July 25, 2020
2020 Los Angeles Sparks season preview
What to expect from the Sparks roster
Welcome to The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited and photographed by our young, diverse staff, dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives and projections about the game we love.
Subscribe to make sure this vital work, creating a pipeline of young, diverse media professionals to write, edit and photograph the great game, continues and grows. Subscriptions include some exclusive content, but the reason for subscriptions is a simple one: making sure our writers and editors creating 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage get paid to do it.
Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike warms up before a WNBA game between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on June 06, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss
After months of uncertainty, the 2020 WNBA season is finally here. Rosters across the league look a little bit different than they ordinarily would have. In the midst of a global pandemic along with major social upheaval, players were given the option to sit out this season.
The Los Angeles Sparks will be without forward Chiney Ogwumike, guard Kristi Toliver, and center Maria Vadeeva. Ogwumike and Toliver elected to opt-out of this season while Vadeeva will remain overseas. All three were expected to be major contributors to the Sparks quest for a championship.
Despite the omissions, the Sparks still boast one of the more talented rosters in the league. Title contenders such as the defending champion Washington Mystics and the Connecticut Sun have also been affected by player opt-outs. In an abbreviated season, the Sparks still figure to be among the WNBA’s elite with a legit shot at the WNBA Finals.
Here’s a breakdown of what we might expect from the roster this season by each position.
The Sparks backcourt has been one of their strengths in recent years. Chelsea Gray is an All-Star and one of the league’s elite point guards. She’s also proven to be arguably the team’s most important player. She runs the offense smoothly and can get her own shot when she needs to. She played heavy minutes last season, something that probably won’t be replicated as much this season, but she is the motor that keeps the team going.
What happens to the Sparks when Gray is ineffective was on display in last year’s playoff series against the Sun. Connecticut employed a defense that was designed to trap Gray and get the ball out of her hands. With Gray unable to find a rhythm, the team sputtered its way to being swept in three games.
Toliver was brought in to take a lot of the pressure off Gray and provide the backcourt with another ball-handler and playmaker who is also capable of scoring when needed. Without her in the lineup, the Sparks will be relying on a pair of veterans and a newcomer to help Gray in the backcourt.
Riquna Williams was a pleasant surprise for much of last season. After getting off to slow starts which saw the Sparks fall behind by double-digits early in games, head coach Derek Fisher inserted Williams in the starting lineup at shooting guard and it worked. She gave the team the offensive spark they were looking for and helped them get off to much quicker starts.
In preseason calls with media, Fisher suggested that Williams would resume her role as the starting shooting guard to begin this season. Williams is an instant offense type of player capable of getting hot at any given time. On a team that needs capable and consistent three-point shooters, Williams can do just that. Her 39.1 percent from downtown last season was a career-high.
She’s also going to have to take on some of the role Toliver was to play. She’s going to have to act as that secondary ball-handler and playmaker so that when defenses key in on Gray, the offense doesn’t stagnate and fall apart.
Off the bench, the backcourt should be replenished with Sydney Wiese and Te’a Cooper. Wiese was also a key contributor last season. She juggled between changing roles from starting the season not playing as much, to being a starter, to being one of the first players off the bench. Whatever role was asked of her, she adjusted. She showed an ability to handle the ball and make plays and had developed solid chemistry with Vadeeva running the pick and roll.
She also is one of the more consistent three-point shooters on the team with a career 36.4 percent clip from distance. Entering her fourth-year in the league, her continued development will be crucial to the team’s success. While her numbers last season (4.8 points, 1.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists) don’t jump off the page, her impact was certainly felt. If she can continue to improve as a facilitator, it could a long way in replicating what Toliver was going to bring. Wiese’s main role will be to provide the second unit with a steady veteran hand.
In the case of Cooper, it’s unclear how many minutes she’ll actually see, although Fisher and most of the team have stated that all 12 players are going to be called upon this season. Cooper may be a rookie, but she has a wealth of experience. She’s played for legendary coaches in Holly Warlick, Dawn Staley, and Kim Mulkey.
While she isn’t Toliver, Cooper might be best suited to replicating her production. She’s a terrific playmaker with great court awareness and vision. She’s also immediately one of the better three-point shooters on the roster as a rookie. She was one of the more intriguing prospects in the draft. She’s quick and athletic and she can find that balance between looking to score and looking to pass. It’s certainly worth a shot to throw Cooper to fire right away and seeing what she can do.
Depending on how much of a role Cooper has right off the bat, newcomer Brittney Sykes might join Wiese as the backcourt off the bench. Sykes brings a different skill set to the team, one that they didn’t quite have last season. She’s a tough player with a knack for attacking off the dribble and getting to the rim. She can draw contact and get herself to the free-throw line. She’s a solid complement to the facilitating ability of Wiese; they should be able to play well off each other.
