The Los Angeles Sparks will cut injured point guard Sharnee' Zoll and sign Coco Miller in her stead, a source inside the organization, who asked not to be named, informed Full Court Sunday evening.
Miller, an 11-year veteran of the league, was waived by the Atlanta in May after playing for the Dream for the past three seasons and helping the team to back-to-back Eastern Conference championships. She is expected to be in a Sparks (or should we say Farmers) uniform by L.A.'s next game, at home against the Phoenix Mercury this Friday, June 8.
Miller has never been what one would call a pass-first point guard with a career average of just 1.4 assists per game. And her best scoring days are well in the rearview mirror -- she averaged 9.3 points per game in 2002 and 12.5 in 2003 while playing for the Washington Mystics, but was in an offensive tailspin until last season when she brought her point production up from 3.1 per game in 2010 to 7.3 per game in 2011.
What she is, however, is a stable ball handler, who has averaged just one turnover per game or less over the past three seasons, as well as a confident field general. The Sparks are in need of both qualities.
With Zoll out for the season and forward/center Nicky Anosike, also new to the team this year, out for at least six weeks for knee surgery, the Sparks, down to 10 players, were entitled to invoke the hardship rule to add to their roster, as other teams have done recently. They decided not to do so, however, because it would have required cutting Miller once Anosike returned to the lineup.
"We needed another guard," the Sparks insider stated, adding that they didn't want to have to cut Miller down the road.
The 5-7 Zoll, a standout at the University of Virginia, made history in the Atlantic Coast Conference as a collegian, surpassing Dawn Staley's record as the conference's all-time assist leader (785), but struggled to find her footing in the pros after being drafted early in the third round of the 2008 WNBA draft at No. 29 overall. She was quickly waived by the Sparks in the preseason, then picked up and again waived by the Minnesota Lynx in late June after appearing in just six games. At that point, she was averaging just 1.7 points and 0.5 assists in five minutes per game.
In 2011, Zoll once again tried to make her Dreams of a career in the WNBA come true, signing with Seattle, only to be waived in early June before appearing in any games.
Meanwhile, she took her game overseas, where she saw considerably greater success. For the last two years in a row, she led the Polish league in assists with six per game, and last season she helped her team CCC Polkowice in Poland to the knockout stage of the 2011-12 EuroLeague playoffs.
“This is a dream come true," said Zoll when the Sparks signed her in the 2012 offseason to replace aging point guard Ticha Penichiero who is still the league's all-time assist leader and is now playing for the Chicago Sky. "Most little girls dream of coming to LA to become an actress, but I’ve always dreamed of becoming a Spark,” Zoll said. “Ever since the league formed, the Sparks have been a marquee franchise, and I want to help this team return to a championship level. I’m going to get the ball where it needs to go; we have a lot of great scorers it can go to.”
Zoll excelled in training camp and made an impression in the Sparks' preseason exhibition game against Japan's National Team on May 10, posting 10 points and passing out a game-high six assists with no turnovers in a little more than 19 minutes off the bench. The performance earned her the start in the Sparks' next exhibition game in Seattle on May 13, and though her point production dipped, this time she dished out eight assists, with just two turnovers, while also grabbing three boards and swiping three steals. It looked like this was to be the season where she would finally break through in the WNBA, and some predicted she would receive the starting nod at the point.
But Zoll did not appear in the Sparks' season or home openers, a home-and-home against Seattle, due to what was at the time described as a "sore knee." As it turned out, the knee was more than sore -- subsequent tests revealed a torn ACL in her left knee, requiring surgery and knocking her out of the lineup for the balance of the season.
"It's unfortunate that Sharnee' won't be able to play this season," Sparks Vice President and General Manager Penny Toler said at the time. "Up until her injury, she was playing really well. We look forward to seeing what she can do next season."
With Zoll sidelined, the Sparks have experimented with the starting role at point, with Kristi Toliver getting most of the minutes, and Alana Beard occasionally spelling her in bringing the ball down the floor. But neither is a true point guard: Toliver is a shooting guard and Beard, a guard/forward, is accustomed to playing at the wing.
Toliver is having a breakout season, more than doubling her career average with 20 points per game to date, while stepping up both her three-point shooting, which currently stands at 50 percent on 13-26 from the arc, and her defensive intensity, and playing the hero in several games including providing the spark for a come-from-behind rally in the Seattle season-opener and knocking down the game-winning three-point buzzer-beater in a 76-75 home win over Tulsa. The high price of trying to turn a shooting guard into a point guard has also been evident, however, most notably in that same game against Tulsa. The last-second heroics might not have been needed in that game had Toliver not personally coughed up a total of 14 turnovers to her five assists, individually equaling the number of miscues committed by the entire rest of the Sparks' roster.
Even when Toliver is taking better care of the basketball, as, for example, in Sunday's narrow 67-65 home win over Seattle, Toliver at times appears uncomfortable when playing the point. In Sunday night's game, Toliver passed out seven assists to go with her 23 points to go with her seven assists, but it is almost as though she has to consciously remind herself that her job now demands passing the basketball (for her career, she has averaged just 2.2 assists per game). Even when that doesn't result in turnovers, the results can be less than desirable -- for instance, when after grabbing a steal and running it the length of the floor, she passed up the open and easy fastbreak layup, instead kicking out to teammate Candace Parker, who was covered and muffed the shot.
Thus, the addition of a rock steady guard like Miller, whose twin sister Kelly comes off the bench for the New York Liberty, could either allow Toliver to return to her natural position at the two, focusing on what she is doing so well this season -- scoring -- or at least give the Sparks a reliable reliever on night's when Toliver is at less than her ball-handling best.
Despite the decision to replace Zoll with Miller, the Sparks' insider said, "We'll take care of Zoll." The plan for now is to give her a place on the organization's staff, but her title has yet to be determined. And the Sparks will take another look at her next year: "That's the least she deserves," the source stated.