February 24, 2022 

Reloaded Sparks, with Carter and Cambage, ready to hit the court

With new offseason acquisitions, the Los Angeles Sparks are hoping to return to championship glory.

The Los Angeles Sparks made headlines this offseason, revamping their roster with some big additions. On the free agency front, the Sparks brought in point guard Jordin Canada who has already won two WNBA championships while backing up Sue Bird with the Seattle Storm. They also signed All-Star center Liz Cambage.

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They made a few deals as well, shipping out Erica Wheeler to the Atlanta Dream for rising star Chennedy Carter as well as sending Gabby Williams to the Storm for Katie Lou Samuelson. Williams never suited up for the Sparks as she was placed on the suspended list last season before the Chicago Sky dealt her to Los Angeles.

For a team that just missed out on the postseason, the new additions certainly provide an upgrade. Despite narrowly missing the playoffs, there was a lot that needed to change and the new players will bring much-needed help to the court.

One of the Sparks’ most glaring issues last season was scoring. The team just wasn’t able to sustain any consistent offense or generate easy scoring opportunities. The offense sputtered and watching the Sparks labor through offensive possessions was often grueling. That’s where Canada will come in.

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While coming off the Seattle bench, Canada has become one of the better playmakers in the WNBA. She has a career average of 4.1 assists per game and during the Storm’s 2020 championship year, she dished out 5.5 assists. She has experience playing in an efficient offensive system in Seattle. That’s one of the things she’s hoping to bring with her to the Sparks.

“I’ve learned how to understand high offensive sets and I think that’s something not everyone is able to do,” Canada told media during an introductory Zoom press conference. “I think for me, having that early in my career, learning how to be able to fit into high-level offenses, I will be able to translate that going into playing with veterans like Kristi Toliver and Nneka [Ogwumike] and Brittney Sykes.”

Aside from being a playmaker, being a willing and effective shooter is something the Sparks will certainly need from Canada. During her days at UCLA, the three-point shot was something Canada became more consistent with during her junior and senior years. In her final year as a Bruin, she shot 38.6 percent from distance in almost four attempts per game.

Since coming to the WNBA, Canada’s three-point shooting hasn’t been so high percentage-wise, but she doesn’t attempt many three-point shots to begin with. Taking more shots from downtown is something she’s willing to do while acknowledging that she really wants to be a deadly midrange threat.

“I feel like I have to be a willing three-point shooter, I don’t necessarily need to be a knockdown three-point shooter,” Canada said. “I need to be able to take the shot with confidence and shoot it when I’m open but I think for the most part in my development and where I’m at and where I see myself is… mastering my midrange. I feel like that’s where I’ll be most effective. It’s willing to shoot the three-point shot and also shoot a great percentage from three, but not feeling like I need to be a three-point threat.”

Last season, the Sparks attempted about 20 three-point shots per game and shot only 33.5 percent. They had lost two of their most consistent shooting threats in Riquna Williams and Sidney Wiese from the 2020 roster and they never were really able to find consistent three-point shooting aside from Nia Coffey.

Coffey has since signed with Atlanta and the task of helping replace her production will fall on another newcomer, Katie Lou Samuelson. When Coffey was first signed by the Sparks last offseason, head coach and general manager Derek Fisher said he envisioned her as a big small forward and a small-ball power forward.

Samuelson will definitely be able to step into a similar role. She can play both forward positions and will bring her prowess as a shooter. To this point, she hasn’t had any concrete conversations with Fisher about how he intends to use her on the court, but she already has a sense of what she can bring to the table.

“I know what I can bring to this team. I feel like I’m pretty versatile as a shooter and as a player in different positions,” Samuelson told media during an introductory Zoom press conference. “I want to be able to contribute to this team right away and help in any way that I possibly can. I think he [Fisher] knows that. I’m ready to be tested in any situation that we and I’ll be there to step up and help.”

One area where the Sparks will look to Samuelson to contribute right away is on the defensive end. With assistant coach Latricia Trammell on the sidelines, the Sparks have been one of the top defensive teams in the league the past two seasons. Even with a sputtering offense last year, the Sparks defense was at times, downright suffocating.

Last season in Seattle, Samuelson really came through as a solid defensive player. She’s always been known as a shooter and a scorer, but the next part of her game to unlock will be on the defensive end. She did well as a help defender with the Storm and she has the tools to be able to switch onto multiple positions. Her defensive improvement is something she’s aware of and something she knows she can bring to the team.

