On media day, Los Angeles Sparks looking ahead to a strong season

Probable starting five? From left: Alana Beard, Lindsay Harding, Candace Parker, Kristi Toliver and Nneka Ogwumike

by Sue Favor

 

Los Angeles Sparks media day was Friday, May 17. Players spoke to the media about the upcoming WNBA season, the team, and what they did during the winter.

 

Candace Parker:

The last game of 2012 saw the Sparks lose on a last-second shot, saw you in tears at the end of that game. Do you still carry that with you?

I learned a lot from last season. Just because you expect to do something, just because you worked hard, doesn’t mean it’s going to fall your way. It shouldn’t break your spirit. It just makes you wake up more every day and think about that. Obviously I really wanted it last year. I was really passionate and I think our team was really passionate about wanting the championship last year. But I’m going to take all those things that were lessons last year and apply them this year, and just continue to try to better myself.

What lessons, in particular?

When you watch the playoffs last year, you realize how crucial possessions are. People in the beginning don’t take bad shots or mess up defensively as seriously as they do on the last possession. It wasn’t the last shot that lost us the game. It was the possession before that where we had the wide open shot. It was the possession before that….it was those little possessions that hurt us. In the season as well, it’s not those later things that bite you in the butt – it’s the earlier things that you allow. You have to continue to put one foot in front of the other.

Kristi Toliver:

You were the most improved player in the league last year. What did you do, specifically, to improve and elevate your game for that to happen?

Just continue to build on stuff that I’ve been building on in previous years. Defensively, continue to take pride in that; I made strides last year. I know coach will always continue to motivate me on the defensive end. Offensively, continue to remain unpredictable. Obviously my default is an asset for me – especially with the three-point line moving back. It will create more opportunity to have more middle game, more Euro steps.

How is the addition of Harding going to change your role on the team?

I’m excited to have her. It’ll allow me to score in different ways. I won’t always have to have the ball in my hand; she’s able to distribute. So for me, it’s a blessing because it’ll free me up to be able to run off screens and be more creative offensively.

Do you feel like a veteran now?

A little bit, and you know, especially coming into this season after having the season I had last year, you kind of have to have your game back up, your voice. So it’s a good thing that I had the year I had last year because now I can lead not just by example but lead with my voice, and my wisdom. And it’s kind of scary but I am kind of one of the older ones on this team now.

This team is young; we’re athletic.

How is training camp going so far?

It’s going well. It’s still very new, but I already feel that I’ve got better and the team’s got better (this week). I’m very optimistic for this year and for how we’re going to be able to perform and build chemistry. We’re going to be athletic and fun to watch.

Several of you Sparks, including yourself, won championships overseas this winter. Will that carry over here?

Winning is a habit. We did that overseas, we’re going to continue to carry that into the states. It becomes a habit.

Which Sparks teammates have been of help to you in any way?

We help one another, and that’s the beauty of this team – it’s not just one person setting the tone or being the vocal leader, it’s everyone. If it’s Candace, if it’s Nneka, if it’s the rookie – if she has something to say – we’re going to listen. It’s one through 11, we’re all even as far as respect. We have to be a team in order to win a championship. No one can do it on their own.

What have you improved on most this year?

I think I have even more confidence. I can only build off of last year. I feel good going into this year. I’ve always known what kind of player that I’m capable of being and that I am. Last year people got a taste of it, and this year they’ll get more of a taste. I’m always working, I’m always improving.

Alana Beard:

How did you feel about how you performed last year, and what, if anything, are you going to do differently this year?

I think I’m a hard worker. I was appreciative and thankful just being back on the court. I get out, I do my job – whatever the coaches and my teammates ask of me, I do. I don’t go too far outside of that box. (This year) I’ll continue to be the leader that my team needs me to be.

Like Candace Parker, who also had a couple seasons where she was injured, you had a full season last year, without injury. Is your confidence good right now?

Yes – I don’t think I think too deeply into it. I just step on the court, I play, I have fun. When you’ve gone through and had the journey that I’ve had, that Candace has had, you appreciate the game a lot more – not that I didn’t appreciate it before; I’ve just learned to appreciate it in a different way. And it’s fun. At this level sometimes you get to a point where it’s not fun, it’s a job. You put too much pressure on yourself to perform. If you go out and just have fun you make it a lot easier.

