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Insider Preview: Storm vs. L.A.

HEAD-TO-HEAD
0-0 RECORD 0-0
71.6 PF 77.1
99.3 Off. Eff. 102.9
69.9 PA 80.3
96.7 Def. Eff. 106.5
31.6 RPG 31.7
.503 Reb % .471
72.2 Pace 74.4
19.0 Exp. Wins 13.4

Storm vs. Los Angeles (Opening Night)
Friday, May 18, 7:00 p.m.
KeyArena
TV: KONG 6/16, NBA TV
Radio: 1090 AM
Live Access: Available with subscription
Buy Tickets:
Promotion: Free Storm T-shirts for first 3,000 fans.

Kevin Pelton, StormBasketball.com


Even when the Los Angeles Sparks lose, they win. Twice in the last 13 years, the Sparks have missed the playoffs. Both times, they have earned the No. 1 overall pick in the following WNBA Draft. While Candace Parker might have been an appropriate reward for the Sparks suffering through a 10-24 season without Lisa Leslie in 2007, when the star center gave birth to her first child, hitting the lottery jackpot was more unexpected this time around. At 15-19, Los Angeles was in playoff contention until the season's final week and finished with the best record of any non-playoff team. Yet the ping-polls bounced the Sparks' way, landing them the top pick and the chance to select Stanford forward Nneka Ogwumike.

Ogwumike was just the capper on L.A.'s offseason makeover. That started at the top, where Joe Bryant was not retained after replacing Jennifer Gillom on an interim basis midseason. Neither coach could build a successful defense. The Sparks finished 11th in the WNBA in Defensive Rating, spoiling what was actually one of the league's better offenses. For a replacement, L.A. went to the Atlanta Dream's bench to pluck assistant Carol Ross, formerly the head coach at Florida and Mississippi. Ross played an integral role as Atlanta reached back-to-back WNBA Finals, often drawing up plays in huddles. She's respected enough that the league's general managers voted her the best at managing/motivating players before she's even coached a WNBA regular-season game.

Ross and GM Penny Toler also brought in two high-profile free agents from the Washington Mystics. The more intriguing gamble is on guard Alana Beard, who has missed the last two WNBA seasons due to injury - 2010 because of an injury to a tendon in her ankle and last year due to a sprained left foot. Before then, Beard was one of the league's top scorers. She averaged 15.9 points per game in 2009, her last WNBA campaign. Beard worked out for the Sparks to convince them she was healthy, then played in Israel before reporting to training camp. She's expected to start at shooting guard.

Los Angeles also snagged center Nicky Anosike as a restricted free agent after one season in Washington. An All-Star in 2009 in Minnesota, Anosike fell out of favor and was traded to the Mystics for what became the No. 3 pick in this year's draft. She struggled in Washington, shooting just 34.7 percent from the field and slipping defensively. With the Sparks, Anosike will split time in the middle with last year's first-round pick, Jantel Lavender. Lavender averaged 6.6 points and 3.1 rebounds as a rookie but was impressive when she got extended minutes. She had 21 points and nine rebounds against the Storm in her first career start. Lavender appears to have claimed the starting job.

Adding two true centers means Parker will not need to play in the middle regularly this season, as she did the last two years. Instead, Parker will swing between the forward spots, sharing minutes with Ogwumike, veteran DeLisha Milton-Jones and yet another former Mystic, wing Marissa Coleman. More than anything else, Parker's health could determine the course of L.A.'s season. She's played just 27 games over the last two years, when shoulder surgery cut short her 2010 and a sprained knee interrupted her 2011. When healthy, Parker has continued to produce at a similar rate to her MVP rookie campaign. She averaged 18.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists in the 17 games she did play last season and showed the ability to step outside and knock down the three-pointer.

Ogwumike gives the Sparks yet another versatile contributor up front. The consensus top player in the draft, Ogwumike averaged 22.5 points and 10.8 rebounds as a senior at Stanford and led the Cardinal to the Final Four all four years she spent on the Farm. Depending on matchups, Ogwumike is capable of going inside to crash the glass or stepping out to knock down the three-pointer, as she did during Sunday's preseason game.

The last addition of note Los Angeles made over the offseason was point guard Sharnee Zoll. Long a star in Europe, the Virginia product has had a tough time finding a niche in the WNBA. She last played in the league as a rookie for Minnesota in 2008. Part of the issue is that since Zoll plays a prominent role overseas, she must report late to training camp. Established veterans have no trouble doing so, but that made it difficult for Zoll to win a spot. She joined the Storm for part of training camp last season, but was left off the final roster when the team decided to go with rookies to fill out the bench instead. The Sparks have committed to Zoll as the replacement for departed Ticha Penicheiro at the point. She handed out eight assists against the Storm in the preseason, but must make defenses respect her as a scorer. Zoll attempted just four shots in 24 minutes, scoring two points.

With all the new talent and an improvement on the sidelines, Los Angeles enters 2012 expected to return to the postseason. The Storm and the Sparks are two of the top contenders to threaten defending WNBA champion Minnesota, and the two teams will get very familiar with each other over the next few weeks. After playing in the preseason last Sunday, they'll begin the WNBA season tonight, then square off Tuesday in Los Angeles. A third matchup of the five the teams will play against each other this season is scheduled for June 3 at KeyArena, by which point games against L.A. will make up 60 percent of the Storm's results.

The Storm is also prepping to unveil a new-look lineup, with Victoria Dunlap, Shekinna Stricklen, former Sparks forward Tina Thompson and Ann Wauters all expected to make their debuts tonight. Thompson, who says there's nothing special about facing her old team, will start. She'll be joined by either Wauters or Katie Smith alongside holdovers Sue Bird, Camille Little and Tanisha Wright, but al l six players - plus Stricklen, Dunlap and center Ewelina Kobryn - are likely to see action.

KEY MATCHUP
Three-point shooting was a key reason why the L.A. offense was so potent last season, and no player posed a bigger threat than reserve guard Kristi Toliver. Toliver made 56 three-pointers, shooting 42.7 percent from beyond the arc, and averaged 11.2 points per game as a part-time starter. Toliver likely slides into the role of top reserve guard this year, playing both positions off the bench. She can supply instant offense when she gets hot. The Storm will be looking for solid reserve contributions from Stricklen, who started her WNBA career with 15 points against the Sparks in Sunday's preseason game.
INJURIES

Storm - None.

Los Angeles - None.

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