Sparks begin preseason with an improved Nneka Ogwumike

The Los Angeles Sparks will go into their first preseason game Sunday, against Seattle, still missing a couple of veterans. But thanks to an improved Nneka Ogwumike, the Sparks may not have to worry.

Returnees Ebony Hoffman, Marissa Coleman, April Sykes and Ogwumike hit practice hard Saturday, with nine newcomers. Alana Beard sat out of the action to ensure she’d be ready for the game, and Nicky Anosike was absent. Lindsay Harding came to her first practice Saturday, and Jantel Lavender is schedule to return to town Sunday evening. Candace Parker and Kristi Toliver will return to the team on game day, but will not suit up.

Parker and Toliver each won EuroLeague cups with their respective teams recently, to cap their seasons in Russia. Ogwumike played in Poland, where she scored a double-double in her team’s national championship game to take the title, and a gold medal. Her first practice with the Sparks was Wednesday, and the second-year player is already feeling the difference from her rookie season.

“I feel a lot more comfortable,” Ogwumike said. “Last year was my first year, and I didn’t know how it would be. I was just going with the flow. But now I understand how it is, so I’m going in with more confidence.”

Ogwumike said playing in the Polish league was a great experience, and it taught her things.

“I’m being more of a leader now, and I understand what helps me get better,” she said.

Coach Carol Ross has noticed the difference in the 2012 rookie of the year, too.

“She never looked like a rookie last year,” Ross said. “But at the same time, now she has a different level of confidence with the ball. She’s always had confidence, but now, she’s taken it to another level.”

Ogwumike was the third-leading scorer for Los Angeles last year, averaging 14 points per game behind Toliver and Parker. If all three step up their play this season, it could spell trouble for opponents. Ross can’t wait to get started in preseason.

“We’re ready to be tested,” she said of Sunday’s game.

Hoffman said the first week of training camp was good.

“It’s going well, and I think everybody is learning each other,” she said. “The newbies are picking up how fast this game is going to go – how fast they have to go. But I see a lot of energy and talent.”

Ross agreed.

“We’ve been motoring through this week, no days off,” Ross said. “The new players are competitors, and that’s what I love.”

Seattle is facing its first season without both of the franchise’s marquee players, Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, who are each out with injuries. Storm veterans Tanisha Wright and Camille Little head up a young team that also features fellow league staples Tina Thompson and Temeka Johnson – both whom have played for the Sparks.

Tipoff is at 1 p.m. at the Walter Pyramid at Cal State Long Beach.