Many predict that the Los Angeles Sparks will contend for the WNBA title for the third consecutive time this season.
Head coach Brian Agler, however, isn’t one of them.
As usual, the veteran coach – who enters his fourth year with the Sparks – never looks too far ahead.
“We want to work like crazy to put ourselves in a good position,” Agler said. “There is a lot of steps. If we are fortunate enough to make the playoffs this year, then we want to try and take each step at a time.”
It is a familiar refrain for Agler and his team, who powered through a 32-win 2016 season en route to a WNBA Championship that saw them dethrone the powerhouse Minnesota Lynx. That year, which they began 11-0, both players and coaches were not only quick to put wins behind them, but they refrained from anticipating future game results.
Los Angeles held true to that mantra last season, which also ended in game five of the league finals, but this time with a loss to Minnesota. Now as the Sparks have worked through training camp with a loaded roster, the focus is on trying to improve.
“You assess all the things you did wrong, and then you drill those things in until they become good habits,” veteran Essence Carson said.
The Sparks have 21 on the roster after cutting four this week, which means they’ll have to trim nine more players by the final roster due date, May 17. The organization has traditionally had high numbers in camp, which includes a mixture of newcomers and returning veterans. This year is no exception, and neither is the fact that most of Los Angeles’ veteran core is still wrapping up play with their teams overseas, and have not yet been to camp.
Missing is center Jantel Lavender, forward Nneka Ogwumike, and guards Odyssey Sims, Riquna Williams and Chelsea Gray. Williams and Gray are due back in a few days, and the return dates of the others is still unknown.
The Sparks have also been without their first-round draft pick, Maria Vadeeva. The 19-year-old Russian sensation is touted as one of the best players in the world, and her arrival date is not yet certain. Ana Dabovic, who played for Los Angeles in 2015 and 2016, was resigned in the offseason and also has yet to report to camp.
Veterans on hand are Carson, Candace Parker, Alana Beard and newcomers Cappie Pondexter and Mistie Bass. Only Carson, Pondexter and Bass saw court time in the squad’s two preseason games earlier this week.
Pondexter played for the Chicago Sky for the last three years, and signed with Los Angeles over the winter. She said she relishes the opportunity to play in a city where she already lived.
“To be apart of this wonderful organization and be around other great athletes, I’m really excited,” Pondexter said. “Whatever I can do to help this team advance and get to where we need to be, I’m willing to do whatever.”
Rookies Karlie Samuelson and Shakayla Thomas have been impressive so far, both in camp and on court. Thomas led the team in scoring Monday against Connecticut, with 17 points, and Samuelson scored 14 the following night on the Liberty. Second-year guard Sydney Wiese followed a scoreless performance against the Sun with a 13-point, nine-rebound outing against New York.
Once final cuts are made, Agler will have to contend with working his returners back into the mix, and chemistry will have to be rebuilt. But it is nothing that Parker, Lavender, Beard and Ogwumike haven’t done before in the six years they’ve played together for the Sparks.
Agler is taking it in stride.
“You can’t accomplish anything until you’re in the position to accomplish it,” he said.
Los Angeles has one more preseason game, Saturday at Pasadena City College, where they will face the China National Team. They take on Minnesota, on the road, in their first regular-season match up May 20.
The Dallas Wings had plenty of offensive firepower last year.
They ranked first in the WNBA in team offense, scoring an average 80.2 points per game, and were tops in offensive rebounds. All five starters were double-digit scorers, and one of them – Allisha Gray – was named rookie of the year.
But after a 16-18 regular-season finish and a first-round playoffs exit, the Wings have begun camp and preseason play this year with only one thing on their minds: defense. Veteran Karima Christmas-Kelly said the team took the task on the first day of training camp.
“It is something that we are really going to try to focus on more, and just being able to be there for each other on the defensive end,” Christmas-Kelly said.
Last season Dallas was undersized and had trouble protecting the paint. But with the return of Australian star center Liz Cambage, who hadn’t played in the WNBA since 2011, and 2016 draftee Ruth Hamblin, the Wings will have paint presence. To that end, coach Fred Williams said his goal for the year is to create “a well-balanced team with speed and size that is relentless on defense.”
“My thing is 40/40 this year, give me 40/40 on offense, give me 40/40 on defense, that’s 40 minutes both ways and everything else will take its place,” Williams said.
That should be easier with Cambage, who is 6-8, and 6-7 Hamblin, who took last season off to play with the Canadian National Team. Both give Dallas size and depth in the post that they have not had before.
Other returners are fired up, including point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, who played well in a USA Basketball National Team exhibition game two weeks ago. She attributes her readiness to what she characterized as a more constructive offseason.
“I was with Fred all year, I think it is great having him here in town and having access to him,” Diggins-Smith said of her coach. “It’s a little avant-garde as far as me not being overseas and him in the same WNBA city as me. I definitely feel like I worked smarter this year.”
Aerial Powers, Glory Johnson, Kaela Davis and Kayla Thornton are also solid returnees for the Wings, along with Gray, who trained hard over the winter.
“(I worked on) improving my jump shot in the mid-range area, my three-point percentage and ball-handling,” Gray said.
Dallas added to that powerful mix by drafting Connecticut forward/center Azura Stevens with their No. 6 pick. She debuted in Monday’s preseason win over the New York Liberty with a team-high 19 points.
Williams said he believes his team has all the right pieces to make a deep run into the playoffs. But first they have to gel, as was evident in Tuesday’s 21-point loss to the Connecticut Sun.
