May 3, 2022
2022 WNBA season preview: Los Angeles Sparks
With a reloaded roster, the Sparks head into the 2022 season with a lot of reasons for optimism
The 2022 WNBA season is finally here and just like last offseason, the Los Angeles Sparks went through a roster overhaul. However, unlike in 2021, when the focus was on who the Sparks lost, this time around, the story was about who the Sparks added.
They entered the offseason with very little room cap wise to make any major additions. But not only were they able to free up some cap space to make a major free-agent signing, but they also essentially mortgaged their future for the chance to win now.
The first domino fell when the Sparks shipped off Gabby Williams, who never suited up for the team after her contract had been suspended for the 2021 season by the Chicago Sky, to the Seattle Storm in exchange for Katie Lou Samuelson and the No. 9 pick in this year’s draft. The move gave the Sparks the requisite cap space to make a splash in free agency.
The next domino was shipping off Erica Wheeler, the 15th pick in this year’s draft and their 2023 first-round pick to the Atlanta Dream for Chennedy Carter. By giving up their 2023 pick, the Sparks are banking on Carter being a major difference-maker. But more on that later.
The last major domino to fall was the signing of Liz Camabge with the Sparks’ newly gained cap space. Then, throw in the addition of Jordin Canada in free agency. And the Sparks’ main core bears little resemblance to last season’s team.
Last season’s team was hit with a myriad of injuries and with players shuffling in and out of the lineup, the team developed a tough, gritty identity that helped them become one of the best defensive teams in the league. The offense was another story, however.
This season with the new additions, the Sparks are looking to maintain their defensive identity while they hope to put together a versatile offense.
A good basketball team needs a strong backcourt and the Sparks have a guard rotation that could be among the league’s best. As of now, the starting backcourt appears to be Canada and Brittney Sykes.
During her time in Seattle, Canada developed into one of the WNBA’s top playmakers and defenders. Canada mainly played a bench role and played 7.2 points per game and 4.1 assists in four seasons with the Storm. Now, the LA native returns home as the lead floor general. The major knock on Canada since she’s been in the WNBA is her three-point shooting.
In college, Canada was an efficient three-point shooter, but it hasn’t quite translated to the WNBA yet. In the Sparks preseason game against the Phoenix Mercury on Saturday afternoon, Canada hit the only three-point shot she took. In her introductory press conference, Jordin stated that she needed to be a willing shooter from distance, not necessarily a knockdown shooter.
With Sykes in the fold, the Sparks have a starting backcourt more in line with what it should be compared to last season. The smaller backcourt of Wheeler and Kristi Toliver just wasn’t going to cut it. Sykes’ move to shooting guard gives the Sparks more size in the backcourt, especially on the defensive end.
Sykes is one of the veterans on the team now and also one of the longest-tenured Sparks, having been on the team since 2020. She has emerged as arguably the best defensive wing in the league and can guard multiple positions. Her offense dipped a little bit last season compared to her first season with the Sparks, but with all the firepower the team has now, she isn’t going to be asked to shoulder much of the offensive load. Sykes is an opportunistic scorer who will pick and choose her spots if necessary. And she’s become a willing three-point shooter.
In their two preseason games, Sparks head coach and general manager Derek Fisher has opted to bring explosive guard Carter off the bench and if that continues, she will be in the running for the Sixth Woman of the Year Award. Against the Storm, Carter was the team’s second-leading scorer with 15 points on an efficient 5-9 shooting from the field.
She displayed her ability to get into the paint and she got to the free-throw line five times. Carter is a potential difference-maker for this team whether she comes off the bench or ultimately moves into the starting lineup. She has career averages of 16.1 points per game and 46.6 percent shooting from the field.
The Sparks thought so highly of Carter that they gave up their 2023 first-round pick in exchange for her. There is no guarantee that if the Sparks had held on to that pick, whoever they would have drafted would be as good as Carter is.
At some point this season, the Sparks are expecting Toliver to be back in the fold once she finishes her obligations as an assistant coach with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. A starter throughout her career, this should be the season Toliver joins the bench unit.
Entering her 13th season in the WNBA, Toliver still has enough game left to contribute just in a reduced role. She dealt with injuries last season but coming in against other second unit guards should keep her fresh. She remains one of the better three-point shooters on the team as well as a capable ball-handler and playmaker. She’s also not afraid of taking and making big shots.
After those four, the backcourt gets a little bit murky. Te’a Cooper, who has played a big role on the team the past two seasons, is on a training camp contract. Arella Guirantes, who showed flashes last season and can switch between shooting guard and small forward, is also on a non-guaranteed contract. Both players are good depth pieces to have. But the Sparks roster situation may not leave much room for either, considering the team also needs to figure out what to do with rookie guard Rae Burrell who has been sidelined recently.
