Brittney Sykes is often recognized for her defensive prowess, and rightfully so. She’s a multiple-time WNBA All-Defense selection, won the WNBL Defensive Player of the Year award this past season in Australia, and has perhaps the best recovery skills in the W. But, Sykes is more than a defensive ace on the court.
If there’s an opportunity for any Sparks player to rock the aux cord, “Oh, I’m picking me,” says Sykes emphatically. She moved off-camera during the Zoom meeting and returned with an Akai MPC, a sound mixer, and a sampler. “Now look, I’m only pulling this out because I just wanna let you know that’s how serious I am about being on the aux.”
Sykes enjoys R & B, and JVCK JAMES is frequently in rotation at the moment. She mentions that she doesn’t really listen to any high-tempo music other than when she’s warming up with the team. Brittney is all about containing her energy to let it out on the court. An early riser as well, Sykes says that she doesn’t drink coffee or caffeine in general “I have enough internal caffeine that I don’t need that. I need my adrenaline to stay suppressed until I need to go all out.”
She has an energetic charisma about her and striking wisdom. Injuries early in her college career at Syracuse shaped her as a person. One ACL tear can be life-changing in its own right; back-to-back ACLs is another story: Her right ACL during the NCAA tournament her sophomore season and the same knee after only three games back the following season.
“It literally saved me as a person, and it saved my career.”
The time off of the court, the hours of rehab, and the introspection that comes after the routine is shaken reaffirmed the need for change.
“They sat me down to help me realize, ‘Hey, you need to become a better person.’ Like I wasn’t a bad person, but I needed to become a better person. I believe the person and the player is the same thing… To be a competitor, you kind of have to have that a*****e in you, so it was one of those things where it’s like ‘Okay, but you’re not like that just on the court, you are off the court,’ I go through that with my first one (ACL tear).”
The second injury happened not even 50 minutes into her junior season.
“I genuinely sat down to have a talk with God. And I’m like, what is it that I’m not seeing? Or like, what is it that I’m not understanding that I have to go through this again, in order to get back to what I truly love?”
Sykes went to therapy and swears by it, and she still goes to this day. She says she “needed that (the 2nd injury) to happen” to get a grasp on therapy. She knew what it was and its purpose, but going through it and becoming a frequent goer was eye-opening.
“I probably wouldn’t play as hard as I play. I’ll tell you that for a fact. I promised myself, and I promised God after my ACL tears like nobody can ever come to me or to anybody else to say, ‘Man, why isn’t slim playing hard?’ Nope. I promise you I put money that I didn’t even have yet down that nobody will ever say that I don’t play the game hard.”
Watch Sykes for a quarter of a game since she entered the league in 2017, and her play embodies that sentiment.
The Los Angeles Sparks are still finding their way in a young season, hovering around .500 with a roster that was overhauled in the off-season. Four players from the 2021 roster have played minutes this season (five once Kristi Toliver returns to play).
After primarily playing on the wing, Sykes has played more as a lead guard than in previous seasons. She’s always had ball skills and passing capabilities, and this season is a culmination of off-season progress and reps. Sykes and head coach and general manager of the Sparks, Derek Fisher, had multiple conversations about running point more in the off-season.
She tested herself in Australia during the WNBL season and pushed her limits as a player.
“I want to fight the unknown, whereas a lot of people don’t know that I can handle it more. So it was one of those things where I pushed myself overseas, I ran the one or I just had the ball in my hands a little bit more than usual… This wasn’t an overnight thing. My agency, they made sure that they relayed the message of ‘Hey, you know, Sykes is going to run the one more overseas’ and I’m like ‘Hey Fish (Fisher), I can run the one too, you know!’ so it’s one of those things where I’m just glad he trusted me.”
Starting point guard Jordin Canada has missed time with a hamstring injury already this season, and the aforementioned Toliver has yet to play this season, creating an environment to showcase Sykes’ capabilities running the offense. Since late May, Sykes has shifted to the bench but has continued to find a better rhythm as a ball-handler of late, blending her scoring and playmaking abilities with more regularity.
