PG: Sharnee Zoll
SG: Alana Beard/Kristi Toliver/April Sykes
SF: DeLisha Milton-Jones/Marissa Coleman
PF: Candace Parker/Nneka Ogwumike/Ebony Hoffman
C: Nicky Anosike/Jantel Lavender
Significant additions: Carol Ross (new head coach, formerly an assistant with Atlanta), Ogwumike (college draft), Beard (free agency from Washington), Coleman (trade from Washington), Anosike (trade from Washington), Zoll (free agency after being out of the league), Sykes (college draft)
Significant losses: Ticha Penicheiro (free agency to Chicago), Tina Thompson (free agency to Seattle), Noelle Quinn (trade with Washington), Jenna O’Hea (with Australian National Team preparing for the Olympics), Natasha Lacy (trade with Washington), LaToya Pringle (trade with Washington)
After several years of mediocrity and inconsistency, the very least we can say about the Sparks heading into 2012 is that they’re interesting. There are so many questions, sub-plots and unknowns surrounding this team that it’s going to be fascinating to see how it all works out. If new head coach Carol Ross can pull all the pieces together, and they stay largely healthy throughout the year, they have the potential to be a powerful and dangerous group. However, even the most devoted Sparks fan has to admit, there’s also the potential here for everything to come crumbling down around them.
They had a stroke of luck before the offseason even really began, beating the odds to win the lottery and the right to select Stanford’s Nneka Ogwumike. It’s unfortunate for them that the blindingly obvious #1 overall pick naturally plays the same power forward spot as their star Candace Parker, but both have enough flexibility to their game that it shouldn’t be a big issue. Parker, if she can just stay healthy and on the floor, is one of the biggest talents in the women’s game. She has a rare combination of scoring ability, size and athleticism that it’s very difficult to compete with. There are aspects of her game that can definitely improve – mediocre defense, a greater need to trust her teammates at times – but she’s an MVP candidate if she’s on the floor for 34 games. Ogwumike showed enough ability in college that she can be expected to produce immediately at the next level. Like Parker, she’s a superb athlete for her size, with scoring range, footwork and mobility that makes her hard to defend. Ross is going to have a lot of fun finding ways to use these two.
The backcourt is where a lot of the question marks around this squad arise. Ticha Penicheiro and Noelle Quinn are gone, with the only returning member of last season’s group being gunner Kristi Toliver. Alana Beard arrives for her first WNBA season outside of Washington. She hasn’t played a single game in this league since 2009 due to injuries, which leaves you wondering firstly whether she can survive the rigors of a WNBA season, and secondly whether she can be anything like the same player she once was. At her best, Beard was a strong scorer and one of the better perimeter defenders in the league – something LA have desperately needed in recent years. She spent time playing in Israel during the offseason, at least proving that she can stay on the court, but that was one game a week and her numbers weren’t exactly outstanding. If she can turn back the clock, the Sparks may have the biggest steal of free agency anywhere in the league; if she breaks down, the backcourt could be the weakest in the WNBA.
At the point, most of the minutes look like going to Sharnee Zoll, and that’s another step into the dark for the Sparks. Impressive numbers at the top level in Europe have built Zoll’s reputation as a pro, but she’s had a few chances with WNBA teams and never managed to stick, even as a backup. With all the weapons around her, LA don’t need her to be exceptional, but they do at least need serviceable. She’s being thrown in at the deep end, and the Sparks need her to swim.
There’s no real backup point guard on the squad at the moment, which presumably means Beard or Toliver will slide over to cover the spot when Zoll is off the floor. Both can do it, but neither particularly flourishes in the role. Toliver is at her best when the team simply asks her to score. She’s an excellent shooter, but streaky and prone to emotional behaviour. If Ross can harness her, she could be a big plus for this team. Rookie third-round pick April Sykes also made the squad, somewhat surprisingly, but will likely be there only as emergency cover on the wing. If they’re turning to Sykes for help, something’s probably gone wrong.
The small forward spot is filled by veteran DeLisha Milton-Jones and new arrival Marissa Coleman, although both will be sliding to other spots when necessary. Milton-Jones is still a warrior, albeit not the player she once was, and brings toughness and grit to an otherwise youthful squad. Coleman is getting a fresh start, after Washington finally grew tired of her lack of impact. She’s shown occasional flashes of scoring ability, especially from behind the arc, but it’s never been anywhere near enough from a player who went second overall in the draft three years ago. She had countless opportunities to make an impact with the Mystics and never stepped up into the role. With all the scorers around her this year, she’ll be open a lot when she’s out on the floor, and the potential weakness of the backcourt could open minutes for her at the 2 as well. If she doesn’t take this second chance to impress in the WNBA, time may well be running out.
Alongside Parker and Ogwumike in the frontcourt, there once again may be more questions than answers. Big center Jantel Lavender had a rollercoaster rookie season, breaking out with one or two big games but barely making an impact in many others. The coaching carousel and the whims of Jen Gillom and Joe Bryant didn’t do her any favours. There’s certainly talent there to work with, and Ross has had success with big-bodied interior players in Atlanta, so she could be in position to make a big contribution. The Sparks also acquired Parker’s former University of Tennessee teammate Nicky Anosike to help out inside, and she may well start ahead of the youngster. Anosike’s had two weak seasons in the WNBA with Minnesota and Washington after an All-Star calibre year back in 2009. She’s mobile for a post and has quick hands for steals, but the Sparks have to hope that her reunion with Parker will rejuvenate her WNBA career. If she plays like she has the last couple of years, they’ll either need more from Lavender, or Parker will be sliding over to play center an awful lot. Finally, there’s Ebony Hoffman, still in town after signing as a free agent before last season. It’s difficult to see quite where she fits in on this team, with Parker and Ogwumike ahead of her in the pecking order at power forward. Hoffman’s always had some scoring talent, and plenty of range on her shot, but minutes on the floor could be hard to come by unless there are injuries in the frontcourt.
Summary and Outlook
This is probably the hardest team to project in the entire league. Their two best veteran talents, Parker and Beard, have both shown a propensity to get hurt and miss a lot of games. The only player on the roster who wants to be out there at the point has played six games in her entire WNBA career – and those were in 2008. They’ve got a new coach who gained plaudits as an assistant, but who now has to step up and run her own team. If neither of the questionable options at center step up, then Parker will have to slide over to her less-favoured position again. There are just so many things up in the air. But if Zoll can play well enough, and the key players stay healthy, they’re a threat to beat anyone. With four out of six making the playoffs – and considering Tulsa are in the West, it’s really four out of five – all they have to do is win enough games to stay in contention while they figure out how the pieces fit together. By the time the playoffs roll around, this team could be scary.