If everyone can remain healthy, the Sparks could have one of the top frontcourts in the league. Despite any additions the Sparks have made, the frontline starts and ends with Nneka Ogwumike. Injuries kept her out of the lineup for a big portion of last season, but she’s only three years removed from her last All-Star selection in 2019.
Nneka is still a double-digit scoring threat and one of the better interior scorers in the league. She can also step out and shoot the midrange and last season’s 36.7 percent from three-point range was one of the top marks of her career. In the preseason game against Seattle, Nneka shot 50 percent from beyond the arc. With Liz Cambage in the fold, expect the Sparks to take a little more advantage of Nneka’s floor spacing.
Speaking of Cambage, the Sparks added one of the most versatile offensive centers in the league, and one of the better interior anchors on the defensive end. For a team that had one of the WNBA’s best defenses, they now have a legit shot blocker in the paint for their perimeter defenders to funnel opposing players into.
On the offensive end, Cambage is a talented low post scorer who can also space the floor with her shooting ability. She shot a career-best 35.7 percent from three-point range last season and she’ll form a nice inside/outside duo with Nneka. Staying out of foul trouble will be key for her, though. She averaged around three personal fouls per game last year and in the preseason game against Seattle, she fouled out in about 11 minutes of play.
She is the major difference-maker, however. She was the Sparks free-agent splash and her arrival does raise some of the expectations. Cambage has already spoken of getting back to her 2018 Dallas form when she put up a career-best 23 points per game and set a record with 53 points against the New York Liberty.
Rounding out the frontcourt, the Sparks are hoping for a bounce-back season from Jasmine Walker, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2021 draft. Walker missed all of last season with an ACL injury. In two preseason games, Fisher has started Walker at small forward and she’s kind of taken on the role that Nia Coffey had last season.
Coffey was interchangeable between small forward and power forward. Her size gave her an advantage on the glass over most threes and she was able to space the floor against fours. Walker has a similar skill-set. As a senior at Alabama, she shot 39.8 percent from the three-point range. A self-proclaimed, ‘knock-down shooter,’ Walker’s shooting is a welcome addition to a team that needed outside shooting.
She has the tools and ability to be the type of defender that Coffey was as a help side shot blocker and as a presence on the glass. This is essentially her rookie season and if she’s fully recovered, it’s almost as if the Sparks got to add yet another new impact player.
The team is also waiting for Amanda Zahui B. to return from her overseas commitments. Last season, Zahui B. developed nice chemistry in the frontcourt with Nneka. They worked well together, with both being able to play in the high post and find each other around the rim for easy buckets.
Zahui B. had one of the best seasons of her career last year, making an immediate impact when she was cleared to play after dealing with injuries at the beginning of the season. She’s a good outside shooter and can be active around the rim. She was a starter last year but will move to the bench and help give the Sparks some nice depth.
One of the biggest question marks for the frontcourt, however, is the health of Chiney Ogwumike. Since being traded from the Connecticut Sun almost three years ago, Chiney hasn’t had the impact the Sparks were hoping for, mainly due to her health.
Chiney is more of a throwback type big who has good footwork in the post and isn’t afraid to mix it up and play physical inside. By her own admission, she is feeling great this season and her main goal is to be available for the team. She looked a little bit rusty against the Storm, but she was aggressive and did get to the line six times.
Lastly, the Sparks will welcome the addition of Katie Lou, who is also still with her overseas team. Samuelson is another versatile player who can switch between multiple frontcourt positions. She spaces the floor as a three-point shooter but she showed she can also do a little bit more offensively.
She turned into a pretty solid defensive player last year with Seattle and she has the mobility to be able to guard multiple positions.
With this group, the Sparks have one of the most versatile frontcourts in the league, with the ability to switch it up and play different styles.
Since he was hired back in 2019, there’s been a lot of outside chatter as to Derek Fisher’s head coaching ability. What is clear, however, is the team’s respect for him. Even with last season’s disappointment, each player has praised Fisher on numerous occasions, and the team genuinely enjoys playing for him.
He’s a player’s coach who doesn’t try to overcomplicate things and he allows his players the freedom to go out there and play. He isn’t afraid to experiment with lineups and he consistently trusts his young players and will play rotations based on who will maximize their chances at winning. And truthfully, this is the first season to really judge him by.
You can chalk up 2019 to being his first year trying to get all the pieces to fit. 2020 was a weird year altogether in the bubble and the Sparks were dealt a fatal blow in the playoffs when Nneka ended up being sidelined. Last season the team kind of overachieved with the fluctuating lineup they dealt with.
This year though, is the year he can finally prove he’s the right fit for this team. He has the pieces there, it’s all about getting them to work.
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.