that she has been at the peak of her career and she’s not herself yet so we will manage her. We’ll be smart with her, but I’m excited for her. A true testament to her as a person, but again what a great role model for working mothers in the sports world that she can return this fast after her second child.”
Point guard Jordin Canada returns for her second season in Los Angeles after leading the team with 5.5 assists per game. The former UCLA and Windward High star is entering her sixth season.
Timely outside shooting, led by veteran guard Lexie Brown after she connected on 39.8% of her 3-pointers last season, will be vital.
The Sparks’ front office, under the leadership of new general manager Karen Bryant, had tough decisions to make the past week. The Sparks waived forwards Reshanda Gray, Crystal Bradford and Karlie Samuelson; rookie center Monika Czinano, their third-round draft pick in April; and guard/forward Rae Burrell, their first-round draft pick in 2022.
The team’s last cut was point guard Yang Liwei, a talented player from the Chinese national team.
“(Yang) is a pro player,” Miller explained. She is really, really talented and did so many good things. The communication barrier is real and we talked to her about the difficulty of being a point guard and having that language barrier. And when things are going smoothly and we don’t need to make any adjustments, that’s one thing. It’s in game-time adjustments, in the flow of the game, that’s a little bit harder with a communication barrier, but she’s a really talented player and I’m blessed to have an opportunity to work with her. She was great. Difficult decision.”
The Sparks are expected to have only 11 active players this season, instead of the league maximum of 12, as they are still paying former guard Chennedy Carter’s guaranteed salary after waiving her March 17. Carter’s contract was not picked up by any of the other 11 WNBA teams.
2023 Sparks roster
Guard: Jordin Canada, 5-foot-5 (6th year, second year with Sparks)
Guard: Lexie Brown, 5-foot-9 (6th year, second year with Sparks)
Guard: Layshia Clarendon, 5-foot-9 (10th year, first year with Sparks)
Forward: Nneka Ogwumike, 6-foot-2 (12th year with Sparks)
Forward: Chiney Ogwumike, 6-foot-3 (7th year, fourth year with Sparks)
Guard: Zia Cooke, 5-foot-9 (Rookie)
Forward: Dearica Hamby, 6-foot-3 (9th year, first year with Sparks)
Forward: Joyner Holmes, 6-foot-3 (4th year, first year with Sparks)
Guard: Jasmine Thomas, 5-foot-9 (ACL recovery) (13th year, first year with Sparks)
Center: Azurá Stevens, 6-foot-6 (6th year, first year with Sparks)
Forward: Katie Lou Samuelson, 6-foot-3 (5th year, second year with Sparks)
Note: Samuelson’s roster spot could soon be filled by a pregnancy hardship contract.
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