“I kind of bring versatility in terms of being able to help in other ways that people can’t sometimes as guards. I’m able to switch more and recover to different people that you might not be able to. I feel like my help team defense is really good,” Samuelson said. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot by watching and learning and trying to put myself in a position to be successful. I think everyone learns you can hide things you are not as good at and I think over time I’ve been able to really use what I’m good at and kind of use my brain more on defense to help me out. Things have become easier as I’ve learned.”

Carter creates

A jolt in the offense is something that both Canada and Samuelson can bring with playmaking and shooting respectively, but sometimes a team just needs a flat-out scorer, someone who you can dump the ball off to and let them go get buckets. The Sparks feel like they have someone like that in Chennedy Carter.

Carter’s 2021 season was cut short due to her being suspended by the Dream for ‘conduct detrimental to the team.’ Whatever the reason for her suspension was, it became clear that a mutual parting was the next step. Carter will now get a fresh start in Los Angeles.

She had a phenomenal rookie season with the Dream in 2020 putting up 17.4 points per game while shooting 47.3 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from three-point range. Before her suspension last season, her overall numbers were down but she was still putting up 14.2 points per game and shooting 45.5 percent.

The Sparks only had one player shooting over 43 percent last season and that was Nneka Ogwumike at 53.2 percent. Inserting someone like Carter into the lineup will give the Sparks some desperately needed offensive punch. One of the primary things they lacked last season was someone on the wing who could consistently break down the defense off the dribble and score at the rim. That’s where Carter comes in.

“I think people don’t really realize how quick I am and just how much work on my first step and being able to attack defenders going left to right,” Carter said in an introductory Zoom press conference. “I’m doing a great job of getting to the paint, so now obviously playing with different players on the Sparks. . .it’s going to be definitely hard for the defense to decide and pick and choose. For me personally, it’s working on finding my spots and getting to where I know I’m comfortable at, where I can make the shot at.”

But perhaps the most important thing Carter is looking forward to is simply getting back on the court. July 4 was the last time she set foot on a WNBA court in a loss to the Las Vegas Aces in which she only played five minutes. Carter admitted how tough the past year has been, not being able to play.

“It’s kind of been difficult, a little bit depressing just because the game of basketball was obviously taken away from me. But I also got a lot of time to find out different things about myself,” Carter said. “Spent a lot more time with family, doing a lot more traveling, and also just working on my game and different aspects that I never really worked on or took the time to notice like my footwork and little bitty things like that. . .So just really trying to get back into the swing of things, get my condition level back and really get ready to play.”

Carter is certainly a budding star, a potential franchise building block, but perhaps the biggest move the Sparks made this offseason was bringing in an already established star. Despite entering the offseason with limited cap space, the Sparks did some wheeling and dealing to free up enough space to sign a max-level free agent.

Derek Fisher and Liz Cambage. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)
Derek Fisher and Liz Cambage. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

Enter Cambage

That free agent turned out to be four-time All-Star Liz Cambage. Cambage is one of the best centers in the league with career averages of 16.3 points per game, 7.7 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 54.4 percent shooting from the field. Cambage is a talented low post scorer who can also space the floor with her outside shooting. She is a good passing center and she can be an interior anchor on the defensive end.

She once scored 53 points in a game during the 2018 season when she was in Dallas, but it is her defensive ability that can really take this Sparks team to another level. She knows she is an intimidating force in the paint and she makes sure opponents feel her presence.

“I’m a big blocker in the paint. I’m just there to rebound, to block shots. I’m 6’10 in Adidas shoes some days,” Cambage told media at an introductory press conference this week. “It’s different when you drive into the key and I got my hands up underneath the rim. Like what would you do?”

Cambage may be a big name acquisition, but she doesn’t see it so much in that way. She knows this team already has some established veterans and that Ogwumike is an intimidating presence in the paint herself. All she’s trying to do is fit in and do whatever the team needs of her.

“I’m just focusing on bringing what I do every day, which is to be big. On the court, off the court, that’s what I do,” Cambage said. “I’m not trying to do more than what needs to be done because right now they just need me under the rim and I think that’s all that’s really missing is that big presence inside and maybe energy off the floor.”

The Sparks open the 2022 season on May 6 on the road against the Chicago Sky.

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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