With the #1 pick in the 2012 WNBA draft, a reunion of two Maryland superstars and the hunger for a championship, the Los Angeles Sparks share their perspective on what it will take to have a successful season. Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Ebony Hoffman, Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman all catch up with Alex Chambers
LOS ANGELES: Los Angeles Sparks fans, be sure to pick up a program as you make your way through the turnstiles at the Staples Center. A radically reshaped roster is what management hopes will reverse the downward spiral they have endured over the three-year span since the retirement of marquee player -- and current co-owner -- Lisa Leslie.
New Coach, New Attitude
The biggest off-season acquisitions started at the top when GM Penny Toler hired Carol Ross away from the Atlanta Dream. The first-year WNBA coach commented on her three goals for this year's edition of the Sparks, and in doing so, put her finger right on the deficiencies of the past several seasons:
"1. They have to play harder. That's my job -- to make them want to play harder," said Ross of an L.A. team often known to take whole quarters and even halves off last year, and to simply go through the motions after falling into a hole.
"2. They've got to come together as a team. I know that's cliche-ish. But the individual parts don't matter much if you don't have cohesion and caring and respecting one another," continued Ross.
"3. Play defense and rebounding -- two things I thought on the technical side needed to be improved" over last season, Ross concluded.
Cohesion will come in time, but the early returns on goals one and three appeared positive in the Sparks' season-opener on the road against Seattle. Despite poor field-goal shooting in the first half, LA dug themselves out of a 21-point deficit, showing a newfound resilience and defensive toughness. The Sparks held Seattle scoreless for more than five minutes that spanned end of the third and the beginning of the fourth period, and Kristi Toliver scored 10 of her 25 points in the closing quarter to seal the win and give Ross her first victory as a WNBA head coach.
Alana Beard is one of three players aquired from the Washington Mystics (photo by Lee Michaelson)
Washington Moves West
The biggest roster change is a threesome of one-time Washington stars -- 5-11 wing Alana Beard; 6-1 Marissa Coleman, also a wing; and 6-3 forward-center Nicky Anosike -- as Toler went to work cleaning out the Mystics' top talent. Individually, any one of these acquisitions would have to be viewed as a gain for Los Angeles, but they also come with some baggage.
For Beard, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2004 WNBA draft, the issue has been injuries. She has been sidelined for over two seasons with a severe ankle injury. Beard finally appears to be healthy and was back in action this winter in Israel, so the Sparks decided to roll the dice, signing her as a free agent. If she returns to top form, the payoff will be huge: The former Duke standout averaged 16.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.9 steals per game over her first six years in the league.
But Ross values Beard for something that doesn't show up in the stat lines, her commitment to defense. "I don't think anybody's ever questioned the Sparks' ability to score points. It's about shoring up the defense a bit. And when you add Alana Beard into the mix, you not only add one of the best defensive players in the league, but you've also added a very complete player."
Coleman, the former Terrapin standout arrived as part of a trade that sent Noelle Quinn to Washington. The move reunites Coleman with former Maryland teammate Kristi Toliver. The two led the Terps to the 2005 national championship. Coleman, the No. 2 pick in the 2009 WNBA draft, was a prolific scorer in college. She is the only player in Atlantic Coast Conference history to finish her career with 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 400 assists, 200 steals and 100 blocks.
She hasn't been so prolific in the WNBA. In her first two years with the Mystics, Coleman came mainly off the bench, averaging a little more than six points and two rebounds per game. Last season, she moved into the starting rotation for 28 of the Mystics' 34 games, but her production improved only marginally, to 8.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists per outing. That's still more than the Sparks are giving up in Quinn, another tall guard (6-0) who averaged just 5.1 points, 1.8 boards, and two assists in 23 starts last year. What the Sparks do get is another legit three-point threat: Coleman averages 37.6 percent from the arc and ranked 11th on the WNBA leader board last year with 51 made threes.
The third of the new arrivals from the Mystics also represents a reunion of sorts. Nicky Anosike, the former Tennessee great, played with Candace Parker as a member of the 2007 and 2008 NCAA National Championship teams.