“The main thing is team chemistry,” Williams said. “You have to have players that have that good chemistry, (because) at this level, the talent is pretty even.”
Diggins-Smith, who worked with a new trainer last winter, said she is not only stepping up her play, but she’s honing her leadership skills.
“We have the youngest team in the league, and we’re still learning,” she said. “I am still learning how to be a better leader, and (I’m learning) what I can to do help out.”
Dallas broke through last season to make the playoffs for the first time in several years. Now they have the potential to be an elite team, but they must first trim four players from their training camp roster to meet the limit of 12 by May 17. Before that, they have one more preseason matchup, against Dallas Sunday at home.
Uncasville, Conn. – The Connecticut Sun registered 17 fast break points and double-digit scoring efforts from four different players en route to a 79-58 preseason victory over the Dallas Wings Tuesday night at Mohegan Sun Arena. The win marks the eighth preseason win in a row, dating back to 2016, and their second in two days.
Sun guards Courtney Williams and Jasmine Thomas scored 18 and 12 points, respectively, while both Morgan Tuck and Rachel Banham came off the bench for 10 points each. Second year forward Betnijah Laney also had a strong game, posting eight points to go along with six boards in 18 minutes of action.
“I loved our fight tonight,” head coach Curt Miller said.
Connecticut was second in the league last year in offensive pace, which helped them surge to a fourth-place regular-season finish and their first trip to the playoffs in five years. Miller said that even with new faces on the team, offensive firepower will still be their calling card.
“A big part of our identity is playing fast and getting out in transition,” he said. “We set that tone in the first quarter with our tempo tonight.”
But Thomas said defense will also play a role.
“We have always been a really good transition team, sharing the ball and pushing it,” she said. “We can only do that if we get stops.”
The Sun was able to build the lead by turning mistakes by Dallas into fast break points. The Wings bench accounted for much of their offense with 35 points, including 12 from both Kaela Davis and Ruth Hamblin. Dallas out-rebounded the Sun, 43-38, led by 6-8 forward Liz Cambage with a team-high nine boards.
Williams and Thomas took control of the game early, slicing their way to the basket at will in the first quarter. By the four-minute mark, Connecticut already built a 14-4 lead, powered by eight early points from Williams.
The Sun kept the pressure on the Wings, as their reserves extended the lead to 43-30 to end the half. The visitors cut the deficit to single-digits early on in the second half, but efficient offense from Connecticut propelled them to a large lead, which they maintained.
The Sun played stingy defense, holding Dallas to just 31.5 percent shooting from the field, and they forced 22 turnovers.
Connecticut hits the road for the first time this season to face the Atlanta Dream at 7 p.m. ET Friday.
Uncasville, Conn. – The Connecticut Sun showed signs of being the aggressor throughout its preseason opener against the Los Angeles Sparks. But it took Rachel Banham’s game-winning shot with .5 seconds remaining to put the Sun over the top, 68-65, Monday evening at the Mohegan Sun. Three players reached double-figures in the first of a back-to-back game series.
Seven-year veteran Jasmine Thomas led the team with 12 points and added two steals, while both forward Chiney Ogwumike and swing player Betnijah Laney each chipped in 10 points. It was Ogwumike’s first game back since the 2016 season, after which she tore her Achilles tendon overseas.
“She was the same old Chiney, just really efficient”, coach Curt Miller said. “She is a really talented player, and we’re glad to have her back.”
Ogwumike, who showed no signs of rust, made her presence felt on the glass as she matched a game-high eight rebounds.
“There were a lot of nerves, but I think the effort was there,” she said.
Connecticut led for the majority of the game, but allowed the Sparks to stick around with second-half mistakes.
“Turnovers are a concern,” Miller said about his group’s 20 on the night, which was uncharacteristic considering they were one of the teams that had the fewest turnovers in the league last season.
The Sun led by nine points heading into the fourth quarter, in a game that looked to be slipping away from the Sparks. The hosts went up by as much as 11 points after a fast break layup from Laney with 9:30 to go in the game.
Then Los Angeles slowly began to creep back into the game, as rookie forward Karlie Samuelson hit a floater, which ignited a 10-3 run to tie the game at 60-all with 3:54 remaining. The Sparks took their first lead after a finger roll from rookie Skakayla Thomas to go up 63-62.
With just over a minute to go, the teams were knotted up once again at 65-65 after two free throws from Laney.
Coming out of a timeout with 21 seconds left in regulation, Connecticut made two huge defensive stops at the rim to regain possession with .5 seconds left on the clock. Banham then wrapped around a screen and released a deep three-pointer right as the time expired to cement the win.
“I thought it was going in,” Banham said of the shot. “It felt good coming off my hand.”
Banham said she was pleased at her team’s fight, and at her own composure.
“It was rough, but we continued to battle,” she said of Los Angeles’ late run. “It was good for me to be able to show leadership and calmness in that situation.”
Rookie Thomas led the Sparks, who were without All-Star Candace Parker, with 17 points. Rookie Samuelson and veteran Cappie Pondexter each chipped in 14 points.
The Sun take on the Dallas Wings, who also won their game, at 7 p.m. ET tomorrow at Mohegan Sun Arena.
This sounds like what many of us have been calling for, for years:
NEW YORK, May 7, 2018 – The WNBA announced today that Sylvain Labs, an innovation and brand design consultancy, will work closely with the league to develop a long-term growth strategy and identify new marketing opportunities.
The partnership with Sylvain Labs entails a complete review of every aspect of the league to learn more about its fans and how best to engage them.