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2019 Season Preview: Los Angeles Sparks

The 2019 WNBA season tips off on May 24. WNBA.com will be previewing every team in the league. See below for a breakdown of the Los Angeles Sparks.

2018 Recap

Record: 19-15; 6th in league standings; Defeated Minnesota in First Round (75-68), Lost to Washington in Second Round (96-64)

Leaders: Points: Candace Parker (17.9), Rebounds: Parker (8.2), Assists: Chelsea Gray (5.1), Steals: Nneka Ogwumike (1.6), Blocks: Parker (1.1), 3-Point Pct: Gray (39.2%)

Team Stats: Offensive Rating: 101.0 (8th), Defensive Rating: 98.7 (2nd), Net Rating: 2.3 (6th), Rebound Percentage: 47.2 (12th), True Shooting Percentage: 53.7 (7th), Pace: 77.8 (12th)

Offseason Moves

Free Agency: Re-signed free agents Alana Beard, Chelsea Gray, Riquna Williams and Karlie Samuelson; Signed free agents Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Ashley Walker

Draft: Selected Kalani Brown (No. 7), Marina Mabrey (No. 19), Ángela Salvadores (No. 31)

Trades: Acquired Chiney Ogwumike from Connecticut in exchange for a 2020 first round draft pick; Acquired Alexis Jones from Minnesota in exchange for Odyssey Sims

Coaching Staff: Hired Derek Fisher as head coach after Brian Agler resigned following four seasons; Hired Fred Williams as assistant coach after five seasons as head coach of the Dallas Wings; Hired Latricia Trammell as assistant coach

Players To Watch

Chiney Ogwumike

The Sparks acquired Chiney Ogwumike in a trade with Connecticut in late April, adding another 2018 All-Star to the roster (along with Chelsea Gray, Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike) and bringing even more depth to the Sparks frontline. In addition to the reunion with her sister (more on that later), Chiney should help the Sparks as a super-efficient post scorer and an elite rebounder, which was a weakness for the Sparks last season. Last season in Connecticut, Chiney averaged 14.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and shot 60.3% from the field. Oh, and don’t forget she did all that while having another full-time job as an ESPN analyst.

Nneka Ogwumike

While Chiney is the newcomer in Los Angeles, big sister Nneka has spent her entire career in Southern California and is coming off a season in which she averaged 15.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.5 steals, while shooting 52.5% from the field and 34.6% from three. She joined an exclusive list of players that averaged at least 15 points, five rebounds, a steal and a block while shooting at least 50% from the field in a season: 2016 MVP Nneka Ogwumike, 2017 MVP Sylvia Fowles and 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart.

Coincidentally, those numbers represented a “down” year for Nneka – it was her lowest scoring season since her second year in the league (2013) and a career-low in rebounding. But those numbers don’t truly represent Nneka’s value on the court. Last season, the Sparks were 9.3 points per 100 possessions better with Nneka on the court (net rating of 5.8) compared to when she was off the court (minus-3.5 net rating). That was the second-highest mark on the team behind Odyssey Sims, who now plays in Minnesota.

Candace Parker

Parker has been a ‘player to watch’ ever since she first stepped foot on a basketball court. However, it may be a while before we can watch her suit up for the Sparks. She is expected to miss three to five weeks after suffering a hamstring injury just four minutes into L.A.’s preseason opener on May 11. Based on that timeline, she will miss the Sparks’ season opener and could miss up to five games if unable to return until mid-June.

Chelsea Gray

The Sparks re-signed Chelsea Gray in late April, ensuring that the two-time All-Star point guard continues the upward trajectory of her career in Los Angeles. In her fourth WNBA season, Gray posted career highs of 14.9 points, 5.1 assists (6th in WNBA), 3.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals (6th in WNBA) per game. She has excelled as the Sparks’ floor general the past few seasons and has a propensity for delivering in clutch situations. She is currently playing in the Turkish league playoffs for Cukurova Mersin and will re-join the Sparks upon the conclusion of her overseas commitments.

