February 6, 2022
How the Los Angeles Sparks pulled off a whirlwind free agency
Liz Cambage, Chennedy Carter headline the Sparks' unexpected flurry of moves
The WNBA’s free agency period kicked off last month with signings becoming official on Feb. 1. For a team that came into the period with not very much roster wiggle room, the Los Angeles Sparks sure made some splashes this week on both the free agency and trade fronts. Here’s a breakdown of how they did it.
Sparks nab marquee free agent
On the outside, it didn’t appear as if the Sparks would be able to be major players on the free agent market. With a good portion of their salary cap tied up with returning players, it was hard to envision them clearing enough space to make a run at a big name.
But with a couple of trades this past week, the Sparks freed up cap room to go all-in for a marquee free agent. There had been rumblings behind the scenes for the past couple of days that 6’8 Australian center Liz Cambage was the Sparks’ target, and that finally came to fruition on Saturday night, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.
As big a name as Cambage is, her fit on the roster is a little less clear. The Sparks already have Nneka Ogwumike, who is best suited to playing the five. Cambage is also best suited at center. Theoretically, Ogwumike can move over to power forward, but she’s best utilized at the five.
With the money the Sparks will likely be paying Cambage, it’s unlikely that she will come off the bench. They certainly won’t ask Ogwumike to come off the bench, either. There’s no question that when healthy, Cambage is one of the top post players in the WNBA. She’s a force in the paint, and her versatility allows her to do other things as well.
The talent is certainly there, and Sparks head coach and general manager Derek Fisher has shown he’s not afraid to mix it up and go with unconventional lineups. He’s got the pieces at his disposal; it’s now up to him to make sure that translates to on-court production.
Carter to Los Angeles
In another big move, the Sparks acquired third-year guard Chennedy Carter as well as the draft rights to Li Yueru from the Atlanta Dream in exchange for Erica Wheeler, a 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 first-round pick.
There’s no question that Carter is a very talented player. She’s a budding star in the WNBA and the type of foundational player you can possibly build a team around. Acquiring a player like that is a move you have to make if you have the opportunity.
Wheeler was great for the Sparks last season. She was asked to do a lot due to the many injuries and lineup shuffling, and she responded with flying colors. She gave the team exactly what it needed and grew as a leader.
But Carter is an offensive superweapon. The Sparks’ offense last season was downright unwatchable at times. Carter is the type of player where you can put the ball in her hands and she’ll go get you a bucket. She only played in 11 games last season after being suspended by the Dream, and it always appeared as if she was going to get a fresh start for the 2022 season.
In her two seasons in the WNBA to date, she has averaged 16.1 points per game on 46.6% shooting while dishing out 3.4 assists per game. Sometimes all a player needs is a change of scenery to really kick things into gear and reach their potential. Carter will get the chance to become an All-WNBA player in Los Angeles.
Canada comes home
Before she was drafted by the Seattle Storm in 2018, Jordin Canada built her name in the City of Angels, first at Windward High School under new Phoenix Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard and then at UCLA, leading the Bruins to an Elite Eight appearance, two Sweet Sixteen appearances and a WNIT championship.
She’s spent the past several seasons under the tutelage of Sue Bird while winning two WNBA championships. Her role in Seattle was sometimes murky and she too seemed like a candidate for a change of scenery this offseason. She’ll get that chance now with the Sparks, as Rachel Galligan of Just Women’s Sports reported that Canada was finalizing a one-year deal with the team.
With Wheeler gone, the Sparks needed experience in the backcourt. Kristi Toliver is still in town, and Canada will be able to play alongside her in the backcourt as the starting point guard with Toliver shifting to the two or come off the bench as the Sparks’ second-unit leader.
Canada has become one of the best defensive point guards in the WNBA. Even with all of the injuries and inconsistent lineups, the Sparks still managed to have one of the league’s top-rated defenses. Canada will certainly add to that with her ability to defend both guard positions.
She’s also become one of the WNBA’s best playmakers. For a team that struggled last season generating easy scoring opportunities, Canada is a perfect fit with the ball in her hands directing the offense and finding open teammates. She has a career mark of 4.1 assists per game and averaged 5.5 per game during the Storm’s 2020 championship season.
The only question mark with Canada’s game is her scoring/shooting ability. This Sparks team will have offensive weapons for her to pass to, but she will need to be able to hold her own offensively to keep defenses honest. She was a good 3-point shooter during her UCLA days but hasn’t been able to find the mark in the WNBA. If she can get her shooting percentages up this season, the Sparks could have one of the best point guards in the league on their hands.
The other Samuelson comes to town
Karlie Samuelson played for the Sparks for her entire WNBA career prior to joining the Seattle Storm last season, and now her younger sister will suit up for the hometown franchise. Katie Lou Samuelson has bounced around the WNBA since being drafted with the fourth overall pick by the Chicago Sky in 2019.
She’s since played for the Dallas Wings and the Storm before being traded to her fourth team in as many years in the Sparks. The Sparks had acquired Gabby Williams from the Chicago Sky last season, but because she had been placed on the suspended list by the Sky, she wasn’t able to play for the Sparks. Instead, Williams was shipped to the Storm in exchange for Samuelson.
Samuelson had a breakout season with the Storm, finding a key role on the team as a starter and 3-point shooter, so it was a little puzzling that Seattle moved on from her so quickly. But the Sparks were in need of efficient floor spacers, and Samuelson fits that bill. She’s a natural wing who can also play some small-ball power forward if need be. She shot 45.6% from the field last season and 35.1% from 3-point range.
She’s become a little bit more than just a shooter, however. With the Storm, she improved her defense and showed a little bit of her playmaking game. She has good size for a wing and, while she isn’t the defender that Nia Coffey was last season, she can bring some of the same things that Coffey brought to the court.
As part of the trade, the Sparks also received the No. 9 pick in this year’s draft from the Storm.
Restricted free agents back in the fold
Cooper was signed as a free agent during the 2020 season after she was cut by the Phoenix Mercury, and she’s since carved out a role as a dependable guard off the bench. She is a capable offensive threat and has become a real pest as an on-ball defender. She’s a young player who is still developing and who the Sparks have thought highly of. She’s already familiar with the system and comes fairly cheap.
In Cox’s case, she was the No. 3 overall pick by the Indiana Fever in the 2020 draft but received inconsistent playing time there. The Fever cut her during the 2021 season and the Sparks, who were in need of frontcourt help, immediately picked her up. She became a valuable reserve for the Sparks with her rebounding and defensive prowess. She too is still developing, and it doesn’t hurt to have an extra big on the roster.
Written by David Yapkowitz
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.