What are you best at on the court, and how do you think the Sparks’ new lineup will utilize your strengths?

The one thing I always go back to…..is my defense. Defense is about hard work; it’s about heart. And if you have that, no one can take that from you.

We haven’t changed much on the offense, but the (new) defensive three-second (rule) will probably open up the lanes a lot more for people like me, who like to put the ball on the floor every single time and try to get to the hoop. I’m excited about that.

What can you say about the newcomers to the team?

I don’t know if the team is completely set, but I can say that training camp has gone really well. It’s good to sit back and watch the young kids compete and work for what they want, and I’m excited to see how it all unfolds.

When you talk about vets, I’m the oldest one on the team. Ebony’s four months behind me, but we’re 31 and 30, so (the Sparks) are a very young team.

Ebony Hoffman:

Does being one of the oldest players on the team change your role at all?

Being a vet is providing guidance when you think they need it. A lot of the young players don’t want to hear what you have to say, but they’re going to hear it anyway. And some of them take it in stride, as constructive criticism.

What have you done in the offseason to make yourself even better?

I got in better shape, hit the weights hard, and just really took a cleansing time for me this offseason, just to take in everything – the whole career I’ve been through. Just to be mentally prepared for what this season is going to bring. I feel great and I’m glad I took that time to listen to my body, to play and get a tuneup before training camp.

What do you think is going to happen this season?

In order to get to the big dance, you’ve got to have a lot of things in your factor. You’ve got to have everybody healthy, everybody on the same page, and you’ve got to have a lot of selflessness. You’ve got to be ready to listen. If we’re ready to do that, then we’ll be there. If we’re not, then we won’t be – it’s that simple.

Lindsay Harding:

What do you hope to bring to the Sparks?

For this team, you have so many weapons, so I want to be the missing link, and hopefully make everybody else better. I am a defensive player, and that’s something that coach Ross really stands for. Offensively, I’ll try to get the ball to others when they need it, with the right plays. But this team is smart. You have very smart players, and I’m excited to play with them.

What will it take to get the Sparks to the next level?

Every year is a different year. A lot of people look at past years, but it doesn’t matter because (every year) teams change, and the league got better (this year). Our coach has a lot of great offensive and defensive schemes, and we need to fully buy into it and gel. The quicker we can gel as a team, the better we’ll play early and the stronger we’ll be at the end. Our focus is to get better and play together as a team as soon as possible.

We can match up with anybody. We have a lot of heart.

You’ve been referred to as the key piece that will help the Sparks get over the hump. What does that mean to you?

Just little bit of pressure, but that’s a good thing. You want to have the organization have that much belief and confidence in you. It makes you play better. I’m excited about it. I know that I’m a piece that can help this team push forward, as well as the other pieces we already have.

Sparks majority owner Paula Madison:

How are you liking this mixture of veterans and newcomers so far?

I like it. Certainly, we don’t have our final roster down. But even last year we had all the makings to go all the way, and we needed some additional elements and maybe some fine-tuning, and we think maybe we’ll accomplish that this year. Our team is younger, our team is more athletic.

I think, quite honestly, that Nneka Ogwumike is probably the most athletic basketball player I’ve seen in decades. She’s able to accomplish things with her body that defy gravity.

But having said that, I think we do have a really good combination – not just physically and athletically, but mentally. This team will work really well together. We have a really good basis and foundation, and now we have a few more to add in. That basis and foundation is what will guide and determine the way the entire team works.

You can’t legislate friendship, but you can legislate respect for each other, and decency. And you have to have that if you’re going to have a team that works well together. Think about it: an overwhelming part of their personalities is competition. So you have to harness that and direct it in the right way.

Nneka Ogwumike:

What did you learn from last year to this season?

You’ve got to put in the time and work hard. When I came into the WNBA last season that was something that I learned. It’s definitely putting in the extra work to stay fresh, stay crisp. Not taking practice for granted. I’m a huge practice player. Overseas, the schedule is a little different, and I capitalized on it. I expanded on my game by working more.

I’m my biggest competitor, and my biggest critic.

What does this team have to do to win a championship?

