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Competition to make Sparks roster is fierce

The Sparks have a lot of talent on their hands.

It’s a problem most coaches would like to have: Jennifer Gillom has too much talent on her hands.

That was obvious on LA Sparks training camp session eight Wednesday night, when a routine scrimmage didn’t look too far off from an actual game. Players were driving to the bucket, knocking down shots, playing strong defense and getting up and down the court quickly. And two key players – Candace Parker and Delisha Milton-Jones – weren’t even back yet.

“That’s the issue I’m having right now, is that everybody’s looking great,” said Gillom, in her first year with the Sparks. “Their energy level is great, the skill level is great. They’re really going after each other, and it’s really difficult for me as a coach (to make decisions) when people have really high energy and are playing hard every single night.”

The Sparks were already loaded with veteran talent in Tina Thompson, Betty Lennox, Ticha Penechiero, Milton-Jones and Marie Ferdinand-Harris. Then came first-round draft pick Andrea Riley and other rookies, including camp invitees such as Long Beach State’s Karina Figueroa. It has made for an intense camp, as 16 players will vie for 11 spots on the team.

“There’s a lot of balance from this team that I didn’t expect,” Gillom said. “I thought there would be a really big difference in certain players.

“It’s going to be difficult (to make cuts). That’s why I’m keeping stats everyday to help me see who’s going to be the most consistent. Even though there are a lot of big players, I’m big on consistency, and that’s going to be how I determine my team.”

Both Riley and Figueroa looked strong in Wednesday’s practice, as did draft pick Rashidat Juniad. All three racked up significant minutes in the end-of-practice scrimmage game.

Riley, from Oklahoma State, said her strength is in shooting, which she learned to do because of her shorter stature. She said her style of play blends well with Gillom’s schema.

“I think (my style) fits the team because the coach really wants to focus on the transition game,” she said. “I’ve been getting up and down the court and trying to get everybody set up for easy baskets.”

Gillom characterized her style of play as “run and gun,” and said the Sparks will be an up-tempo team this year that is strong in transition.

“It’s something a lot of players enjoy,” she said. “I’ve done my homework, and we’re going to go with it.”

Figueroa was invited to camp by Sparks General Manager Penny Toler, who had seen her play at Long Beach State. The fact that the team’s last second pre-season game will be played on her former home court isn’t lost on her.

“Playing at the Pyramid will be my last hurrah,” she said with a laugh.

Figueroa was everywhere during Wednesday’s practice. She said her goal has been to take care of the little things on the court.

“I’m just trying to do anything possible to make the team better,” she said. “Whatever I can do to help, whether it’s on defense or being aggressive. I’m trying to do little things – trying to get steals, trying to get back on defense, trying to get easier shots for the key players on the team.”

For all the talent on the floor, there were still three missing: Candace Parker and Milton-Jones, who have been playing overseas, and Vanessa Hayden. All three were back Friday for an open practice at the Pyramid in preparation for Saturday’s game. All eyes will be on Parker, to see if she’s returned to form since having a baby a year ago.

“She’s going to be coming back in tip top shape,” Gillom said of Parker. “I’ve been hearing rumors that she’s really excited about coming to play in a run and gun system. When a player knows they’re going to run and gun they know she has to come back in good shape.”

Gillom, with assistant coach Steve Smith and developmental coach Jim Saia, will make the first cuts after Saturday’s game. Cuts will be completed by May 14.

Known as “grandmamma” during her own playing days, Gillom said she motivates her team with her own passion for the game.

“They can see my passion,” she said. “They can see my love for the game, that I want the best for them and I encourage them to be their best. I’m an encourager, not a drill sergeant.”

Gillom said she is indeed setting teams goals this year, and they’re not small.

“As a player I’ve set high goals and as a coach I’ve set even higher goals, and I want to win a championship,” she said. “It sounds like a cliché, and everybody says it, but I really feel that if we play consistently like we’ve been practicing the last week and with the addition of the players we’ve got coming, I see no reason why we can’t win a championship.”

Saturday’s game is at 12:30 p.m.

– Sue Favor

Here’s a story about Figueroa.

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