“I literally told Jordin, and plus, I talked to Fish. And I was like, I give point guards a lot of credit. Because even though I’m playing this role right now, the responsibilities of a point guard, like I’m literally pulling my hair out because I had nine turnovers in the last two games. But they had to help me understand that this is me handling the ball more. I’ve never had the ball this much in my hands. So yeah, sometimes you probably will turn it over, but I’m still a guard at the end of the day, and I need to turn the ball over. But, you know, it’s been helpful to have them in my ear.”
Sykes is in the top 20 in the league in assists per game (3.7) per Her Hoop Stats, the highest she’s ever ranked in her career. That’s come with a higher turnover rate as well, but as Sykes mentioned, that’s part of the growth! Since moving to the bench (5 games), Sykes is averaging 4.6 assists per game, which would rank among the top 10 of the season.
Back-to-back double-digit scoring outings against the Lynx and Mercury indicate that continued development and probing as a scorer, finding the balance between playmaking and finding her shots in the offense.
Sykes and I ran through a few plays together to get an even better look and understand what she’s seeing, thinking, and reading as a lead guard.
MS: okay, this one from the Dallas game, you went off (Sykes’s laugh here was priceless). It felt like you rejected every screen against the Wings in this game.
BS: So honestly, I’d never went down the middle of a Horns set before. you could tell that they scouted the fact that we go through our elbows. So we do a lot of pinch post from horns. So I realized I’m like, okay, I’m gonna stop pinching it because 1. don’t want another turnover, and 2. they were overplaying so heavy on the outer sides, right. So in my head, as I’m looking, I usually try to see where the defender’s head is. Like, if I see for one second that you do this (turns her head) like whatever direction you look away because they’re looking for the screen. So guards have a habit of like putting their hand out, and you know, do this like little side look. As soon as you make your side look, I’m going the other way because now your body is not moving with your head. Like you’re gonna look first, and then you’re gonna go. By that time, I’m at the basket. So with this one, I see that Marina (Mabrey) kinda sees that, oh, she’s about to go right. So she started to kind of like, fight to get over the right screen. I’m gonna be so honest; I don’t even mean to Sham God or whatever. I lost the ball, and I just had it back like I went and tried to cross over, and I was like, oh, and pitty pattered back and then like got it through a hole. I’m like, hey, look, it went in!”
* Horns: An offensive alignment with two players stationed at/near the elbows of the court, often both bigs, with the two wings in the corners and a guard up top to initiate sets.
** Pinch Post: Offensive series in which the weak side big is used as a playmaking hub after the side is cleared out.
MS: Okay, so I’m assuming on this one, as soon as you see Diamond (DeShields) that that first step to ICE the ball-screen is what’s leading you to cross and get downhill?
BS: So ICE, right, most guards from a defensive end have to jump into the body (of the screener), so when you hear “ICE,” the guard, more times than not, actually jumped back into the screen. Because they want to know where it’s at, SO Diamond, she doesn’t jump back; she jumps up. So my job was to get her to go to the right as if I’m trying to still come off of it knowing that I see Megan Gustafson pinched with Chiney (Ogwumike). So I’m like, okay, there’s no help; there was no real ICE. I’m gonna go on and get outta here. I know DT’s (Diana Taurasi) in the corner, and I love White Mamba; I love her. But I know she’s not going to help on defense. I’ve got so much respect, but I know for a fact she’s not going to help, and I see Sam Thomas angling Lexie (Brown). If I see Thomas get into the paint at any second of me driving, it’s going to Lexie. Like, I already knew where my pieces were. And I’m like, you know what, I’m gonna go get a layup because Tina isn’t helping; she’s nowhere near where she can. It was a done deal. I knew right then and there that I was gonna get through the swarm, and I’m good.”
MS: So you draw two to the ball as Nneka slips the screen. What are you seeing, thinking, and processing when Nneka slips, you’re at the top of the key; you know Marina is tagging the roll?
