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Retooled, road-warrior Sparks working to “find a groove”

Nneka Ogwumike beats the defense to lay it up and in. Jerry Kelly/TGSportstv1 photo.
Nneka Ogwumike beats the defense to lay it up and in. Jerry Kelly/TGSportstv1 photo.

The Los Angeles Sparks are not pressing the panic button amidst their current early-season losing streak.

Since winning their first two games of the year, the Sparks have dropped four straight. This has caused concern that the team is headed the same direction they went last season, which ended with them missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

But veterans Nneka Ogwumike and Liz Cambage said after their most recent loss Friday that LA is trying to figure each other out while living out of suitcases. With eight new faces on the roster, the Sparks play just three of their 11 games in May on their home court. To call those circumstances challenging is an understatement.

“Anytime we have to capitalize on practice time, we must use,” said Ogwumike, who has spent all of her 11 years in the WNBA with the Sparks. “When you can’t practice when you’re on the road, it’s difficult. This schedule sucks, but we’ve got to find a way.”

Cambage, a free agent who signed with the team over the winter from the Las Vegas Aces, said she sees the potential in LA.

“We’ve got a group that sees the vision and the talent that we have,” she said. “We’re just trying to find a groove.”

Ogwumike, forwards Chiney Ogwumike and Jasmine Walker, and guards Brittney Sykes and Kristi Toliver return from the 2021 season. Walker tore her ACL after just two games last year, and was out, while Toliver missed significant time with an injury. An assistant coach for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, Toliver has yet to report to the Sparks this spring, as the Mavericks have advanced in the playoffs.

The Sparks signed free agents Jordin Canada, Lexie Brown and Katie Lou Samuelson, and traded Atlanta for Chennedy Carter. They drafted Rae Burrell, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Amy Atwell.

Liz Cambage readies to pass. Jerry Kelly/TGSportstv1 photo.

The roster shakeup is similar to the one that proceeded last season, though Ogwumike said this year’s team is adjusting much more quickly.

“This squad seems to be cohesive together,” she said. “We’ve been getting together and fusing together much more quickly than I’ve experienced on other teams.”

Even so, those involved recognize that developing a winning chemistry won’t happen overnight.

“The more time they play together, the more that comfort level and connection is going to continue to grow and increase,” coach Derek Fisher said. “It’s important to maintain perspective of where we are in the season, and were we want to be.”

Their task at hand, Fisher said, is to put all the talent on the roster together into a working unit.

“Having five out of six games on the road to start the season in the long run will be a blessing, but right now it’s really hard to build consistency and winning when you’re playing against good teams in their building, night in and night out,” he said. “But…as we learn to compete and win in other buildings, hopefully that will bode well for us this season.”

The positive signs are there for LA. Three of their four losses have been by three points or less. And they’ve established four solid starters in Ogwumike, Cambage, Sykes and Canada.

Ogwumike said she has watched Cambage thrive within the Sparks culture, and is glad to have another vocal leader on the team.

“Liz lives, eats and breathes LA Sparks, and that’s what we need,” Ogwumike said. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation, and we’re hitting it from all angles. This may be one of my favorite teams I’ve played on.”

Ogwumike said she also appreciates Canada, a two-time WNBA champion from the Seattle Storm, in the point guard role.

Jordin Canada runs the point. Jerry Kelly/TGSportstv1 photo.

“JC….does such a good job orchestrating our offense,” she said.

Fisher echoed the sentiment, saying that while Canada is still finding her voice as a team leader, she is one who her teammates can look to as a calming presence.

“I think she’s doing a tremendous job that way,” he said.

The development of other players, including rookies, will have a part in solidifying a starting five, as will establishing Toliver’s role when she returns to the team.

Carter was pegged by many to be a starter for LA, as she was for Atlanta, despite missing significant time in her rookie season due to injury and being suspended for half of last season. But Fisher said Carter, who has come off the bench this season, is in the process of growing her game – especially on the defensive end.

“She’s playing a role where the minutes aren’t going to be exactly what people expect or what people may want them to be at this point in the season,” he said. “Jordin Canada is our starting point guard, and in terms of balancing lineup, and our needs offensively and defensively, that’s the best way to go.”

“In her minutes, Chennedy has been really good for us offensively….she’ll have to continue to be open-minded and willing to take advantage of the opportunities that are there. Hopefully those will grow as the season goes on….it’s about your readiness for the opportunity when it shows up.”

Fisher said he hopes Carter can “continue to be a positive contributor.”

Sparks coach Derek Fisher and Brittney Sykes have a word at a game pause. M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images, photo.

“We want to continue to help her grow,” he said. “It’s not really about finding a way to get her five more, eight more minutes in a regular-season game in May, 2022. It’s about the process of maturation of a young player that helps them to be great a year from now, three years from now, five years from now. It’s not about rolling a ball out and letting them figure things out; it’s a process. And I think she’s been good n the opportunities that she’s had.”

Ogwumike said she and her teammates know that they have to continue to push forward, step by step.

“It feels like we have composure,” she said. “I’m all about the process, and this team understands that, collectively.”

Cambage is optimistic.

“Greatness takes time, and we’re getting it together,” she said. “I think we’re looking better every game.”

LA faces Las Vegas on the road tonight, at 7 p.m. PT.

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