The Los Angeles Sparks opened training camp Sunday with a mission similar to what it has been for the last few years, with ever-changing rosters: figuring out how to put great parts together to form a well-oiled machine.
With 20 in camp for a roster that must be cut to 11 within three weeks, coach Derek Fisher acknowledged that it won’t be easy.
“The players end up defining how the pieces come together, because they either put themselves in or take themselves out,” Fisher said. “We’re teaching up this year, holding them to a high standard because we have very specific goals we want to achieve. And if you’re not…capable or willing to meet those (goals), then this is not the place for you.”
“We’re going to make some tough decisions based on that mandate. I’m excited about that, but there will be some tough conversations that will come over the next 7-10 days, that are just part of the W.”
The task is complicated this season, though nine from the 2021 roster return: 10-year veteran Nneka Ogwumike, Chiney Ogwumike, Kristi Toliver, Brittney Sykes, Amanda Zahui B., Te’a Cooper, Arella Guirantes, Lauren Cox and Jasmine Walker.
In that injury-plagued campaign, the 12-20 Sparks fell short of the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Nneka Ogwumike missed 14 games and Chiney Ogwumike, 22 – both with knee injuries. Toliver was also out 13 games with her own injury, and Walker tore her ACL two games into the schedule.
Sykes, Zahui B. and Cooper carried the load for the team, along with point guard Erica Wheeler, who played in all 32 games and averaged 13.6 points and 4.8 assists in 30 minutes per outing. Los Angeles traded her to the Atlanta Dream in February for 2020 first-round draft pick Chennedy Carter. Nia Coffey, who averaged 8.3 points in 25 minutes in all games for the Sparks last season, signed with Atlanta.
The offseason also saw the signing of top free agents Liz Cambage, Jordin Canada, Lexie Brown and Katie Lou Samuelson. Last week the Sparks drafted Rae Burrell from Tennessee, Kianna Smith from Louisville, Olivia Nelson-Ododa from Connecticut and Amy Atwell from Hawaii. They invited UCLA’s Chantel Horvat and Duke’s Lexi Gordon to training camp.
Zahui B., Cox, Canada and Samuelson will be late to camp while they fulfill overseas playing commitments, and Toliver is absent due to her assistant coaching job with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks.
Nneka Ogwumike, drafted by the Sparks in 2012, said her knee is recovered, and her focus is on guiding the newcomers.
“I remember what it was like to come here and play with those who had been here and had an established system,” she said. “I just want to be a resource to them and be helpful to them – especially those who may not make the team. I want them to walk about with a great experience.”
Ogwumike said the training camp roster might be the youngest she’s seen yet.
“I’m impressed with them,” she said. “We know what a lot of the existing vets can do, but the energy (the newcomers) are bringing is what our culture is about. They’re ready to work, they’re very capable, and I love to see a lot of young players that are ready to learn.”
Acquiring 6-8 Cambage helped fulfill one of Fisher’s goals, to get more size in the front court. He said the coaching staff will take “one day at a time” to figure out who else can assist with that mantle.
“We went into the offseason wanting to improve in many areas,” Fisher said. “We wanted to rebound the basketball better…..and we wanted to be able to defend without fouling.”
Having a loaded training camp roster is a bonus.
“(Making cuts) is going to be the hard part, but I’d rather have that difficult choice to make,” Fisher said.
In the offseason, Sykes played for Australia’s Women’s National Basketball League for the first time. She said playing for the UC Capitals made her grow, both as a player and a person.
“It’s brought a piece to my game that I think I’ve been looking for, in knowing where to look, knowing where my spots are now, having confidence in my leadership, knowing when to pull up (for a shot),” she said.
A candidate for defensive player of the year last season, Sykes said she will play more evenly on both sides of the floor this summer.
“Before my defense came, I was scoring, and I’m more than capable of scoring the ball in many ways,” she said. “I was able to do that in Australia, which has enabled me to come in with the confidence and the eagerness.”
Nneka Ogwumike has the most years with Los Angeles, despite Toliver playing two more years in the league. Ogwumike said the decade has taught her the value of each opportunity.
“The seasons don’t go by fast, but the years do,” she said. “Just valuing the time you have with your teammates and valuing the time you have as a player, as a healthy player. And also understanding that you are building something, that you are part of something that is being constructed, (which) would be historical and carry a legacy, no matter what happens in your career, and taking that to heart.”
The Sparks travel to Seattle to play the Storm Saturday, for their only exhibition game before their May 6 opener at the Chicago Sky.