January 10, 2023
2023 WNBA free agency preview: Los Angeles Sparks
The Sparks are set to enter WNBA free agency armed with cap space
To say the last two seasons have been tough for the Los Angeles Sparks would be a bit of an understatement. For a franchise that was long considered one of the elite organizations in the WNBA with multiple championships under their belt, the Sparks have seemingly deteriorated into one of the league’s bottom dwellers. It’s been two straight seasons of not making the playoffs, including last year, during which the Sparks finished with the second-worst record in the WNBA behind only the tanking Indiana Fever.
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But there is hope and fresh optimism on the horizon. Curt Miller, who first got his shot in the WNBA as an assistant coach with the Sparks in 2015, is back, but this time he is at the helm as head coach. Not only has he seen a measure of success as a head coach in the league with the Connecticut Sun, but he also has a proven track record of developing players.
The front office is completely revamped as well. After going almost a full season with no general manager after Derek Fisher was let go, the Sparks now have in place Karen Bryant as the GM and former senior director of communications and basketball analytics Eli Horowitz as the assistant general manager.
Stability and structure is key to building a winning team and now it appears as if the Sparks have that in both the front office and the coaching staff. Now that all the dust has settled, they can get to work as the WNBA free agency period is set to begin.
Free agency is going to be critical to how the Sparks want to build this team and, ultimately, how the 2023 season plays out. The team does not have their first-round pick as a result of the Chennedy Carter trade last off-season. They do have a second-round and a third-round pick, but it’s become increasingly difficult for players drafted in later rounds to make a final roster due to salary and roster restraints. Therefore, free agency is the Sparks’ best hope at turning things around immediately.
Fortunately for them, they are working with the most cap space in the league. That, however, is the result of most of the roster set to hit free agency. As of right now, there are only five players under contract next season: Chennedy Carter, Katie Lou Samuelson, Jasmine Walker, Rae Burrell and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, with the latter three having non-guaranteed contracts as per Her Hoop Stats.
Kianna Smith is a reserved free agent meaning that she can only negotiate a new deal with the Sparks unless they release her outright.
Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, Brittney Sykes, Kristi Toliver, Jordin Canada and Lexie Brown are all unrestricted free agents, free to sign elsewhere.
The organization has surely gone through some turmoil, but are the Sparks really at risk of losing their current franchise cornerstone in Nneka Ogwumike? Not if her own words are to be believed. In her end-of-the-season exit interview with the media, she emphatically denied ever thinking about playing elsewhere. And in a recent joint press conference featuring Bryant and Miller, Miller spoke confidently about coaching Nneka and Chiney this upcoming season.
“They’re important pieces as we move forward, their both so talented, but more importantly. . .great leaders, great leaders by example,” Miller said. “They’re tremendous in the locker room; players around the league gravitate to them and will want to play with them.”
So if words are to be believed and the Sparks don’t have any worry about the Ogwumike sisters bolting for greener pastures, what comes next? Last season the Sparks may have been a nice collection of individual talent, but that talent didn’t necessarily fit on the court.
When and if the Sparks can get the Ogwumikes’ contracts settled, their absolute next priority is taking care of Brittney Sykes. Sykes has developed into one of the best-starting wings in the WNBA. She is a nightmare on the defensive end for opposing players and her offense has come a long way as well. She’s grown as a playmaker and has taken on more of a leadership role. She will undoubtedly have her share of interested suitors once the free agency period opens.
Losing Sykes would be a tremendous blow. The organization must make her a priority and do whatever it takes to keep her in a Sparks jersey.
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That brings them to fill out the rest of the roster. One of the Sparks’ most pressing needs is size in the frontcourt. While they have a very promising young center in Nelson-Ododa, she might not be ready this season for a full-time starting role. Chiney is best suited to coming off the bench, which means the Sparks are in the market for a potential starting center to fit alongside Nneka at power forward.
It would be wise for the Sparks to inquire about one of the players Williams helped develop with the Sun: Brionna Jones. Jones has rapidly become one of the top centers in the league but has spent her time as a backup to Jonquel Jones. Perhaps the allure of a starting role and reuniting with her old coach could entice her to consider Los Angeles. She is capable of scoring in the paint and would help shore up one of the Sparks’ main weaknesses in rebounding.
The Sparks also need to address their shooting woes. Consistent three-point shooting is necessary for today’s game and the Sparks struggled on that end. Samuelson should be able to help with that, but they’ll still need some additional sharpshooters.
During the joint press conference, Bryant mentioned that the decision-making team has already had multiple conversations about roster construction and what opportunities are available to them in free agency.
“We’re excited to get going and we’ve spent the last several weeks really drilling in to our depth charts and the opportunities out there, unrestricted and restricted free agents and potential trade conversations,” Bryant said. “This is going to be a critical year for us. Curt and I are here to help lead a transformation on the basketball side of the organization and we have a lot of work to do.”
Bryant mentioned restricted free agents and there’s one name that comes to mind, another Miller gem in Natisha Hiedeman. Hiedeman had a breakout season in 2022 and shot 41.1 percent from three-point range. The Sparks would have to extend her an offer sheet and hope the Sun don’t match, but it’s worth a shot. If they want a more traditional point guard in the starting lineup, Hiedeman could be that player.
The Sparks could decide that a starting backcourt of Sykes and Carter could get the job done. Sykes’ defense could help offset Carter’s and both are capable ball handlers. They both did well in extended stints at point guard last season when Canada missed time. Sykes, in particular, seemed to thrive as a starting point guard. But if that scenario doesn’t materialize, Hiedeman could be the right fit.
Another restricted free agent that comes to mind is former Spark Marina Mabrey. She has seen her career take off since joining the Dallas Wings and it’s not clear if she would even be open to a reunion with the team that drafted her. Mabrey is more than just a shooter; she’s a shot creator. But she is a career 34.8 percent shooter from three.
Somebody like Stephanie Talbot is an unrestricted free agent who just shot 39.7 percent from three-point range last season for the Seattle Storm. The Sparks might be able to bring her in on a fairly decent contract.
In any case, Bryant and Miller have their work cut out for them. Building a contending team isn’t easy. It’s probably not going to be something that happens overnight. But what is clear is that the right leadership team is in place. The Sparks have a major opportunity to make a big splash in free agency and really begin to right the ship. Both Bryant and Miller emphasized the importance of communication and having everyone on the same page when constructing the roster. This free agency period is their first opportunity to show that they mean business.
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.