Los Angeles Sparks Seeking WNBA Championship With All-Star Roster, New Coach Derek Fisher
By John W. Davis
1, 2, 3… Together!
As the Los Angeles Sparks rallied around new head coach Derek Fisher at the end of the first day of training camp, it became clear that ”together” will need to become more than a rallying cry. It will also need to serve as the team’s mantra to reach their collective goal. Winning the 2019 WNBA Championship.
“I think all 12 teams, their ultimate goal is to win a championship but we realize Rome wasn’t built in a day,” began Candace Parker, a two-time WNBA MVP from 2008 and 2013, who serves as the team’s unquestioned vocal leader who was the centerpiece of the organization’s 2016 WNBA Championship team.
As currently constructed by long-time LA Sparks General Manager Penny Toler, the roster is talented from top to bottom, with exceptional depth and pedigree at the forward and center positions.
However, as the game of basketball continues to evolve, set positions are becoming more antiquated. Being replaced by roles and players who must have multiple tangible attributes like 3-point shooting, passing, rebounding and defense.
Early in training camp at Los Angeles Southwest College, Coach Fisher has made it clear defense is going to be the point of emphasis. Devoting the majority of practice time to individual and team defensive principles focused on fundamental decisiveness, explosiveness, size, and athleticism.
“The frontcourt is kinda crazy, I’m not going to lie,” said Los Angeles Sparks Forward Nneka Ogwumike, who was the 2016 WNBA Most Valuable Player and the number 1 pick in the 2012 WNBA Draft. “With the pieces that we’ve brought together, having a new system is really what we need.” said the star forward, who averaged 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds a game, while shooting 52.5% from the field.
The 6’2, elder Ogwumike is referring to the trade that brought her younger sister, 6’4 Chiney Ogwumike from the Connecticut Sun in exchange for the team’s 2020 1st round pick. The 27-year-old Ogwumike is a heralded All-Star player in her own right.
“I think it’s going to be great. We both want to win a championship and for some, it was like okay, she’d win one. If she can’t win one, I want to win but it’s like how about we just band forces together and try to do,” shared Chiney Ogwumike, the number 1 pick in the 2014 WNBA Draft and subsequently the league’s Rookie of the Year.
“I just think basketball is meant to be fun and competitive and why not let yourself go and have a good time,” added the always energetic Chiney Ogwumike, a WNBA All-Star last season who averaged 14.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, while shooting a near league-high 60.3% from the field.
“For us, we lacked a lot of rebounding last year, we lacked a lot of points around the basket. A banger, somebody who wants to go in there and get contact and that’s all the things that (Chiney) does and I think that she's definitely added to the equation.” Parker said. “Fortunately, we have versatility on our team. We have multiple players who can play multiple positions.”
The 6’4 Parker, who is officially listed on the Sparks Roster as a Forward/Center, is the definition of versatility and the personification of positionless basketball.
She’s as much point-forward as she is a power forward, who has the ability to lock in and lead her team in either assists, points, rebounds, or all the above on a nightly basis.
“For a while, versatility was considered not being excellent at one thing and being good at a bunch of things, so it was kind of looked down upon a little bit and now with the change of the game, everybody is shooting three’s and everybody is running the floor and wants their 7-footer to handle the ball.” Parker explained, who averaged 17.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists, while shooting 34.5% from three-point range last season.
“I’ve been doing it for a long time when it wasn’t cool, so I’m going to continue to do it now that it’s cool and hopefully now I have the upper hand on knowing it because I’ve been doing this for so long in terms of being able to fill a role and like I said, we’ve seen in the NBA, you can impact the game without scoring.” Parker continued.
“I think a lot of players underestimate how important it is to impact the game without putting points of the board.” Parker added.
Coach Fisher echoed Parker’s sentiments adding that post players like 6’7 Kalani Brown, who was the team’s 1st round pick this year after leading Baylor Lady Bears to the NCAA Championship in March, along with the 6’4 F/C’s Jantel Lavender and Maria Vadeeva who will join the team after fulfilling their overseas commitments, gives the Sparks a plethora of options inside.
“We’re excited because the versatility we have is amazing. At times, all three of them with be on the court together.” Fisher said, referring to playing All-Stars Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Chiney Ogwumike at the same time. “But there will also be times, where we’re able to rotate the three of them at different positions, the four, the five.
“Candace can obviously pretty much play 1 through 5, whenever she wants. All three of them give us the versatility that’s hard to find elsewhere.” continued Coach Fisher, a five-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Fisher is also excited to coach All-Star Point Guard Chelsea Gray, who will join the team after fulfilling her overseas commitment in Turkey.
Fisher identified Gray, along with Alana Beard, who is defensive stalwart, 3rd year player Alexis Jones who was released acquired by the Sparks in trade for Odyssey Sims, 2019 2nd-round pick Marina Mabrey out of Notre Dame, WNBA veteran Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Sydney Wiese and Karlie Samuelson as guards who all have the change to contribute not only defensively but as three-point shooters.
“To learn from Candace is a huge opportunity, to learn from Derek is a huge opportunity, to learn from Penny, the longest-tenured GM, there’s so much learning that I’m going to be able to have. I’m so excited.” Chiney said.
Meanwhile, for the 28-year-old Nneka, she believes this season will be an opportunity for her to showcase and expand her game inside and out.
“I’ve been working on my game overseas, you guys will see.” Nneka shared before letting out a sly combination of a smirk and a smile.
Nneka also believes the lessons she learned from the 2016 season when the Sparks won the WNBA Championship, can be applied to the team’s quest for a championship this season.
“I think that identity was everyone just bought in no matter what. There wasn’t a lot of conflict when it came to schools of thought really. We had a task and we all bought in and we all did it and I see the similar type of ethos developing with this team.” Nneka concluded.