Veteran Seimone Augustus will also likely see some minutes in the backcourt, but will probably be playing small forward most of the time.
Looking at the Sparks frontcourt, it starts and ends with Candace Parker. She dealt with injury issues last season and never really was able to get into a groove. She showed flashes of the All-Star level player she’s still capable of being, but couldn’t quite put it all together consistently enough.
This season, by her own admittance, she’s feeling healthy and ready to go. Simply put, a healthy Parker alone will make a huge difference between last season and this one. She’s still capable of being one of the best players in the league and her versatile skill-set is hard to replace. She’s always been the point-forward and she could take a lot of the pressure off of Gray by being able to act as that secondary ball-handler and playmaker.
Helping Parker at the forward spots will be a returner and a few new additions. Fisher has suggested that Tierra Ruffin-Pratt will resume her role as the team’s starting small forward to begin the season. She fit in quite well in the lineup last year. She’s a rugged rebounder and a tough defensive player. She’s never been much of a three-point threat, but last season she shot a career-best 34.2 percent from distance.
She started in 32 of the 33 regular season games she played last season and Fisher will allow her to keep that spot. One thing she’ll need to do though is continue to improve her three-point shooting in order to be a designated shooter in the starting lineup and keep defenses from packing the paint.
While Seimone Augustus will probably see some minutes in the backcourt, small forward is likely where she’ll see a good portion of her playing time. Fisher had mentioned before the season that she was initially under consideration to start at small forward. Now as the season begins, she’ll settle into her initial role as part of the second unit. It’ll be the first time in her career that she isn’t a full-time starter.
Augustus’ production has waned in recent years, and last season plagued with injury, she only suited up in 12 games. However, with a reduced role where she can play more off-ball around other talented scorers, she should be able to find a way to contribute. She’s always been a solid three-point threat with a career average of 35.9 percent. She’s had a few seasons where she shot over 40 percent from downtown. Going against other teams benches, she should be effective.
Backing up Parker at power forward will likely fall on Reshanda Gray. Gray was signed as Chiney’s replacement, and she does bring a similar skillset to the table. She isn’t the scoring threat that Chiney is, but she does have a soft touch around the rim and prefers to do most of her offensive damage around the rim.
She’s also relentless on the glass and a strong interior defender. Gray’s going to be called upon to do the dirty work. She’s not afraid to play physical and put her body on the line boxing out and chasing after loose balls. She’ll give the Sparks a nice jolt of energy and toughness on the court.
Rounding out the starting lineup at center will be Nneka Ogwumike. A former MVP, Nneka, along with a healthy Parker, forms one of the most formidable frontlines in the league. While she’s made strides in becoming a capable shooter from both midrange and the three-point line, she’s most effective when she’s playing in the post. She’s got good chemistry with Parker playing high-low action. She gets good position in the paint and Parker in the high post is able to find her.
Nneka is also one of the team’s best interior defensive players and rebounders. With the absences around the league, Parker and Nneka should definitely be in the conversation for the best frontcourt duo in the WNBA.
The original backup to Nneka was supposed to be Maria Vadeeva, but she opted to remain overseas this season. Vadeeva had made strides last year as one of the best backup centers in the league, and this season she’ll be replaced with Marie Gülich and Kristine Anigwe. Both players bring different abilities to the court.
Gülich is well suited to the changing game that has seen bigs move away from the basket and become more perimeter-oriented. She can stretch the floor with her outside shooting and she can get out in transition. She’s also solid on the glass. This is only her third year in the league and she still has room to grow.
If Fisher wants to go more with a traditional big, that’s where Anigwe comes in. She had an up and down rookie season last year. She was unable to get off the bench on a veteran-laden Connecticut team and got a little bit more of a shot when she was traded to a rebuilding Dallas Wings team. She does her damage in the paint, and at Cal, she was one of the best rebounders in the country.
Depending on the matchups, both Gülich and Anigwe may see minutes at center. In any case, the Sparks have some flexibility at center, albeit being very young and inexperienced.
Overall, there’s no reason to think that the Sparks don’t have a legit shot at winning the title. That’s been the team’s goal for the past several years and this season is no different. As presently constructed, this team is as talented as any team in the league. Outside of their starting lineup, they’ve got an infusion of youth off the bench with players looking to make their mark on the league.
It’s certainly going to be a very different season given the current circumstances, but as Parker herself said, the championship this season isn’t going to have an asterisk, but an exclamation point.
Written by David Yapkowitz
David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.