May 17, 2023 

2023 WNBA season preview: Los Angeles Sparks

Coach Curt Miller looks to right the ship in return to the Sparks sideline

There’s an old saying that says everything always comes full circle. Whether it’s cliche or not, it certainly felt that way for the Los Angeles Sparks when they brought on Curt Miller as the franchise’s new head coach.

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Miller got his start in the WNBA with the Sparks as an assistant under Brian Agler in 2015 and now he is back to try and right the ship. The Sparks were a perennial championship contender during Miller’s first stint with the organization. He is now tasked with getting them back to that level after consecutive seasons of dysfunction and disappointment.

Heading into the offseason, the Sparks received a resounding vote of confidence from their franchise cornerstone, Nneka Ogwumike.

During her end-of-the-season exit interview, she affirmed her desire to remain with the only team she’s ever known amid her pending free agency and despite shuffling front office.

Flash forward to a few months later and Karen Bryant is in as the new general manager and she and Miller have laid out a plan and vision to build a culture in Los Angeles that will bring the Sparks back to their glory days and entice players to want to play here.

Overall the Sparks had a successful offseason. They re-signed several of their own key free agents as well as attracted some of the better available players at their position. They also pulled off a couple of trades to shore up some weaknesses. Everything takes time, nothing is built overnight, but the Sparks have the pieces in place for a strong season.

The Backcourt

Consistent point guard play has been an issue for the Sparks since Chelsea Gray left in free agency during the 2020 offseason. The Sparks hope they have found an answer to that question with one of the trades they made in bringing in veteran Jasmine Thomas.

Thomas was Miller’s starting point guard with the Connecticut Sun. Although she is coming off an ACL injury that prematurely ended her 2022 season, she can still be an efficient and effective floor leader for the Sparks. She should be the starting point guard from the beginning of the regular season.

During her last healthy year in 2021, Thomas averaged 10.6 points per game, 2.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.3 steals while shooting 40 percent from three-point range. She’s a solid defensive player as well. The Sparks need a steady ball-handler who can run the offense and knock down the outside shot and Thomas fits that bill. It also helps that she’s familiar with Miller’s system.

Starting alongside Thomas in the backcourt will most likely be Lexie Brown. Brown will be heading into her second season with the Sparks and she was one of their key free agents they were able to re-sign. Brown had a career year last season proving herself to be one of the team’s most dependable and consistent shooters.

The Sparks struggled to have consistent shooting from both backcourt positions last season and a Thomas/Brown pairing will force opposing defenses to stay at home. Brown is another good ball-handler and a tough defensive player as well. For Brown, getting a real opportunity to play seems like all she needed. During her two seasons in Minnesota when she received consistent playing time, she had numbers on par with last season.

When it comes to the backcourt off the bench, the Sparks will have some roster decisions to make. They re-signed Jordin Canada and they brought in Layshia Clarendon, but both players are on training camp contracts and have to make the team. They both bring something a little different to the court.

Canada is quick off the dribble and a good playmaker and defender, but has struggled at times with finding a consistent jumper. Clarendon is a veteran who was coming off a productive 2021 season with the Minnesota Lynx but was abruptly waived last season.

Both are capable of being the backup point guard. Looking at the rest of the roster, it’s just a little difficult to envision both of them making the team. Especially since the Sparks are very high on Zia Cooke. Cooke is a combo guard who is all but assured to make the final roster. The Sparks like her ability to attack downhill and put pressure on the rim. She’s also a tireless worker who has put a ton of effort into improving her jumper. She’s on track to get minutes off the bench right away this season.

The Frontcourt

As has been the case for the past several seasons, everything the Sparks do starts and ends with Nneka Ogwumike. The longest-tenured player on the team, she has grown as a leader and she is coming off one of her best seasons statistically. She is the focal point of the team on both ends of the court. Although she is only on a one-year contract, that isn’t something that should be any cause for concern.

Through the first week of camp, Nneka has made it clear that she is fully invested and on board with the vision Bryant and Miller have laid out. They understand that this is a process and isn’t going to happen in one season.

With that said, it’s not unreasonable to expect a strong season given the roster the Sparks have and the frontcourt with Nneka leading the way is going to be a big reason why. Since Candace Parker‘s departure, the Sparks have struggled to find a perfect frontcourt pairing with Nneka. Chiney Ogwumike, who also re-signed this offseason, is best suited to coming off the bench.

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But with an offseason trade and another big free agent signing, the Sparks have two players who can fit alongside Nneka and take some of the pressure off of her both on the glass and on the defensive end. The Sparks acquired Dearica Hamby in a trade with the Las Vegas Aces. They also signed Azurá Stevens who was one of the most coveted free agents on the market.

Hamby is able to play multiple positions and is a tough player who does all the dirty work. Stevens is able to space the floor with her shooting and can also guard multiple positions. It’s possible that both players will find themselves on the court at the same time with Nneka to form an imposing trio on the frontline. On draft day, Miller spoke about using all three as big small forwards at times given the absences of Katie Lou Samuelson and Stephanie Talbot.

The Sparks have the type of versatility in the frontcourt they have not had in years and it allows them to play multiple styles. Miller is not immune to playing three bigs at once as he did in Connecticut with Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones and Alyssa Thomas.

The Ogwumikes, Stevens and Hamby will form the frontcourt rotation leaving anyone else as insurance should any injuries occur. Joyner Holmes is probably fighting to be the fifth big but has the potential to be a stretch four given her ball-handling capabilities.

Miller mentioned on the first day of training camp that everyone was told that there are no guarantees. Everyone has to earn their spot and there are sure to be some interesting roster battles in the days to come.

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.

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