16-1 Sparks: “We still have so much we need to improve on”

The Sparks are off to a franchise-best 16-1 season start. Photo by NBAE/Getty Images, courtesy of the Los Angeles Sparks.
The Sparks are off to a franchise-best 16-1 season start. Photo by NBAE/Getty Images, courtesy of the Los Angeles Sparks.

Going into this week, the Sparks lead the league in field goal percentage, assists and steals. That might explain why they are 16-1 after facing down almost all other WNBA teams, and how they were able to rout the defending champion Minnesota Lynx two weeks ago.

But Los Angeles also ranks eleventh out of 12 teams in rebounding, and that is one reason why players all agree that – their record aside – they still have much work to do.

“We can’t give up as many offensive rebounds,” forward Candace Parker said. “I think we’re so confident in our shooters that we don’t go to the boards. We work too hard….not to get the ball.”

“We’re excited and we’re expecting to win, but we know we have to get better in a lot of different things to be where we want to be at the end of the year.”

With the Sparks’ tremendous improvement on ball movement and defense this year, it would be easy to misinterpret their self-criticism for something other than what it is: a realistic self-examination in a daily quest to get better and better.

“I think we do a really great job of maintaining our poise,” Nneka Ogwumike said. “We stay together, and we stay at each other. We don’t sugar coat anything with each other. We want everyone to be the best they can be, and that makes it fun.”

Parker said that for many seasons, Los Angeles has been one pass, one rebound or one turnover away from greatness. Veteran guard Alana Beard agreed it is all about the details, which is where the team’s focus lies.

“We still have so much we need to improve on,” Beard said. “We still have these mental lapses that shouldn’t be happening. When we’re striving for something, we need to be more in tune to detail: defensively, offensively.”

“We need to be more smooth and decisive with what we’re doing, both offensively and defensively. We need to have our rotations consistent. There’s a lot of room for improvement.”

One player who has taken that mantra to heart personally is Ogwumike, who leads the WNBA in field goal percentage, shooting 69.9 percent. She also ranks sixth overall in scoring at 18.6 points per game, and fourth in rebounds, at 8.8. She has recorded eight double-doubles so far this year, and set a new career high last week, scoring 38 points. Sparks fans begun chanting “MVP!” at the fifth-year forward last week.

Coach Brian Agler said the team has been working to get the ball in Ogwumike’s hands more. Parker said Ogwumike is also aggressive.

“She’s always cutting, and I think her offense is so productive as a result of her cutting,” Parker said.

Beard said Ogwumike is a true team player in every sense of the term.

“I would go to bat with that young woman any day,” Beard said. “Out of all the players in the league, she’ll be my first choice every time because I know she’ll be behind me every single time.”

That kind of team chemistry is another major strength for the Sparks this year. They began with all players in training camp for the first time, and have grown close both on and off the court as a result. Ogwumike said team members “text and call each other all the time.”

“We don’t have mandatory team functions, but we like to hang out together,” Parker said. “It does help.”

The closeness of players off the court is evident on the court. When one is knocked to the ground during play, the other four come quickly. In one game last week when Ogwumike took a pounding, it was Beard who was checking to see if she was hurt. When Chelsea Gray took a shot to her already-injured eye Sunday, Parker tilted her head back to take a look while the others leaned in to see.

Parker said cohesiveness has been a foundation for wins.

“We’ve had great team chemistry from the beginning, and that’s been key for the season,” she said. “We have so many weapons….that’s how special this team is, and how it’s been put together, and how good the people are.”

Los Angeles hosts the Indiana Fever Wednesday, whom they have not yet played this year.