April 13, 2022
‘We like the versatility’: Sparks add Rae Burrell on busy draft night
While facing an uphill battle, the Sparks four draftees will compete for a coveted roster spot
The Los Angeles Sparks came into Monday night’s draft with four picks, No. 9, No. 16, No. 19 and No. 27. With their first-round pick, they selected Rae Burrell from Tennessee; in the second round, they selected Kianna Smith from Lousiville and Olivia Nelson-Ododa from UConn. Then, in the third round, they selected Amy Atwell from Hawaii.
There are only 15 players allowed in training camp and before the draft, the Sparks already had 14 players under contract, including three that are on training camp contracts Te’a Cooper, Lauren Cox and Lexie Brown. That potentially leaves only one of the four rookies the opportunity to even come to camp.
Despite that, Sparks head coach and general manager Derek Fisher said on a conference call with media after the draft that the team was very pleased with each of their selections and that they would get every opportunity to prove that they should get a spot in camp.
In Burrell, the Sparks are getting a wing capable of playing multiple positions and who has a knack for scoring. She’s a big wing too, who can use her size to her advantage. She can score from all three levels and a capable wing scoring option is something the Sparks have needed.
According to Fisher, she was a player the Sparks had been targeting at No. 9 for a while and they felt fortunate to have landed her as there were times Sparks brass felt like she would be gone before they picked.
“She sees herself as a guard and she does have those types of guard skills and we just feel that’s important to the way we want to play offensively,” Fisher said. “Everybody knows we had to get better on that end of the floor. . .We love the versatility she possesses on the offensive end in terms of shooting the basketball and being able to do some things off the dribble, getting to the spots that she likes to get her shot off.”
With their first pick in the second round, the Sparks opted to go with another guard, Kianna Smith, who is also a hometown player. Smith played at JW North High School in Riverside, CA and Troy High School in Fullerton, CA. She was a top recruit for Cal and then head coach Lindsay Gottlieb before transferring to Louisville.
In Smith, the Sparks are not only getting a player who can score the basketball, but she has some playmaking to her game as well. At Cal, she led the team in assists as a freshman during the 2017-18 season with 4.8. This past season with Louisville, she was top-10 in the ACC with 3.4 assists per game while leading the conference in assist to turnover ratio at 2.64.
“With Kianna, we felt like she was an underrated player in terms of her skill set and what she’s capable of doing,” Fisher said. “I think she’s a better ball-handler and decision-maker than we assume she is because she played off the ball a lot at Lousiville. She has point guard play in her background and has played that position before and we liked her ability to do some things with the basketball in addition to shooting it.”
The Sparks went with Olivia Nelson-Ododa from UConn with their other second-round pick. Nelson-Ododa is a center who can face up and shoot the jumper and play in the high post and see the floor. She’s also a good defensive player, which is an area that the Sparks have prided themselves on for the past couple of seasons.
She’s also able to play in the post and so her combination of size and skill gives the Sparks a little versatility in the frontcourt. It wasn’t just her on-court play, however, that the Sparks valued. It was also the fact that she came from a winning program and played in four consecutive Final Fours while being able to fit in around other great players.
“We just feel like at that high level of competition she’s played at and then her ability to play within a team system in terms of the way UConn plays, being comfortable being surrounded by other great players at the collegiate level. . .those are positive things,” Fisher said. “Her offensive ability to play with the basketball above the free-throw line extended, being a good passer and being able to see the guards and wings she’s played with. . .And then defensively her ability to challenge and block shots and then finish possessions with rebounds.”
The Sparks finished off the draft with one third-round pick that they used on Amy Atwell from Hawaii in the Big West. Atwell graduated from Hawaii as one of the school’s most decorated players and always knew that she wanted to go back home to Australia and play professionally after college.
The WNBA was never really on her radar until this year, when she put together the best season of her college career en route to being named the Big West Tournament MVP. She had always been a good three-point shooter for a center, but this year she improved her game in terms of putting the ball on the floor and attacking the rim off the dribble.
“Amy’s ability to shoot the basketball, you don’t find those very often with how quick her release is,” Fisher said. “For some players, maybe the dream arises a little later in the process, but it’s here now. She’s earned the opportunity to have a chance and come in and prove that she’s capable.”
No matter what the credentials are of the players the Sparks drafted, they face long-shot odds to be on the final roster once the regular season begins. Teams are allowed to carry a maximum of 12 players on the roster, but due to salary cap issues, many of them will only be carrying 11 at the start of the season.
According to Fisher, the Sparks made sure that they would not be one of those teams and do their best to make sure they were one of the teams to employ a full roster.
“When you only have 144 players in the world that are going to suit up for teams each season, with the exception of injuries and certain things that teams are allowed to do, it’s just not easy. We’re not immune to that difficulty in terms of deciding which 12 players are going to be able to make our team,” Fisher said. “But we’ve done everything we can from a team perspective to make sure that at least there’s going to be one more job than most teams of being able to carry 12 players and that was a big part of our roster cap planning.”
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.