Sparks have filled in missing pieces, and start with a full slate

Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker and Jantel Lavender at media day. Photo by Sue Favor.
Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker and Jantel Lavender at media day. Photo by Sue Favor.

The Los Angeles Sparks may have an advantage this season, as they now have every position on the floor filled, players said yesterday. And every athlete has practiced in at least one day of preseason training camp.

The draft day acquisition of 5-11 point guard Chelsea Gray from Connecticut fills the first spot solidly for the first time in the last several seasons, including 2015. Kristi Tolliver, who has often served as point guard, will be able to shift permanently back to the shooting guard spot.

“I bring the ability to push the ball in the open court and get open people the ball when they need it,” Gray said. “We have many talented players who can score, but they need to get the ball.”

Ann Wauters also brings the Sparks a true veteran center – something they’ve needed since the 2009 retirement of Lisa Leslie. The 6-5 Belgian star also adds perspective to Los Angeles, as she is cognizant that a winning team isn’t always the most gifted one.

“I’ve been around to know how a team works,” Wauters said. “I’ve been on incredibly talented teams that were not sometimes successful. All of that has a role for me on this team: to find out how we can click together.”

“In basketball you have to have great chemistry to be successful. Even if you have the best talent, it’s the chemistry that will make you win.”

The Sparks are rich at the forward spot, with All-Stars Candace Parker, Jantel Lavender and Nneka Ogwumike at the ready.  Veterans Alana Beard and Essence Carson serve as guard/forwards, and guards include Ana Dabovic, rookie Whitney Knight and Toliver.

Parker said the Sparks could take a cue from last season, which they ended on a winning streak.

Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray answer media questions. Photo by Sue Favor.
Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray answer media questions. Photo by Sue Favor.

“Hunger plays a huge part in it,” she said. “You have to have preparation, but clearly, the most talented team doesn’t win every year. Our goal is to start off the season well and get home court advantage (in the playoffs). Last year things might have been a little bit different if we had had home court advantage.”

To start with, however, the team will take it day-by-day.

“Our expectations are to get better every day,” Parker said. “Everybody dreams of winning and making the playoffs. But our focus right now is controlling what we can control. Every gap we had last year we filled it this year. Now we have no excuse; we have all the talent, it’s what are we going to do with it.”

Parker sat out the first half of the 2015 to rest, while Toliver missed several games playing in Europe. Overseas play has usually kept much of the roster away from training camp every year, but this time was different, as Parker stayed home this winter and everyone else reported to camp, as well. Parker said it has made a difference for her to be there from day one.

“I think I’m a leader from the start this year,” she said. “I’m not coming in getting information that coach said second hand; I’m coming in from day one hearing the information he gives. I know the defensive schemes, I know where we’re rotating from. I know where the offense is supposed to go and what the plays are. It’s not learning after everybody else does.”

“That’s a one-up; I haven’t done that since, I got into the league. It’s definitely an advantage.”

Dabovic, from Serbia, played her rookie year last season. She said she was excited to return to the Sparks this summer.

“I did get better here last year, and that’s one of the reasons I came back,” she said. “Playing with (WNBA) players made me better; getting coached by Brian Agler made me better.”

Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker and Jantel Lavender have fun at media day. Photo by Sue Favor.
Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker and Jantel Lavender have fun at media day. Photo by Sue Favor.

Ogwumike said being a part of the WNBA’s 20th season is special.

“You want to see exponential growth, but you have to remember that’s it’s still almost the beginning (of the league),” Ogwumike said. “I’m grateful to be part of this journey. I look forward to seeing where it will go, and what’s in store for me.”

The Sparks tip off their regular-season Sunday, as they host the Seattle Storm.

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