Sparks rebooting with plenty of talent, and much optimism

Aari McDonald and Cameron Brink. LA Sparks photo.

The Los Angeles Sparks enter unchartered territory this season, and how they will finish is anyone’s guess.

As they seek to return to the playoffs after a three-year absence, they do so with a reconstructed roster that is largely absent of star power. They are also battling some early injuries, which is reminiscent of the way that their 2023 campaign began.

But with two top-five draft picks, some solid veterans and quality roster candidates on hand, coach Curt Miller is entering his second year in Los Angeles with optimism and enthusiasm.

“We’re excited,” he said. “We know who we are. We know we’re in the build process and may be undervalued and underappreciated, but we’re going to get to work every day and try to put as good a product as we can on the floor.”

The Sparks lost 2012 No. 1 draft pick Nneka Ogwumike, who signed with the Seattle Storm over the winter, and they appear to have also parted ways with her sister, Chiney Ogwumike, who is not listed on the team’s training camp roster. A team spokesperson declined to comment on her status with the organization.

Returning starters include Layshia Clarendon and Azura’ Stevens, but Stevens broke her arm during the winter, playing in China, and will miss at least the next 7-8 weeks.

Guard Lexie Brown, who began last season in a starting role before being derailed by illness, returns after announcing on social media last week that she has Chron’s disease. Miller said her diagnosis was a relief for her.

“Now she has to manage it,” he said. “We expect her to be able to bounce back….and her to be back to herself and how she started out last year. I’m excited to have her back.”

Also returning are reliable reserve forwards Dearica Hamby and Rae Burrell, and guard Zia Cooke. Key offseason pickups include veteran forward Monique Billings from the Atlanta Dream, and Kia Nurse, who played for the Seattle Storm last season after missing 2022 with an ACL injury. Other signings included guards Julie Allemand and Aari McDonald, and center Li Yueru. Allemand is currently out with a foot injury, with her timetable for return unknown.

Miller said that the athleticism of LA-area native Billings was one thing about her that stood out.

“The versatility to play the four or the five can (lead to) offensive rebounding, which was a weakness of ours last year,” he said. “One of the reasons we were attracted to her in free agency was to try to get us extra possessions, to bring some rim protection. So we’re really glad to have her back out in LA.”

One athlete that Miller is especially glad to see is Australian veteran forward Stephanie Talbot, who tore her ACL in February, 2023 – just three weeks after signing with the Sparks.

“She is high energy, has a high motor, is a quality three-point shooter and gives us size at the wing, which we didn’t have last year,” he said. “This will be her first true season since her knee injury, and we’re going to be patient and give her grace. But she was a high priority last y sear in free agency, and we’re excited to have her in camp.”

Also returning is Nia Clouden. Blake Dietrick and Taylor Mikesell are in camp on training contracts.

LA fared well in the draft, where they took Stanford forward Cameron Brink with the No. 2 pick, Tennessee forward Rickea Jackson at No. 4, and USC guard/forward McKenzie Forbes at No. 28.

Though likening her learning curve to “baby steps,” Brink recognizes she has opportunities to contribute with such a young squad.

“I feel like I can do a lot to help this team (by) continuing to learn how to play through the physical contact, and adjusting to the quickness of the game,” she said. “I feel like I can use my athleticism to my advantage.”

Jackson, who acknowledged that she got “a lot of information” from coaches on the first day in training camp, has confidence.

“I’m bringing versatility in being able to play multiple positions, and being able to take advantage of who’s guarding me,” she said. “I can go with the quickness…..things like that. I think I’m going to adjust well.”

Last year’s team embodied some of Miller’s doggedness in fighting to a strong finish after notching a franchise-worst 8 straight losses in mid-July. This season he said it will be a matter of assembling great pieces and building chemistry.

“The big thing is that we have a lot of new pieces fighting for spots on our roster. So we are establishing culture again with this new group,” Miller said. “But the foundation is in place with the people that are returning. A lot of that culture is ‘defense first,’ and we’re going to have to do it by committee.”

Past incarnations of the team have seen Ogwumike and All-Star Candace Parker in lead roles. Miller said the new version of the Sparks will be different.

“We’re not going to ride the coat tails of one or two players,” he said. “We may not have that superstar Olympian on our roster, but I do love our depth. And if we can stay healthy, can we surprise people and be really tough night in and night out? Because maybe our depth is deeper than some teams.”

LA’s 18-woman roster must be cut to 12 by the May 13 deadline. They open their season May 15, when they host the Atlanta Dream.