February 8, 2024 

Who will lead the Los Angeles Sparks without Nneka Ogwumike?

They’ll need veteran mentorship for a young roster, likely including several 2024 draft picks

The dust from free agency has settled, and the Los Angeles Sparks were quite active on the market. Although the departure of franchise cornerstone Nneka Ogwumike changed the direction the Sparks were heading in this upcoming season, they still needed to fill out their roster.

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The Sparks are heading into the WNBA Draft with three first-round picks at No. 2, No. 4 and No. 8. It’s probably safe to assume that those three picks will make the Sparks’ final roster. As outlined before, it would have been a wise decision for the Sparks to add quality veterans to help mentor the young players.

That’s exactly what the Sparks ended up doing. The free-agent signing of Monique Billings and the trades for Kia Nurse and Aari McDonald along with the re-signing of Layshia Clarendon and the contract extension for Lexie Brown help ensure that L.A. will continue to have a strong locker room presence even with the absence of Ogwumike.

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The Sparks also re-signed Rae Burrell to a two-year contract. Burrell was drafted by the Sparks and has shown flashes of potential over the last two seasons. The team developing its own talent is going to be key over the next couple of seasons.

The new additions know that they’re going to be counted on to steady the locker room and keep things together. It’s a role they’re looking forward to.

“I think for me, personally, a lot of what I do is lead by example. I like to use my words when it’s necessary. I don’t like to just talk and say things to just be that person that’s talking,” Nurse said during her introductory press conference. “When you become a pro everything is about accountability on your own. … Everything is about how much work you want to put in.”

Nurse had a leadership role with a young Seattle Storm team last season as she made her return to the court following an ACL injury. In addition to that, she’ll also provide the Sparks with capable 3-point shooting. She shot 35% from distance last season, which is the second-highest mark in her career.

In addition to Nurse, the Sparks will also look to Billings to provide veteran leadership. A six-year veteran, she has developed into one of the more consistent role players in the WNBA. Billings has never averaged double digits in scoring, but she’s been a presence on the glass as well as a strong defensive post player.

“Understanding what it means to be a WNBA player and all that comes with it, championing our rookies that will come in and our young players as well, I think that’s going to be important,” Billings said during her introductory press conference. “With the loss of Nneka, there’s holes to fill when it comes to that leadership. But I think there’s a lot of opportunity that comes with that. That excites me.”

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Joining Billings will be former Atlanta Dream teammate McDonald, who is kind of on the border between being a veteran and still developing as a player. This will be her fourth season in the league after being selected by the Dream with the No. 3 pick in the 2021 draft.

McDonald’s numbers tailed off a little bit last year after she had a strong 2022 season. She dealt with a shoulder injury that certainly impacted her play. She still has other levels to her game that she can reach, and the Sparks will give her every opportunity to solidify herself as part of their future.

“The fans will see my energy night in and night out, my defense, my grittiness and just my leadership skills and my playmaking skills,” McDonald said during her introductory press conference. “Just bringing back a little of that Arizona Aari.”

With free agency essentially in the rear view now, the Sparks’ attention will turn to the WNBA Draft. The team has a clearer picture of what their roster will look like outside of the draft picks.

For Sparks general manager Raegan Pebley, the goal was to continue to build on the culture that coach Curt Miller established last season while strengthening the locker room. During a recent media availability, Pebley spoke about how Ogwumike helped get the Sparks on their path in terms of how they addressed free agency.

“A big goal of ours was to build more of a shared leadership approach to our locker room. … That was something just in my conversations with Nneka that she had with myself and with Curt and our front office was that she really was excited about the direction we were headed and wanting to see more shared leadership,” Pebley said. “Lexi is excited to continue on that journey in her leadership growth, but Kia brings that naturally.”

And in Miller’s case, this is a roster he can’t wait to see on the court.

“There’s going to be lots of talk about superteams, but I love playing with players that have something to prove,” Miller said during a recent media availability. “I love gritty players. Kia Nurse is one of the toughest son of a guns out there. … Layshia Clarendon brought us a bunch of toughness last season. People are going to feel us. People will feel this Sparks team when we get done playing every game. I promise you that.”

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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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