July 8, 2023 

Los Angeles Sparks search for right combinations amid key absences

Sparks are trying to hang in there until they get healthy — but they may be down another player on Sunday

Lately, it’s felt as if the Los Angeles Sparks‘ injury report has grown by the game. The Sparks were already down five players entering Wednesday’s game against the Atlanta Dream. They could be down one more on Sunday against the Phoenix Mercury depending on the status of Karlie Samuelson, who left Wednesday’s game with a foot injury.

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It’s been the theme of the season so far for the Sparks. It was a season that began with fresh optimism and energy following the offseason hires of Karen Bryant as general manager and Curt Miller as head coach. It was a season that began with a massive free agent haul in Azurá Stevens, Stephanie Talbot and Lexie Brown.

Talbot ended up being ruled out for the season after suffering an ACL injury while playing in Australia. Although it was impossible to foresee then, maybe it should have been seen as a harbinger of things to come.

The Sparks knew they were going to be without Katie Lou Samuelson because she is expecting her first child. What they couldn’t have known, though, was how short-handed they were going to end up.

As it stands, the Sparks are without Katie Lou Samuelson, Lexie Brown, Layshia Clarendon, Chiney Ogwumike and Nia Clouden. Brown, Clarendon and Ogwumike were prominent players in the rotation. It’s just been a bizarre situation so far, and Miller is doing his best to find some form of working combination on the court. The Sparks are currently 7-11, and the offense has particularly struggled: The team ranks 11th in the league in points scored per 100 possessions and 10th in effective field goal percentage.

“We’ve talked about how our two starting wings have been out now for a significant amount of games. And now Karlie, who’s probably been the most consistent wing for us this whole season … goes down with an injury,” Miller said following Wednesday’s loss to the Dream. “It’s just a mash unit, trying to figure out if someone can get hot, if someone can give us energy on the defensive end and help us.

“We’re limited on options. It’s the hardest thing. We’re starting with nine, most games we’ve played with eight … it’s uncanny what’s happening to us.”

Amid these absences, the Sparks have signed Destanni Henderson and Rae Burrell to hardship contracts, and Miller has had no choice but to throw them into the fire and see how they respond. It’s a tough situation for them, as neither was on a WNBA roster when the season began.

Following Henderson’s 18-point explosion against the Dallas Wings on June 23, she’s struggled to make an impact and only played 10 minutes on Wednesday. Burrell had strep throat on Wednesday and could have sat out but ended up playing and having a solid showing.

So far, Miller has been proud of how they’ve competed, even if it doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet.

“These guys are going against All-Stars, these guys are going against Olympians, these guys are going against really, really talented [players], the best of the best in this league night in and night out. And they’re just still trying to find their footing,” Miller said. “Every one of these opportunities is a great learning lesson for young pros … I’m proud that they’re competing and fighting. It’s just hard to have success over 40 minutes.”

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With Brown and Clarendon sidelined, Jordin Canada has been the Sparks’ only real ball-handler. Although she was not selected for the All-Star Game, she’s arguably having an All-Star-caliber season while being one of the team’s most consistent players. She’s being asked to quarterback the offense while at times being the top defensive option on the opponent’s wing scorers.

Canada has averaged a career-high 13.0 points, 5.8 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game this season. She’s shooting 42.0% from the field, 33.3% from the 3-point line and 93.5% from the free-throw line. Her 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage are both career highs.

As one of the Sparks’ veteran leaders, she also been tasked with keeping morale high and keeping everyone together amid this difficult stretch.

“We all have that mentality that is the next person up. Everybody has to stay ready because you never know when your number is going to be called,” Canada said on Wednesday. “I think we have done a good job. You just got to stay consistent and stay together … We just got to figure out a way to come out more sharp. But everybody’s locked in. Everybody understands that when one person goes down, another person comes in and steps up.”

It’s unclear whether any of the injured Sparks will be able to return for the team’s last two games before the All-Star break. But for Miller, the way to solve the Sparks’ on-court woes can be summed up simply: Get healthy.

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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