The Los Angeles Sparks were last seen cavorting on court after winning the 2016 WNBA Championship.
But the version of the team that is showing up for their three preseason games this week doesn’t resemble last year’s trophy-hoisting crew very much. Most of the veteran core that pushed for the title all season long – Candace Parker, Jantel Lavender, Essence Carson and Chelsea Gray – are still finishing up overseas play. Nneka Ogwumike returned to the United States last night, and Alana Beard just notched a Spanish League Championship yesterday, and will be coming home soon.
When Parker, Lavender, Carson and Gray – who are all playing in Turkey – will return is something coach Brian Agler said he doesn’t know. But he isn’t letting that slow the Sparks down.
“If it’s out of our control or my control, I don’t really give it a lot of concern,” he said. “Leagues are overlapping. It’s just the way of the world. We just focus on the people that we have here and try to get our team ready to go.”
Shooting specialist Kristi Toliver’s departure to the Washington Mystics three months ago means that the only three veterans in camp are newbies to the team themselves.
One of those athletes is guard Odyssey Sims, whom LA acquired from the Dallas Wings earlier this year. The Baylor star was drafted by the former Tulsa Shock in 2014, but relishes her new assignment.
“This is better opportunity for me,” Sims said. “I can’t wait for the rest of my teammates get here slowly, and I see how I can gel with them on and off the court. All in all, I’m just really excited to be here.”
Sims has been going hard in camp since it began, and in yesterday’s preseason debut against the New York Liberty, she had eight points and six steals. She knows the expectations the Sparks have heading in to this season and said she is willing to whatever she can to contribute.
“(I’m trying to) give coach whatever he needs, whatever he asks of me, whether it’s an outside shot, a pull up jumper or being able to drive and look for open players,” Sims said. “Whatever it is, I’m willing to do it, and it starts in training camp now. I’m really just focused on myself and making my teammates better as well.”
Another veteran newcomer, guard Riquna Williams, was delayed in coming to LA by one season. The Sparks acquired her in a trade March 2, 2016, and at the end of that month, she ruptured her left Achilles tendon and was out for the season. The four-year pro and former Hurricane fought her way back.
“Rehab went amazing,” she said. “I had surgery last year, on April 4. I went back to the University of Miami. Had the whole procedure done and I rehabbed there the entire time, until I went over to Turkey in November of last year.”
Williams didn’t play in Tuesday’s game, due to a back strain, and will sit out tonight’s match up with the Connecticut Sun as a precaution. But she is eager to play.
“I’m excited. I feel like I’m a step behind, because…..I missed the entire season, so I feel like I’m a step behind,” Williams said. “But I came here early before camp started and I got to sit in with coach (Brian) Agler and go over everything. I feel like once everybody gets in and the season gets rolling, I’ll be okay.”
Agler said he is glad to finally have Williams on court, as well as off of the hardwood, too.
“She’s got a scorer’s mentality and is a tremendous athlete,” Agler said. “I’m impressed with her as a person, too.”
Tiffany Jackson-Jones, who has played eight years in the WNBA, last suited up for the Tulsa Shock in 2015. She just joined Sparks camp a few days ago and scored six points in over 21 minutes of play yesterday.
Among the rookies in camp are first-round pick Sydney Wiese of Oregon State, former Stanford Cardinal Karlie Samuelson and Nina Davis and Saicha Grant-Allen of Dayton. Wiese, Samuelson and Grant-Allen started yesterday with Sims and Jackson-Jones.
Wiese seems like the answer to replacing Toliver. Wiese broke the Pac-12 record for career three-pointers in December, and has been making an impression on coaches during training camp.
“Wiese has been getting a lot of attention, and we’re looking to fill other spots, as well,” Agler said.
Los Angeles plays their final preseason game Saturday at Pasadena College, and will raise their WNBA Championship banner at their season home opener May 13. But aside from that formality, it will be business as usual, according to Agler.
As the Sparks marched through last season, undefeated for the first 21 games, players and coaches continually repeated the mantra that they were taking one game at a time. Agler said that is the game plan for this year, too.
“We’re going to do the same thing, because that’s the best way to approach the season,” Agler said. “A lot of people will be talking about whether or not we’re going to repeat. But that talk won’t be coming from us.”
Sue Favor contributed to this report