June 3, 2022
How Chennedy Carter and Brittney Sykes mesh at point guard for the Sparks
Los Angeles is getting a boost from some unexpected playmaking sources
Playing a different position isn’t always an easy task for a basketball player, especially when they’ve grown accustomed to playing a certain role for a long time. That’s particularly true at point guard. But injuries and other circumstances can lead to players being placed in different roles than what they’re used to.
For the Los Angeles Sparks, that happened this past weekend when starting point guard Jordin Canada didn’t play against the Minnesota Lynx due to a hamstring injury. She missed her second straight game against the Dallas Wings on Tuesday night due to the aforementioned injury.
The Sparks, who are already without Kristi Toliver who has yet to return from her duties as an assistant coach with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, suddenly found themselves without any true point guards on the roster.
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Head coach Derek Fisher has never been shy to try out unconventional lineups, but in this case, he didn’t have much of a choice. With the Sparks liking Lexie Brown in an off-ball role, Fisher turned to Chennedy Carter as the starting point guard and Brittney Sykes as the backup.
Since the change, the Sparks have won two straight games and have looked worlds better than the team that was recently on a five-game losing streak. Fisher emphasized that he envisioned taking advantage of both Carter and Sykes’ ability to attack and pairing that up with having them do a little playmaking.
“I think that both players have a natural instinct to try and get downhill and put pressure on the rim. That type of guard play is really important to play in good, efficient basketball,” Fisher said after the win over the Wings on Tuesday. “We obviously score a lot of points in the paint but having guards and perimeter players that are constantly looking to attack the paint, touch the paint, get to the front of the rim, it frees up other opportunities.”
Both players have embraced the new roles they found themselves in and the Sparks offense has really started clicking. Earlier this season, the Sparks often got off to slow starts forcing them to put more pressure on themselves to get back into the game. In the two wins with Carter as the starting point guard, they’ve been able to get into more of an offensive flow in the first quarter.
Carter was one of the Sparks prized off-season pickups and they gave up a lot to get her. They traded fan-favorite and team leader Erica Wheeler as well as their 2023 draft pick to the Atlanta Dream to acquire the former No. 4 overall pick.
It’s not like Carter was never capable of being a playmaker; she did average 3.3 assists over the course of her two years in Atlanta. But since she’s been in the WNBA, Carter has been recognized as a scorer.
Carter’s debut with the Sparks got off to a bit of a slow start; she was averaging a career-low 16.2 minutes per game while coming off the bench. But she has been thriving in the past two wins with the ball in her hands. Fisher knew that it was going to be an adjustment for Carter and he’s been pleased with the way she’s responded.
“Chennedy’s had to figure out where she’s going to fit in with this new team and in a different role than she had on a previous team and she was going to have to wait her turn a little bit after the first five or six games,” Fisher said. “But things have turned for her and she’s really done a great job taking advantage of the opportunities.”
Carter has been averaging 3.5 assists in these two games, right on par with her career numbers. She’s continued to be aggressive getting to the rim only now instead of looking to score immediately, she’s surveying the court for open teammates.
She’s been solid in the pick and roll as the passer and finding her bigs diving to the rim. She admits that it’s not a role she’s quite comfortable with yet, but she feels like as the season goes on she’ll get more acclimated to that role.
“I would say it’s a bit of an adjustment for me. I think the more games I play and the more I just talk to my coaches and my teammates, that will get me comfortable,” Carter said after the win over the Lynx. “I feel like this team is just so selfless and so anything that anyone does, we try to have each other’s back. With them just pushing me and encouraging me each night, that helped me get comfortable to get going and get my teammates going.”
With Sykes, the playmaking role is something that she’s kind of always had, but just hasn’t really been able to show much of since she’s been in the WNBA. She did average 3.3 assists per game during her senior year at Syracuse, but it’s not a role she’s been tasked with in the league.
But this past offseason, when Sykes joined the Canberra Capitals of the WNBL in Australia, she had the ball in her hands and was making decisions more often than she had in the WNBA. It was her play in the WNBL that gave Fisher the confidence that she could play a similar role with the Sparks.
“She just always rolls with whatever the team needs. She’s always had the ability to take on a little more ball-handling responsibility than maybe we’ve given to her,” Fisher said. “I think that really added to her comfort level and confidence being a primary ball-handler and as she’s gotten more chances to do that these last few games, you’ve really seen her come into her own.
“Playing the point guard position is hard. I think the game in Minnesota and the last couple of games, she’s learning that it’s not an easy job to balance being aggressive, making sure teammates are involved in getting opportunities, looking for her own opportunity, and then being responsible for ‘okay we need a basket at this time, who hasn’t had a touch the last few possessions’.”
Sykes was always considered a good slasher and having another wing that could get to the rim and put pressure on the defense was something the Sparks really needed when they acquired Sykes from the Dream in the 2020 offseason.
Last season, her second with the Sparks, Sykes started to show flashes of being a playmaker. But it’s been this season, the past two games, where she’s really been unleashed. Her aggressiveness in getting to the rim coupled with her brilliance in the pick and roll has had the Sparks offense clicking on another level.
This season, Sykes is averaging a career-high 3.7 assists. She juggled being in the starting lineup to being moved to the bench to now being the second unit primary ball-handler and she’s been thriving as of late.
“It’s just one of those things where it’s like next man up, right now I’m the backup point guard,” Sykes said after the win against Dallas. “Credit to my team because they got on me the past couple of games since I’ve been in this position to still be aggressive, especially in the Minnesota game. I don’t want to hurt my team, when they say go be aggressive, I’m going to be aggressive. I think I make good enough plays to where my team trusts me and I find the right person.”
While Sykes has certainly made strides as a playmaker, she gives a lot of credit to Fisher in his role as general manager for bringing in the pieces for her to be able to pass to.
“That’s honestly what’s given me the space to go and drive,” Sykes said. “We have shooters on the perimeter who knock down shots, we got Liz in the paint, we got Nneka, we have pieces to where we have to keep you honest on defense. . .It’s one of those things where it’s like make the play and make the right pass. My teammates were open so I found them.”
It’s unclear when Canada and Toliver will rejoin the lineup and with their capabilities as ball-handlers and playmakers, and when they do come back it has Fisher envisioning the growing potential of his guard rotation.
“We for sure plan to continue to explore it and have them with that confidence for when Jordin is back and having Kristi coming soon,” Fisher said. “That’s the type of playmaking and decision-making at the guard position that we feel like will elevate our roster to a new level.”