April 11, 2023 

Los Angeles Sparks balance present and future with WNBA draft selections

Cooke and Czinano go from Final Four opponents to Sparks teammates

The Los Angeles Sparks had a trio of picks heading into Monday’s WNBA Draft. In the first round, they selected South Carolina guard Zia Cooke with the No. 10 pick. In the second round, they selected Shaneice Swain, a guard from Australia, at No. 14. In the third round, they selected Iowa’s Monika Czinano at No. 26.

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The Sparks had a couple of pressing needs to fill with wings Katie Lou Samuelson and Stephanie Talbot out for the 2023 season. Samuelson is pregnant and Talbot suffered an injury while playing overseas.

According to new Sparks general manager Karen Bryant, those absences were a big factor in how the Sparks approached the draft. They took a hard look at how they could address those losses without completely compromising their future.

“I think the toggle back and forth these last couple of days, and certainly today, was balancing the short-term need with the long-term build knowing that Steph will be back next year. We went out and acquired her as one of our top free agent signings for a reason,” Bryant said during her post-draft media availability. “There was a lot of back and forth when … we got to our picks. I think we did a good job of balancing both sides of that equation.”

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The Sparks feel like they acquired a player who can definitely help them in the short term in Cooke. One of the top guards in the nation last season, Cooke brings a strong offensive skillset, including an ability to attack and get to the basket. She’s a solid 3-point shooter as well, making 34.1% of her attempts over four years in college.

Although roster spots in the WNBA are few and far between, Cooke should have every opportunity to make the Sparks’ final roster and possibly earn a spot in the rotation. The Sparks are somewhat guard-heavy heading into camp, but neither Bryant nor first-year Sparks head coach Curt Miller anticipated Cooke still being available when it was their turn to pick. When they saw she was still there, they knew that she was the right selection.

“[Cooke is] an outstanding offensive player that scores at multiple levels, can attack, get into in the paint, play in transition, had her most efficient year for South Carolina,” Miller said during his post-draft availability. “Defensively, you saw her be a lockdown defender at times and [be] put on the opponent’s best player. We really liked how she competed throughout the season defensively.”

For the long term, the Sparks believe they have found a solid prospect in the 19-year-old Swain, who spent last season playing for the UC Capitals of Australia’s WNBL. In 18 games, she averaged 14.5 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists while shooting 40.9% from the field and 36.2% from the 3-point line.

Swain probably won’t join the Sparks this season, but they are intrigued with her talent. She’s a point guard with good court vision in the halfcourt and in transition, and she is definitely comfortable with the ball in her hands. She’s got a quick release on her shot, too. She’s a solid pick for the future.

“Her best days are ahead of her. She’s 19; she won’t turn 20 until the completion of the WNBA season,” Miller said. “She’s crafty, she’s flashy, and she has great upside at only 19 or 20. If you think what she would be like if she was in college right now with other people her age, [we’re] really excited about that piece long-term for us.”

The Sparks also nabbed a solid prospect in the third round in Iowa’s Monika Czinano. Czinano was one of the best post players in the country this season. She’s a throwback to the days of old, when centers played in the paint and not on the perimeter.

It’s might be tough for Czinano to make the Sparks’ final roster, but they’re still thrilled that they were able to draft her. According to Miller, the WNBA game hasn’t transitioned completely away from more traditional play and into more of a perimeter game.

With the absences of Talbot and Samuelson, Miller envisions both Nneka Ogwumike and Dearica Hamby shifting over to play small forward at times. Thus, he sees a need for someone like Czinano to give them minutes at center in training camp.

“You’ve seen the success I had with low-post players in Connecticut. It’s never going to be truly out of the game,” Miller said. “The only way you can play big is you have to have a great post collection; you have to have some depth. So Monika gives us a look in camp in that way, thinking that we may be playing bigger this season.”

Overall, the Sparks believe that they added several players who fit the vision and culture that Bryant and Miller want to create.

“Today was a big day. There was a lot of effort and building from when Curt and I started this journey,” Bryant said. “This is our first cycle of free agency and then a draft, and as we sit here today, I’m really, really excited and proud of the work we’ve done.”

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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