The road to the WNBA Finals is never easy in the Western Conference. Between the Minnesota Lynx, the Phoenix Mercury and the Los Angeles Sparks, the quest for conference glory is always one of the hardest mountains to climb in the west. The Sparks are hoping to get back to the top in 2015.
But they’ll have to do so without one of their most talented players for a large portion of the season. Still, with a roster of seasoned, talented veterans, Los Angeles should be in the mix in the Western Conference when the postseason rolls around.
Here’s what to watch for in Los Angeles this season:
Agler leading the way
Whether the Sparks excel or not this season, they’ll do so under the direction of a coach who has seen both success and struggle at the WNBA level. Brian Agler takes over as head coach after spending six seasons in Seattle. He guided the Storm to the WNBA championship in 2010 and he’ll have the opportunity to win another in Los Angeles.
His first season will be tougher than anticipated with some of the Sparks stars unavailable for part of the season, but the rest of the roster is talented enough to keep them afloat until they return to full strength.
Who will step up?
The Sparks aren’t lacking for talent, but the news that 2013 WNBA All-Star Kristi Toliver will miss the first few weeks of the season (she’s competing with the Slovakia national team) means Agler will be looking for other players on the bench to fill in while she’s out.
She was the fourth leading scorer on the Sparks in 2014, averaging 11.4 points per game and dishing out 4.8 assists per contest. So, whoever steps in, whether it’s a single player or done on a “by committee” basis, will have significant output to match.
Guard Erin Phillips was added over the offseason and will likely be leaned upon to fill in for Toliver while she’s out.
Nneka’s continued growth
If the Sparks are going to compete with Candace Parker and Toliver out, Nneka Ogwumike will need to take another step in her third season in the league. The 2013 WNBA Rookie of the Year averaged 14.6 points per game in 2013 and 15.8 in 2014.
With Parker out until at least the All-Star break, this is Ogwumike’s time to show that she’s ready to take the next step as a star in the league.
Dominant frontcourt options
Ogwumike won’t have to make up for the loss of Parker by herself, though. The Sparks boast one of the more formidable frontcourts in the league. Jennifer Hamson and Jantel Lavender are also back in the fold in 2015 and were recently in Team USA training camp alongside Ogwumike in Las Vegas.
That honor alone is a testament to how respected their talents are across the world of women’s basketball.
Hamson was drafted in 2014 but returned to BYU to finish her volleyball career. Now, though, she’s in Los Angeles with her career sights firmly set on helping in the Sparks frontcourt.
Lavender was the team’s third-leading scorer (11.4 PPG) and third-leading rebounder (6.3 PPG) in 2014.
When the team returns to full strength, Agler’s squad could boast one of the deepest frontcourt units in the league.
Los Angeles boasts a roster that is rich in experience, but the front office made some notable additions in the offseason that should only add to that strength in 2015. The Sparks signed Australian national team members Erin Phillips and Mariana Tolo in the offseason.
Phillips brings seven years of WNBA experience, but Tolo enters as a rookie who has played professionally in Australia’s WNBL since 2009. Tolo, a 6-foot-5 center, is just another added asset to the strong Sparks frontcourt.
Phillips, a two-time WNBA champion, comes to Los Angeles after a one-year stay with the Phoenix Mercury. She’s carved out a role in the league as a solid backup guard and should carry that reputation with her in Los Angeles.
The Sparks also added 25-year-old Latvian rookie Elina Babkina, who can play both guard positions, Swedish forward Farhiya Abdi and Serbian guard Ana Dabovic.