June 28, 2023 

Sparks’ ‘big’ lineup may be key moving forward

'It's going to be a part of our identity'

Before the start of the season, Los Angeles Sparks head coach Curt Miller explained that the team’s frontcourt and post play was going to be their identity.

Continue reading with a subscription to The Next

Get unlimited access to women’s basketball coverage and help support our hardworking staff of writers, editors, and photographers by subscribing today.

Join today

With the injury to prized offseason free agent signing Steph Talbot and Katie Lou Samuelson‘s pregnancy, the Sparks lost two players who were expected to play major minutes at small forward this year. Enter the big lineup.

The absences to Talbot and Samuelson played a role in how the Sparks approached draft night. After the Sparks had made their picks and selected Monika Czinano in the third round, Miller explained that her selection was made in part due to their eye on playing a big lineup in the frontcourt.

With Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike already in the fold, Dearica Hamby arrived via a trade with the Las Vegas Aces and Azura Stevens signed in free agency, the Sparks envisioned a big lineup with one of those four players seeing minutes at small forward. Czinano’s purpose was to provide the team with someone capable of playing in the post during training camp in order to trot out that rotation.

But Czinano was cut in camp, and the Sparks began the season playing with a three-guard lineup instead, featuring Jordin Canada, Lexie Brown and Layshia Clarendon and only two bigs. However, the Sparks got the opportunity to bring the big lineup to fruition due to an injury to Clarendon and a recent illness to Brown.

Rather than run another three-guard lineup as before, Miller has opted to go with Nneka, Stevens and Hamby in the starting lineup. Although they have not been able to get much practice time in with that lineup as they would have hoped, Miller believes it’s going to be an important lineup for the Sparks moving forward.

“I’m excited about it,” Miller said after a recent game against the Connecticut Sun. “It was still a little clunky and we’re working together, we haven’t practiced it. It made it harder when Chiney was out because we didn’t have a fourth post player that you could try it with different lineups. It’s so hard to practice in this league with any kind of duration or intensity or reps.”

The Sparks first rolled out their big lineup against the Dallas Wings on Jun. 14. It ended up being a big road win with Nneka finishing with 20 points, ten rebounds and two assists, Hamby finishing with 23 points, eight rebounds and two assists and Stevens finishing with eight points and two rebounds.

Add Locked On Women’s Basketball to your daily routine

Here at The Next, in addition to the 24/7/365 written content our staff provides, we also host the daily Locked On Women’s Basketball podcast. Join us Monday through Saturday each week as we discuss all things WNBA, collegiate basketball, basketball history and much more. Listen wherever you find podcasts or watch on YouTube.

The lineup didn’t seem to fair so well against the Minnesota Lynx the following game. But against the Sun on Jun. 18, Nneka put up 19 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, Hamby contributed with eight points, four rebounds and three assists and Stevens had 12 points and four rebounds.

In Nneka’s case, playing with two other bigs on the floor at the same time isn’t really new for her. During her early days with the Sparks she often found herself on the court alongside Candace Parker and Jantel Lavender. She understands that it’s going to take some time to develop the type of chemistry they need but she’s seen some encouraging signs to this point.

“We haven’t had a lot of non-game time to realize it but in the games we’re starting to understand better, we’re starting to figure out each other’s strengths on the inside and the outside and I think as the season goes on we’ll be able to really have more of a second nature about it for us,” Nneka said. “Throw Chiney in there, a big lineup with us three, a big lineup of Chiney, me and D, I think it can be any combination of players and we have a very mobile frontcourt. What that looks like in the future, it’s exciting to think about.”

In the game against the Sun, Miller opted to go with Chiney alongside Nneka and Hamby for multiple possessions. While the lineup of Nneka, Stevens and Hamby closed out the game, the lineup with Chiney in place of Stevens was able to make a run against the Sun when Miller was searching for answers early in the game.

When they’ve run the Nneka-Stevens-Hamby lineup, Stevens typically plays the role of the stretch-big spacing the floor with her three-point shooting. With Chiney in place of Stevens, the lineup is much more post-oriented and around the basket. Against the Sun, the Sparks couldn’t connect from three-point range and Miller was just trying to find a way to get the ball into the paint.

That kind of a lineup is something that Nneka has been advocating for and while they haven’t had much time to practice that group as well, it’s a rotation that she hopes continues.

“I think the danger for other people guarding us with that lineup is that you have three very mobile big players. We had a little bit of a stretch right there where we all posting up, we were all popping out, we were all passing to each other,” Nneka said. “It’s a really great rebounding frontcourt. I like it and I’m sure that we’re going to see more of it considering the run that we were able to make or at least sustain while we played with that lineup.”

It’s unclear when the Sparks might get Brown back and Clarendon is out for at least four to six weeks. But from the sound of it, the big lineup is going to be here to stay regardless of who is available in the coming months.

“I’m excited to be trying it, I’m excited that we’re rolling it out. In stretches it’s working, and in stretches you’re sitting there going, ‘we just haven’t been able to practice it as much as we want,” Miller said. “But it’s going to be a part of our identity we need to look at this year as ultimately we think about our path for the future and how it works.”

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.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.