Anosike, who was drafted in the second round in 2008 by the Minnesota Lynx, played her way to a place on the league's All-Rookie team that season, starting in all 34 games, while averaging 9.6 points and a franchise-record 6.8 rebounds per game that year. The 6-4 forward-center also broke the Lynx' record (and ranked second in the WNBA) for single-season steals (2.6 per game) and led the league in steal-to-turnover ratio (1.79:1). In her sophomore season as a pro, she led the Lynx in all five major statistical categories: scoring (13.2 ppg), rebounding (7.4 rbg), assists (2.7 apg), steals (2.7 spg) and blocks (0.93 bpg).
But in 2010, Anosike's production tapered off. She also ran afoul the Lynx' front office, and was suspended after refusing to join the team for a three-game road trip that closed the regular season. Anosike had been nursing a sore left knee for the previous two months, and an MRI later showed a lateral meniscus tear. The following season she was traded to the Mystics in return for a 2012 first-round draft pick.
2011 saw a further fall-off in Anosike's offensive production, but Ross is looking past her recent bumps in the road: “Nicky has a tremendous ability to impact a game, and is one of the league’s best rebounders year-in and year-out. Defensively, she has great instincts.”
Rounding out the off-season moves, the Sparks signed 5-7 Sharnee' Zoll to fill the shoes of aging veteran Ticha Penicheiro. This is Toler's biggest off-season gamble since Zoll has played only six games in the WNBA, all in 2008, with the Minnesota Lynx. Zoll has spent the interim playing abroad, most recently with Poland's CCC Polkowice (with the Sparks' Jantel Lavender), reaching the EuroLeague playoffs in 2011-12.
“I’m really excited about ‘Zollie’,” said Ross, who previously worked with Zoll while an assistant on USA Basketball’s gold-medal winning team at the FIBA Under-19 World Championships. “She brings a lot of spirit and energy to the court, is a great teammate and loves to get up-and-down the floor."
The point has long been one of the Sparks' downfalls. If Zoll works out as Ross expects, the move will be seen as a stroke of brilliance. If not, Toliver looks ready to rise to the occasion.
The Sparks' poor performance last season (15-19 and the first missed trip to the playoffs since 2007), brought the franchise its second No. 1 overall draft pick, the first being Candace Parker in 2008. With the pick, the Sparks selected Stanford standout Nneka Ogwumike, who helped lead the Cardinal to the Final Four in each of her four seasons.
Ogwumike's performance in training camp has already earned her a spot in the starting five over Lavender, Anosike and the veteran Hoffman. She has impressed both Ross and Toler with her brilliant athleticism, as well as her persistence on the glass, willingness and ability to run the floor and humility of attitude.
"Nneka -- she's just great," said Toler. "I can't even imagine what she's going to be like when she realizes just how great she is -- but I kind of hope she always stays just the way she is, humble."
Some might be surprised by that description of Ogwumike, who exudes intelligence, poise and confidence in an interview. She's no wide-eyed rookie; she knows what her role is on a team, what is expected from her, and is determined to meet or exceed expectations. At the same time, it is a confidence devoid of swagger and egotism. She is not only the first to hustle after a rebound or dive for a loose ball, she is also the first to get there, from all the way across the court, and extend a helping hand to a teammate who has hit the deck.
For the Sparks, who Toler concedes had a devastating lack of locker room chemistry last season, Ogwumike's respect for her teammates and absence of diva-ism is a breath of fresh air.
"It's not every day that you get to play on the same team as Candace Parker," Ogwumike told reporters. "She understands a lot of what I'm going through. I definitely look up to her and cherish having her as a teammate."
The admiration is mutual. "She's one of the most athletic players I've ever played against my entire career," said Parker. "That explosiveness, you just don't see that in women's basketball. … And she's so versatile because she can take advantage of mismatches."
"I think what separates her from her counterparts is the willingness to learn and adapt. She's been so receptive. I was fortunate to have key veterans help me in my career. I hope I can do the same with her."
If Ogwumike had a shortcoming as a prospect for the WNBA, it was her height. At 6-2, she was a bit of a tweener for the low-post role where she had excelled in her college days. Recognizing that, Ogwumike has been working, both in her final year of college and, since arriving in LA, with Sparks assistant Sandy Brondello to extend her range.
