May 6, 2023 

‘Building for ourselves’: New vision underway in Los Angeles Sparks training camp

New vision, same post depth as ever for new Sparks head coach Curt Miller

It’s one thing to talk about building a culture and a winning foundation. It’s another thing to put those words into action. With training camp underway, new Los Angeles Sparks head coach Curt Miller got to take the first steps towards establishing his vision both on and off the court.

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There’s always going to be an adjustment period with a new coaching staff. But part of what gives Miller confidence is that the majority of the players in camp chose to join the Sparks after hearing that vision from Miller and new general manager Karen Bryant.

“We have 17 people here today and around our team. Fifteen of them were either signed in free agency, re-signed in free agency or drafted,” Miller told reporters at training camp. “Fifteen of the 17 believed in our vision, believed in building something special here, believed in the market, believed in the legacy franchise that we are. So it’s really fun that it is truly a huge percentage, that this was a partnership. This was a belief that they heard from us, heard from KB and I, and elected to come here and join us.”

First among those 15 players is franchise cornerstone Nneka Ogwumike. Ogwumike was an unrestricted free agent but chose to re-sign with the only franchise she’s ever played for. Despite the Sparks’ disappointing season in 2022, Ogwumike turned in one of the best seasons of her 11-year career thus far.

In 34 games, she averaged 18.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 54.4% from the field, 36.8% from the 3-point line and 82.6% from the free-throw line. Miller envisions the six-time All-Star as the focal point for the 2023 Sparks.

“Our identity is going to be surrounded by Nneka. Nneka is going to be part of the identity,” Miller said. “I believe [we have] a collection of post players that are some of the best rim-running, slipping, rolling and separating post players in the league. Between Chiney [Ogwumike], Nneka, Azurá [Stevens] and Dearica [Hamby], we have a really, really talented post group. Déjà vu, right? I had a really talented post group in Connecticut [as the Sun’s head coach from 2016-22]. Again, our identity in LA here early will be rooted with our post game.”

It’s going to be a different role for Nneka Ogwumike this upcoming season, though. As the longest-tenured player on the roster, she’s developed even more as a leader in the past couple of seasons. She’s mentored much younger teammates in the past, but she’s got additional help now.

The Sparks added several veterans this offseason in Hamby, Stevens and guards Jasmine Thomas and Layshia Clarendon. For Ogwumike, the additions of Thomas and Clarendon are particularly important because they bring insight on the court that perhaps Ogwumike herself isn’t fully equipped to share.

“As a post player, it’s very difficult being kind of the leader and the captain because you’re not dictating what happens on the floor a lot,” Ogwumike told reporters. “There’s kind of a lot of different managing that you do in a lot of different ways. It’s nice to have multiple veterans in the backcourt. I think that that’s a huge breath of fresh air for me and, really, for our organization … I love being there for rookies, but it’s also very difficult because I’m speaking from a post player lens … It’s nice to kind of have that holistic leadership.”

One of the young players who will benefit the most from the veteran guards is Zia Cooke. Drafted No. 10 overall in April, Cooke was one of the best combo guards in the country as a senior at South Carolina. She’s a ball-handler who can make plays on both ends of the court. She had her most efficient season shooting the ball last year, and that was one of the main things that caught the Sparks’ attention.

Miller has liked Cooke’s ability to score the ball as well as her defensive intensity. He can see Cooke carving out a solid role right away as part of the second unit.

“She has a chance to be a good defender as she learns more and more about this league,” Miller said. “Offensively, we just got to continue to have her have the efficiency she did her senior year at South Carolina. We like her ability to score at multiple levels. She’s got to be patient with herself, learn systems, learn the pro game, and I think she can be a real spark off the bench for us offensively.”

When it comes to adjusting to the WNBA game, Cooke has a little bit of an advantage over some of her fellow rookies. She spent all four years of college playing for former WNBA player Dawn Staley, who Cooke said sprinkled WNBA-type sets within South Carolina’s offensive schemes. When Cooke took the practice court for the first time as a WNBA player, it already felt familiar.

“I think Coach Staley did a good job implementing things to transfer over to the pros. Huge thank you to her. There were some things we were running out there and it was very familiar to me. It definitely helped me out a lot,” Cooke said.

This season is going to be a learning experience for Cooke, but one of the main things that has stood out to her and that she finds comfort in is that she has the freedom to play through her mistakes and learn from them.

“I actually like making mistakes because that means it’s a learning experience for me,” Cooke said. “I definitely feel comfortable because all my teammates lift me up. Coach Miller has definitely lifted me up and all the coaching staff. There’s no pressure for me when it comes to making mistakes. I know I’m a rook, so it’s expected.”

As the Sparks prepare to tip off the 2023 WNBA season at home on May 19 against the Phoenix Mercury, the main theme at camp has been optimism and energy, which perhaps was lacking in recent seasons.

And perhaps nobody sees the difference more than Ogwumike.

“This is the first time I’ve experienced an offseason where you are literally seeing the pieces come together,” Ogwumike said. “We’re calling it the build. … We’re building for ourselves; we’re building a structure and foundation that is truly Sparks, [is] truly LA. It’s been really nice.”

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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