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New season, same approach for the Sparks

Rookie Shakayla Thomas shoots a free throw against the New York Liberty earlier this week, as Sydney Wiese looks on. Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images.
Rookie Shakayla Thomas shoots a free throw against the New York Liberty earlier this week. Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images.

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.

Veteran Sparks newcomer Cappie Pondexter swings the ball as Sugar Rodgers defends. Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images.

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.

Essence Carson handles the ball against New York. Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images.

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.

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