BS: there’s that connective energy, like me and Nneka have been playing pick and rolls for three years now. Yeah, I mean, so I know that more times than not, Nneka is gonna read her defender, and she sees when she leaves early. I know she’s outta there. You know, like they do a really good job of just sprinting out. So for me, I just know that as I’m dribbling, certain people are going to leave a little bit early. So I have the time my dribble up. So I was like, I’m coming off the screen. It needs to be on the up instead of the down. So it’s like as she’s coming up, I should be up dribble. So if she slips, I can push the pass out instead of like, I’m dribbling now I’m down on the downbeat now the defense has recovered now I’m throwing it now it’s a turnover. So it’s like with Nneka, I always try to make sure I time my dribbles, where it’s like rhythmic, with her going to the basket. So it’s like up dribble, up dribble, okay, Nneka is open. Boom, get it out.
*Brittney starts laughing as soon as I pull this one up.*
MS: SO yeah, you get Stewie pretty good on the nutmeg here, just a gorgeous pass. I wanna hear your thoughts on this one.
BS: No, man, that’s literally just textbook basketball. Like we know that seams are gonna go under on the majority of our guards But for guards like me, Jordan, and Chennedy. Yeah, you’re gonna go under because you don’t want to get beat going to the basket. But the first screen was set below the three right, and they went under. So they’re already low. I catch it. I see it. Boom, we automatic like this is like something that we practice boom under rescreen. So we go rescreen, and we know that with Seattle, you can get that quick little pocket pass sometimes. So I came off. Like got it, as soon as you come off, you know that Stewie’s gonna be there. She’s aggressive, dropped it off, and just happened to go through her legs this time. So it’s like I need to find the open pocket just to get it right through there. Now Lexie got a layup because shout out to our teammates on the opposite end. With Lexie being such a great shooter, they go back side action while we’re doing this; the whole weak side is occupied. So now me and Nneka can go to work. Easy. Help comes over; it’s too late.
MS: okay, so you get a late clock possession here. Phoenix is pretty aggressive on the screen. How are things playing out in your mind?
BS: Well, let me tell you this, I’m highly upset because I missed Chiney. Chiney was wide open. UGH. She actually told me she was, but I never got to see it. Like this one, honestly, watching it back, we shouldn’t have rescreened because we’ve got the switch. And we got the little guard on Nneka. So when we switched back, I realized that, so I dragged both of them with me just like to get her out. Like I went up to, like, shoot it. So they both contest; that way, I can get it to Nneka for a free shot. I knew that wasn’t going to be my shot. But yeah, I missed Chiney. And we shouldn’t have switched; we shouldn’t have rescreened. We should have just kept it. I should have spaced out getting to negative work.
MS: So we talked about it a bit offensively but wanted to bring up the same on the other end. What kind of things are you looking at and reading defensively when a player is driving? Knees? Hips? Are you thinking about scouted tendencies? Also, Diamond did not have a fun time with you in this game.
BS: I’m looking at your hips. But more times than not, if I’m defending, I’m looking at where you’re trying to go. You know, I’m trying to beat you to that spot. So that last clip, I knew Diamond gonna go downhill. And I knew at any moment, she could pull up and elevate, you know, so it’s like, I’m keeping that in my mind because it’s also about personnel. So if I know that, okay, Diamond is coming downhill, I know that she can hit me with a stiff arm, step back, going left, she was going left to the basket, right? So she could hit me with the step off, will be able to push off, step off, you know, sidestep shot, or she can keep going and go into my body. But then, in that possession, I see that the ball is like naked like I see the ball. The thing with defending, especially in the paint, I always have my hands out and up. If I get a foul, it’s gotta be because of the body, but you’ll never get me because you didn’t see my hands. So when she was driving, I was backing up like she was coming downhill, and I wasn’t fighting for her. I just was like, okay, keep coming, keep coming. And as I saw her go up with the ball. I kind of just was like (brings hands together)( I just have my hands on it. Because if anything, I’m trying to get a jump ball, but then I realized it was loose. So I’m like, okay, let me just steal it. Let me just steal the ball and get the possession.
Brittney was absolutely awesome, and getting to break down the film with her and pick her mind about life, how she sees the game, and how she got to be who she is today was fantastic. As the Sparks continue to round into form and try to find their identity as a team this season, it’s undoubted that she’ll have a significant hand in how they find their way. Whether it’s continued growth leading the offense or her pursuit to win Defensive Player of the Year, Brittney Sykes is making an impact.
Newly hired WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.