June 6, 2023 

‘Unselfishness’ is key for Los Angeles Sparks early on

The difference between this season and last season has been noticeable.

The Los Angeles Sparks climbed over .500 this weekend following back-to-back wins against the Phoenix Mercury and Seattle Storm, respectively.

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But it isn’t so much that Sparks got the wins, it’s how they won. Flashback to last season and these two games were the kind of contests the Sparks probably would have lost.

Friday’s game against Phoenix went into overtime and the Sparks actually trailed with 21.2 seconds left in the fourth quarter. On Sunday, the Sparks saw a double-digit lead shrink to four late in the fourth quarter as the Storm used a late flurry and a Jewell Loyd heater to make things interesting down the stretch.

There’s no such thing as ‘bad wins,’ however, and the Sparks displayed a type of toughness and togetherness that they did not have in recent seasons. It doesn’t matter that the Mercury and Storm are a combined 1-7 so far this season. These were the type of games the Sparks were routinely losing.

So what’s been one of the key differences? What has been the driving factor behind these gritty, gut it out type of wins? If you listen to Sparks head coach Curt Miller, it’s simple in that everyone is buying in and playing for each other.

“I just love our unselfishness… it’s our balance with all five starters with nine or more in double figures, it’s the balance right now, the unselfishness,” Miller said following the win against the Storm. “Our roster construction isn’t absolutely normal. Our two 6’3 players are not coming through the door this year, they’re both out all year. So we have another ball-handler in Layshia [Clarendon], we have smaller guards on the floor but we’re really sharing it and I love how unselfish we’ve been five games into the season.”

Against the Storm, the Sparks had 24 assists compared to only seven turnovers. Against the Mercury they had 22 assists and 13 turnovers. In seasons past, turnovers were one of the Sparks areas of concern. To begin this season they’ve done a very good job taking care of the ball and limiting turnovers.

Los Angeles Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike (13) warms up before the WNBA game between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on May 14, 2022. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

One of the key reasons for that is the addition of Layshia Clarendon, who uses he/him, she/her and they/them pronouns interchangeably, in the starting lineup. Although Clarendon has been a guard throughout the majority of their career, this season has been a change with a shift to the wing playing small forward.

It’s been an adjustment for him, but what it’s done is given the starting lineup a veteran ball-handler and playmaker alongside Jordin Canada and Lexie Brown who can play that role as well. The ball moves and doesn’t stagnate. Players are going to get open shots.

For Clarendon, she believes Miller and Sparks general manager Karen Bryant put this roster together specifically to foster the kind of unselfishness the team has been displaying.

“They didn’t pick someone who was going to go out there and be like I’m trying to get 30 every night. They very specifically put together this team with a certain kind of character of people, and I think that’s really showing is just that we’re making the next, great pass on any given night,” Clarendon said following the win against Seattle.

“And I think part of it is we’ve all been through so much in this league at this point in our career that you know what it’s like to have a story and what it’s like to be kicked down or beat down and so you can empathize with people across the board. . .we’re all just trying to overcome something and I think that is kind of like the fabric of who this team is and that really glues us together. And then it makes the basketball just really fun.”

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While the additional playmaking and the overall resiliency of the players on the team looking to prove something have certainly played a major role in the Sparks season so far, that’s not all it’s been.

Aside from her sister Nneka, Chiney Ogwumike is the next longest-tenured player on the team, having been in Los Angeles since the 2019 season. She’s been having her best season with the Sparks statistically this year to the tune of 12.8 points per game, 5.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.8 steals while shooting 48.9 percent from the field.

For her, there’s been a noticeable difference between the overall vibe of the team from recent seasons to this one. While Chiney echoes Clarendon’s sentiments of each player on the team wanting to prove themselves, when it comes down it this team just enjoys being around one another.

“There’s a different type of trust. I think our team trusts each other. We play hard, we enjoy playing basketball, we enjoy playing basketball together,” Ogwumike said following the win against the Storm. “And I think we’re maturing together as players in this league. We’ve all had different stories, different paths, but I think that chip on our shoulder from what we have experienced years past, everyone here is hungry for more. And so when we go on the court, we see it as an opportunity to have fun and to just keep building on that trust or aka, swag.”

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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