How the Sparks value youth over experience will be a key storyline in the preseason.
The 2021 WNBA Draft resulted in found money for the Sparks, as they got two of their top targets, Jasmine Walker and Stephanie Watts, along with another lottery-level talent, Arella Guirantes, in the second round.
The only problem is that the team probably wasn’t planning to add three new players to the final roster, or even the preseason group. On Monday, Los Angeles already had to waive eight-year veteran Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who joined the team in 2019, so that all three rookies could fit on the camp roster. Now, with training camp beginning tomorrow, Sunday April 25, the battle continues to make the final 12.
“We just feel very fortunate,” said head coach and general manager Derek Fisher. “A great combination of young players and talent to go with players that we already have slated to be in camp, obviously our core veterans, we just really feel like we’ve put a nice group together. When we start training camp, it is going to be highly competitive, there’s gonna be a lot of talent out on the floor.”
The Sparks bring eight returning players into training camp — two of whom opted out last season — along with two players signed to protected contracts in free agency, three rookies, and two other players signed to training camp deals. They’re also waiting on Maria Vadeeva, who is coming over late but is expected to be on the final roster.
Among the veterans, there are seven players who should be considered locks to make the team: Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, Kristi Toliver, Amanda Zahui B, Erica Wheeler, Brittney Sykes, and Vadeeva. The first five are on guaranteed deals, Sykes was re-signed this offseason on a multi-year deal, and head coach Derek Fisher has gone out of his way to mention Vadeeva on numerous occasions, suggesting that the Russian center remains a part of the team’s present and future.
Those seven players account for $977,810 of total salary, giving the Sparks about $360,000 to play with for the remaining five.
Let’s assume Jasmine Walker is guaranteed to be on the roster, since Los Angeles traded up in the first round to select her. We’ll also add Te’a Cooper, a second-year guard who is making the lowest possible salary and made a splash in her debut season.
Now, the Sparks have $235,272 for their final three players, and at this point, the cap isn’t an issue. Los Angeles can retain any three players from the training camp roster and still be below the salary cap.
So we’re down to seven players for three spots:
- Kristine Anigwe
- Seimone Augustus
- Nia Coffey
- Arella Guirantes
- Bria Holmes
- Stephanie Watts
- Sydney Wiese
Who will the Sparks keep?
Based on roster balance, it doesn’t seem like the Sparks need another big with the two Ogwumikes, Zahui B, and Vadeeva. That rules out Anigwe, though the team might partially suspend Vadeeva for the first part of the season and keep Anigwe in that roster spot until Vadeeva comes over.
Where the Sparks need additional depth is on the wing. Sykes and Walker are both forwards who can slide between the 3 and 4, but the Sparks will need bigger guards next to Toliver, Wheeler, and Cooper, who top out at 5’8. They have three choices in Wiese, Watts, and Guirantes, each of whom is at least 5’11, and will probably take two.
Wiese was drafted 11th overall by the Sparks in 2017 and has played her entire WNBA career in Los Angeles. Her first two seasons were unremarkable, but she has been a favorite of Fisher’s since he became coach in 2019 as a fellow lefty guard with a deadly 3-point jumper. Wiese shot 47.2 percent from beyond the arc last year, and the Sparks offense took a noticeable hit (about three points per 100 possessions) when she suffered an ankle injury during the last week of the regular season.
Watts is already 24, so the Sparks didn’t draft her for potential; they expect her to compete now, but it’s unclear if she’s for the challenge. Watts only shot 32.5 percent from three at North Carolina and 47.5 percent on twos. Watts also had more turnovers than assists in her college career, though presumably her ball-handling responsibilities would be lighter on the Sparks than with the Tar Heels.
Guirantes had about the same shooting percentages from the field in her college career, though she had an upward trajectory and shot 10 percent better from the foul line than Watts (83.3 to 72.2). Guirantes also ranked in the 90th percentile of collegians among pick-and-roll ball handlers, so she has some extra tools to her game.
Based on their pre-draft evaluations, one would expect Guirantes to beat out Watts for a roster spot. However, the Sparks just used a first-round pick on Watts, and conceding that Guirantes is a better player despite their draft positions might be a tough pill to swallow.
Both rookies could make the roster if one of them beats out Augustus. Surprisingly, the WNBA legend is only on a training camp deal, and considering the Sparks aren’t expected to compete for a title this season, they might be better off prioritizing youth than the soon-to-be 37-year-old. Augustus was a key veteran presence for the development of Anigwe and Cooper a year ago and still provides some spacing with one of the sweetest pull-up jumpers in league history. It’s also hard to see the team cutting a player of Augustus’ stature, even if L.A. would be justified in going younger.
Holmes and Coffey seem like they were signed for preseason depth, though positionally, they both provide some insurance on the wing as well as defensive tenacity. Holmes contributed to a good Connecticut team last year and fits within the fast-paced, athletic ethos that the Sparks are hoping to play with this season. Coffey was similarly useful for a Phoenix team that advanced as far into the playoffs as L.A. did, and she said she hoped her versatility and ability to play multiple positions would help her stick with the Sparks.
Whoever makes the team will be part of a new chapter for this franchise, the first-ever roster without Lisa Leslie or Candace Parker. It will be interesting to see how much the organization tries to hold on to reminders of its past, or if it charts a new path forward. The departures in free agency seemed to force the Sparks into the latter strategy, and they added three talented players in this year’s draft who should further nudge them that way.
“Training camp is gonna be different in a lot of ways, and we’re excited about getting to that point, and I think our players are excited about it,” Fisher said. “It’s a new era of Sparks basketball and we’re moving in a different direction, and I think everyone’s looking forward to the process and the journey.”