The Los Angeles Sparks are one of several WNBA teams who have yet to make training camp cuts, mostly due to the fact that the majority of their starters and core players are still overseas.
The season begins early each Olympic year, as the league takes a break for the Games. This creates training camp scheduling conflicts for some athletes who are in team playoffs for their European or Asian teams sometimes until May.
Of the 21 on the Sparks training camp roster, only two starters – All-Star Candace Parker and Alana Beard – are in camp. Jantel Lavender, Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver are still wrapping up competition with their overseas teams. Other players are trickling back this week.
“Chelsea Gray’s team lost, so they’re out and she’ll be here soon,” coach Brian Agler said. “Jantel’s team is in their championship. This week we’ll get Chelsea, Ann Wauters, Jelena Dubljevic and Jen Hamson.”
Agler said he’s not looking forward to having to trim athletes for the final May 12 cut date, as the roster is loaded with talent.
“It’s going to be a tough decision, because we still don’t have a lot of people here,” he said.
Sparks coaches have been impressed with all three of the team’s draft picks in Whitney Knight, Brianna Butler and Talia Walton. Agler said camp invitee Rebecca Tobin has also made a good showing. The staff is looking for the right pieces to fill in the picture.
“We’re looking for the people that best compliments our team – our returners and our new additions,” Agler said. “That being said, I don’t know who that is yet. When I watch us play and some of our returners make a play I sort of look at (the newcomers) to see what their reaction is, and how they’d respond to the situation.”
“I think we’re totally open. We’re still evaluating, but no one’s jumping out. Yet, no one’s really fallen off, either.”
All three draft picks said they are working hard to adjust to professional-level play.
“The physicality and the pace is the biggest difference from college,” Knight said.
Walton said the players in the WNBA are bigger and in better shape than college athletes.
“You’ve got to maintain that focus and stay locked in; you can’t take one second off,” Walton said.
Butler’s Syracuse Orange beat Walton’s Washington Huskies in the Final Four last month. Butler said it was a quick turnaround from playing in the Championship game to finishing up at school and then going to training camp after the draft. She was amused to find herself taken by the same team that chose Walton.
“It was ironic that we both got drafted here because we’d just played each other twice in the past year,” Butler said. “Now we’re friends – not enemies.”
For Butler, the pro game is one of constant movement.
“Here you have a base offense and have to learn how to manuver through it in different ways,” she said. “In college you could take that second off, but here you have to keep moving. In college we played 2-3 zone, but now we’re getting back to man principles.”
All three rookies relish the chance to play with Parker, who has been a role model to them.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of Candace since she was at Tennessee, so the opportunity to shadow her at practice has been tremendous,” Walton said. “I’m trying to soak up as much as I can from her. She’s done a great job of taking us all on. I’m sure it can get frustrating taking on eight rookies at once.”
Knight said she found herself in disbelief at times during the first week of camp.
“To come down the court and to be high-fiving Candace Parker, well,” she said with a laugh.
Knight flew out of Los Angeles after practice Saturday to participate in her graduation at Florida Gulf Coast University, where she received her degree in public health.
Walton double-majored in sociology and ethnic studies, and will graduate June 8.
Butler graduated in three years with a degree in sports management, and is currently a graduate student.
Walton pulled a quadricep muscle late last week, and has had to sit out. It is not yet known whether she will be able to play in the Sparks’ first exhibition game Saturday, against the Atlanta Dream.