Alexis Jones

A few days before executing the trade to acquire Chiney Ogwumike, the Sparks made another offseason trade, sending Odyssey Sims to Minnesota in exchange for Alexis Jones. The 5-foot-9 point guard played limited minutes on Minnesota’s veteran-laden team, but has shown flashes of the talent that made her a first round pick in 2017. While the Sparks are loaded with frontcourt players, they are a bit thin in the backcourt, which should give Jones plenty of opportunity on the court to show what she can do at the WNBA level.

Tierra Ruffin-Pratt

L.A. signed Tierra Ruffin-Pratt in the opening weeks of free agency. The 5-foot-11 wing spent her first six season in Washington, helping the Mystics advance to the WNBA Finals last season. She has the size and strength to defend multiple positions and brings career averages of 6.0 points, 3.4 rebounds 1.8 assists and 0.8 steals in 20.2 minutes to Los Angeles.

Three Questions

How quickly will this team find chemistry with a new coach and several new players to incorporate?

In addition to the new players on the roster, the Sparks also have a new coaching staff, led by Derek Fisher, who won five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers during his 18-year playing career. He last coached the New York Knicks from 2014 to 2016. Fisher is the 12th head coach in Sparks franchise history and takes over for Brian Agler, who resigned after four seasons at the helm before taking over head coaching duties in Dallas.

Fisher is in a unique position with the team that he has inherited. Normally a coaching change is made when a team is struggling, not still considered contenders for a championship. Fisher will look to help the Sparks bounce back from a sixth-place finish in the standings (19-15) and a second round playoff exit after back-to-back 26-win seasons and Finals appearance in 2016 and 2017.

While many key members of that 2016 championship team remain on the roster – Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Gray, Alana Beard and Jantel Lavender* – there are a number of new faces to incorporate into the mix. How will the Sparks fare early in the season as Fisher learns more about his players and figures out which combinations he like to play best, all the while playing without two-time MVP Candace Parker in the lineup at the onset? There may be some challenges ahead for Fisher and the Sparks early, but they have the talent, depth and experience to figure it out in time for a deep postseason run.

*Update as of May 20: The Los Angeles Sparks have acquired a 2020 second round draft pick from the Chicago Sky in exchange for center Jantel Lavender, Sparks Executive Vice President and General Manager Penny Toler announced.

Do the Ogwumike sisters still have the on-court chemistry they shared in college?

In addition to adding an All-Star talent to the roster, the acquisition of Chiney Ogwumike offers a great feel-good story as it reunites Chiney and her older sister Nneka on the same team. The two played together at Stanford University for two years — making the Final Four both times — before Nneka graduated and entered the WNBA as the top pick in the 2012 Draft. During their time together on the court, you could instantly see the chemistry that the two had playing off of one another.

It’s been seven years since those Stanford teammate days. While the two have shared the court as opponents (Nneka has a 5-2 edge in sister vs. sister games), the two had not paired up as teammates until last week’s preseason opener. It looked like there would be a reunion game at last year’s All-Star Game as captain Candace Parker picked both Ogwumikes as part of her squad, but Nneka was unable to play due to illness.

How quickly can the Ogwumikes get that on-court chemistry back to where it was during their college days? Will training camp be enough time, or will it take part of the season before we truly see what the sisters can do on the court to complement one another and potentially lift the Sparks to greater heights?

With a roster loaded with frontcourt talent, does Candace Parker transition to guard?

When Candace Parker returns to the lineup, we should expect to see her spend much more time on the perimeter this season. The Sparks are loaded with frontcourt talent and added to that this offseason with the addition of Chiney Ogwumike (via trade) and Kalani Brown (via draft). This abundance of frontcourt players could allow Parker to play the three (which is where she started in L.A.’s preseason game before getting hurt) and utilize her full skillset as a scorer and a playmaker. Parker has long been one of the most versatile players in the game and will have the opportunity to showcase that once she gets healthy.