Honestly, just play together. We kind of were in the works last year. We were thrown together and our success was a surprise for many people, but not to us, because we knew what we were capable of. This year it’s still a development, but to know that you can succeed while you’re developing is even scarier. I think that if we realize our worth, and keep developing, we’ll be just fine.

So you feel that the Sparks are in a position to continue the work that you all began last year?

It’s great to learn through wins, to learn through success. Last year, we had a very successful year. We had our ups and downs, but this year, as a step-by-step process works, you get better with experience. Lindsay (Harding) will make a huge difference, for sure. My experience – I’m no longer a rookie – that will help. We have some experienced rookies in here, Farhiya has played professionally (in Europe) for six years, so that will help.

I’m excited. We have a young team. We only have two players in their thirties – I’ll say it now. It’s great.

What are your goals this year, both personally and as a team?

Personally, I just want to continue contributing to my team. Whatever accolades that may come with that will come. But the biggest one we want is obviously the one in October. So I’ve just been working on my game, working on being a better teammate, working on helping other people be better teammates as well. Just impacting the game on and off the court.

What about your game has improved the most this year?

My confidence outside the perimeter. My outside game developed in college, and I was still getting comfortable by the time I got to the WNBA, and it was a bit difficult to translate that into the professional game. I guess you could say also that I was an asset (last year) but I wasn’t necessarily the primary choice. So I just did whatever I could. I would screen, I would rebound, I would run the court – just whatever I needed to do. So this year I’m hoping to be more of an option. If not, I’ll just keep doing what I was doing last year.

Paula Madison just told me you’re the most athletic player she’s seen in decades. What do you think about that?

Wow, well thank you, Paula. I’ve never doubted that I’m athletic. Sometimes I surprise myself with the things I do. But I can’t only rely on that, especially at this level. I’ve learned…..hard work will beat talent eventually. You can be born with certain stuff, but if you keep working, no one can stop you.

A’Dia Mathies:

What have you learned in camp so far?

I’ve learned that this is a business, and it’s life, so you take it seriously – even more seriously than you do in college. You just try to go out there and work hard every day, and cherish the moment you have because you never know what could happen.

What was your mentality going into last weekend’s exhibition game?

I didn’t really have a mentality – I just wanted to be aggressive and do what I could for the team. I started the point guard, and if that’s what they want me to do, I’ll definitely try to be the best point guard I can be. So my mentality is to do what they need me to do.

Have older players given you words of advice or tips?

All the vets have been very supportive and given me little tips of advice. Alana Beard has been talking to me a lot – especially at our position – as far as what to do, what not to do. How to be a better player. Candace was telling me how to fight through the screens.

How would you describe yourself as a player? What are your strengths and assets?

I’m an aggressive player, but I’m still laid back and cool. I’m not going to go out there and try to force things and be the superstar, to take all the shots. That’s not me. But I will be as aggressive as I need to be. I like to penetrate, I like to shoot the pull-up, I like to shoot the three; I like doing everything.

Alyssia Brewer:

How has training camp been going so far?

Camp has been going really well. At first it was tough because there was no one really there. But it’s been going great.

What have you learned so far? Have the vets been helpful?

They’ve been helping out a lot. If you mess up, it’s not the end of the world, just keep playing. That’s one of the biggest differences between here and college, because in college if you mess up, it’s “get on the line!” You only get one warning.

What was your mentality going into the first preseason game last weekend?

Honestly, I really didn’t have one. I was thinking, if I get in, I’m going to just do my thing and just play. That’s been my whole mindset the whole training camp. I’ve been taking it day by day. I’ve been oddly relaxed, so I think that’s helped a lot.

Briana Gilbreath:

You played for the Mercury last season. What would it mean to play on this team, in the city where you graduated from college?

It would mean a lot. LA, even though I’m from Houston, I have great memories here. I love the people here, a lot of my friends are here. I would love to play for the Sparks. Just from growing up and knowing about the LA Sparks. It would be such an awesome opportunity to play for them.

Have the veterans been helpful to you as well?

Definitely. I’m trying to pick people’s brains, see what works and what doesn’t work. It’s good to watch and see how they work out there, what their work ethic is like. I try to follow in their footsteps and work just as hard.

 

Full media day photo gallery.

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