Forward Thinking Will Lead LA Sparks’ GM Penny Toler Through 2019 Roster Decisions and Beyond

By John W. Davis

Forward-thinking.  It is the ability to plan and prepare for the future, while simultaneously managing and executing the task on hand.

When it comes to Los Angeles Sparks Executive Vice President and General Manager Penny Toler, her “forward thinking” could very well be cited as one of the primary reasons she’s been the team’s GM since 1999, the longest tenure for the position in the WNBA.

“As a GM, this 2019 team is set,” Toler began. “It’s the GM’s job to look at 20, 21, 22. Believe it or not, those are the teams I’m trying to put together right now even though its 2019.”

That’s because “just like a house, you always have to have a foundation,” Toler explained in reference to core, championship players Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Chelsea Gray and Alana Beard returning.

With that “foundation” to build upon, the Sparks training camp was as much about cultivating future relationships as it was about current player evaluation and development.

Whether she makes the final 12 or 11 woman roster or not, 6’1 forward Ashley Walker had a standout preseason for the Sparks.. Although she’s 32-years-old, she has only logged three years in the W.

In the Sparks first preseason game against the Phoenix Mercury, Walker lead her team in scoring with 16 points off the bench, grabbed 7 rebounds and swiped 3 steals in 25 minutes of play. 

However, it’s the way Walker achieved those stats that really stood out. Despite 4 turnovers, she knocked down 2 three-pointers, shooting 50% from long-range and 62.5% from the field overall.

In the Sparks second and final preseason game against the Seattle Storm, Walker was again impressive in filling her bench role.

She finished with 12 points, including going 1 for 2 from three point range for another 50% from long range outing, ending up 4 for 6 overall for 66.6% shooting from the field.

Walker is the definition of a journey woman. After being drafted 12th overall in 2009 by the Seattle Storm,  she also played for the Tulsa Shock in 2010 and for the Connecticut Sun in 2013.

She made her mark this off-season playing overseas for Mersin in the Turkish League. Meanwhile, in Eurocup play, Walker averaged 20 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.5 steals, and 1.8 assists per game on 54 percent shooting.

That’s the type of versatility that Head Coach Derek Fisher is excited to see on the Sparks 2019 Roster.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to be able to do some things based on who we are and what we can do,” Fisher told WNBA Insidr after a recent practice during training camp at Los Angeles Southwest College.

“With our roster, there will be times we can play five out and the paint is completely open, there will be times where we can play 4 out, 1 in with the bigs that we have and if we really want to get down and dirty and physical, we can have two bigs out there with 3 shooters and play the game that way.”  Fisher shared with a big smile on his face.

As a part of her “forward thinking” for the Sparks, Toler also recognized 20-year-old 6’4 Forward/Center Maria Vadeeva and newly acquired 5’9 Guard Alexis Jones as potential pivotal players.

Toler also identified “Splash Sisters” Sydney Wiese, Karlie Samuelson and Marina Mabrey, who provide much needed three point shooting and the defensive ability to switch around the perimeter in today’s era of positionless basketball.

Another relationship building acquisition during the 2019 preseason was the claiming of guard Ciera Dillard off waivers. Dillard was drafted 20th overall out of the University of Buffalo by the Minnesota Lynx in the 2019 WNBA Draft.

Although Dillard has since been waived by the Sparks, inviting her into training camp brought competition and establish a rapport with a player who may well be invited back to the Sparks in the future.

However, the centerpiece of 2020, 2021 and beyond is 6’7 Center Kalani Brown, who Toler called the team’s first “true 5” in her 20-year tenure.

Brown, who lead the Baylor Lady Bears to the 2019 Women’s NCAA Basketball National Championship, is an imposing post player. Her size and energy will be a strategic asset on and off the court for years to come.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing what she can do,” Toler said. “I was actually amazed that Kalani was there in the draft. That was pretty shocking, so it’s nice to have your own center at 6’7. One that’s young, one that’s vibrant.”

“I was telling Kalani the other day, she’s our own true 5 that we’ve ever had. Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker are not true 5s. We’ve never been blessed to have a true 5, so Kalani is the first. I’m just super excited. And then she’s an amazing person. When you meet her you’ll see, her energy is just like infectious,” Toler continued.

Meanwhile, that leaves players like Ashley Walker, who Toler said she’s personally known for a while and has been watching since she graduated from the Cal-Berkeley in 2009.

“I always thought Ashley was a good player, and unfortunately there’s only 12 teams. So believe it or not, a lot of good players get cut. And they may not fit the team this year, but you watch them, the players that you want and continue to develop. And I think any good GM or coach, if you’re doing your homework you understand that they may not fit this team, but you want to watch and see if they go get better.”

“Ashley has gotten better every single year, time after time after time. I wasn’t surprised that she played well the other day. She’s been doing it in practice the whole time, and it’s a testament to what I like to say the players is. You can’t get to the game and turn it on. She actually was doing well in practice and it showed in the game, so I’ve been watching Ashley ever since she came out of college.”

“She’s a lot more polished now. Her jump shot is a lot better. She didn’t have the range she has now, and even her ball handling has improved. So you follow players just because they get cut or don’t make the league, you still follow these players to their maturation. And then when the time comes, if they’re perfect for that team, then you go and you bring them into camp and have them fight for a spot. And Ashley’s been doing very very well.”

“We have a host of talented players. We’re going to have some difficult decisions to make, but I’m happy with what’s here in camp and what’s on the way,” Toler concluded.