Like any rookie, Ogwumike will have to adjust to the physicality of the pros. She put up 17 points and pulled down six rebounds against the Chinese National Team, but had a rougher time of it in both the preseason exhibition and the road opener against Seattle, where she settled for seven and nine points, and seven and three rebounds, respectively.
Rounding out the 2012 roster is 6-0 wing April Sykes of Rutgers. Taken in the third round of the draft as the No. 28 overall pick, Sykes beat out her former Scarlet Knights running mate Khadijah Rushdan as well as Texas A&M's Tyra White, both of whom were selected well above her as the No. 3 and 4 picks of the draft's second round. What all three had in common, according to Toler, was outstanding defensive discipline, and despite a 13-point performance in the preseason exhibition against the Japanese National Team, that's what the Sparks will be primarily looking for from Sykes when she comes off the bench.
Candace Parker appears healthy and ready to lead the Sparks back to Western Conference dominance (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
The Familiar Faces
After missing significant portions of the past three seasons due to pregnancy and injuries, Candace Parker returns healthy and appears to be getting back to form. In the Sparks' come-from-behind win over Seattle, Parker had two huge fourth-quarter plays, including a putback of her own miss that tied the score with three minutes remaining and a win-sealing bucket with 30 seconds left. Parker is a once-in-a-generation talent, and it would be unwise to bet the ranch against any team on which she plays. The question, aside from remaining healthy, is whether the Sparks have, at last, surrounded their star with the right supporting cast.
Also back is 6-1 forward DeLisha Milton-Jones, the senior member of the Sparks' roster, reunited this year with Ross who is her former Florida coach. Milton-Jones has spent 10 of her 13-years in the WNBA in the Sparks' starting line-up. She averaged 11.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per game last season and, even on an off-night, can always be counted on to contribute something, using her extraordinary wingspan to harass opponents and snag steals.
Also back are three bench players: Ebony Hoffman; Kristi Toliver, and Jantel Lavender. Hoffman is better known in Los Angeles for her distinguished career at USC, where she was a three-time All Pac-10 honoree, than for her impact, to date, on the Sparks. But Hoffman, who won the league's Most Improved Player award in 2008 has the ability to make a significant contribution, whether in the starting lineup or off the bench. Her potential as a scoring threat showed itself several times last season when she exploded for 20-plus-point outings and her commitment to defense (in 2009, Hoffman ranked ninth in the WNBA with a career-high 57 steals) is likely to be rewarded with additional playing time by defense-first coach Ross.
Despite Parker's prolonged absence, Jantel Lavender only had three starts last season. Given the promise she showed in several appearances, Ross said she was surprised the Sparks had not made more use of the rookie, who is the only player, male or female, to be named to the All-Big Ten first team four times (2007-2011).
Lavender notching 11 double-digit scoring efforts (second most of any rookie in the league last season), including two double-doubles: a career-high 25-point, 10-rebound outburst against the Phoenix Mercury and a 19-point, 12-board outing against Tulsa. Lavender, who does all of her work deep in the paint, also boasts the team's best field-goal percentage (50 percent), but what will impress her new coach most is likely to be her commitment to rebounding, another of Ross' priorities for the team.
Toliver, the backcourt member of the triad of returning relievers, was an explosive scoring force in her college days at Maryland but languished on the bench for her first year in L.A. after being acquired from the Chicago Sky in 2010. Midway thru the 2011 season she won a starting position, and finished the year averaging 11.2 points and 2.9 assists in 23.6 minutes per game. Most impressive was her 42.7 marksmanship from beyond the arc, as Toliver netted 56 of her 131 attempts from long range last season.
Toliver appears to have returned to the role of first backcourt reliever off the bench, at least for the moment, in favor of new arrival Sharnee Zoll. But how long that will last is unclear. On Friday, Toliver led L.A.'s 72-66 comeback win over Seattle in the season opener with 25 points and six assists, capped by a five-of-eight performance from three-point range.
Who knows whether the never-say-quit attitude and defensive intensity will persist for a season? Who knows whether the players the Sparks need the most will stay health for a playoff run? What we do know for now is, Carol Ross has brought a "spark" that has been missing for far too long in L.A.
If the fire stays lit, this will be a fun season to watch.
Note: New additions highlighted in boldface.