Sparks begin what they hope will be a ‘redemptive season’

View Original Notice ? Sparks begin what they hope will be a ‘redemptive season’

TORRANCE — Who among them doesn’t have something more to prove? Not a one, to hear the Sparks tell it.

“Every person in this room has a chip on their shoulder,” forward Chiney Ogwumike said.

Every person, and collectively, the franchise. Jordin Canada, the new Sparks guard, gave a glimpse of this season’s slogan at media day last week in the Jump Beyond Sports gym: “Our hashtag is ‘Time to Show.’”

That means, the former UCLA star explained, “this year is to show and prove that this organization is still a championship contender.”

Along with WNBA stars such as center Liz Cambage and guard Chennedy Carter, Canada is among the influx of newcomers on a roster that’s been reconstructed by Coach/General Manager Derek Fisher as they try to rebound from last season’s disappointing injury-marred season.

The Sparks finished 2021 with a record of 12-20, last in the league in scoring and without a playoff berth for just the fifth time in their 25-year team history, which has included WNBA titles in 2001, 2002 and 2016.

Since Fisher took over as coach in 2019, the Sparks have made it only as far as the WNBA semifinals – where they were swept by the Connecticut Sun in his first season. And that first foray ended controversially, when star Candace Parker was benched after just 11 minutes in the Sparks’ season-ending loss and then, a few days later, longtime GM Penny Toler was fired.

The Sparks were ousted in a one-and-done second-round game in 2020 and then they whiffed on the playoffs last summer, in their first season without Parker since they drafted her No. 1 overall in 2018.

Parker joined the Chicago Sky in free agency and wound up helping lead them to the WNBA championship – a title they’ll begin their defense of Friday night against the Sparks.

For L.A., that opener in Chicago will be the start of what Nneka Ogwumike described as “a redemptive season.”

For her part as the longest-tenured member of the team, Nneka is approaching 2022 with her proverbial cup filled fuller than in any of the past few seasons, revived and healthy after having been banged up physically and taxed otherwise by her duties as the WNBPA president.

She’s led her WNBA colleagues through negotiations and the subsequent enacting of a new collective bargaining agreement – plus a season in the pandemic-forced bubble and a series of meaningful social and political actions along the way.

“To me, Nneka, for the better part of 2½ years, has just been under a level of strain and stress and responsibility that is just heavy to carry,” Fisher said of the Sparks’ six-time All-Star and 2016 WNBA MVP, whose scoring averages the past two seasons – 13.3 and 14.5 points – were among the lowest of her career, as were her rebounding numbers.

“Although she was still great, it did impact her ability to just play at the elite level that she’s capable of,” Fisher added. “So I think this year, we’ve already just seen the Nneka that we knew before (she became) the CBA president and everything that comes with that. She’s found the balance of being the president and being an MVP candidate on the court as well.”

Her sister Chiney also is eager to issue an on-court response to those who she has heard might be doubting her, she said.

A two-time All-Star and the 2014 Rookie of the Year, Chiney Ogwumike played just seven games in the past two seasons, opting out of the bubble and then dealing with injuries for the majority of last season, when she averaged seven points and 4.1 rebounds.

Meanwhile, in her other job as an ESPN broadcaster, her profile has grown considerably, spurring what has become a familiar question: “Are you still playing?”

“Yeah!” said Chiney, who spent the offseason “doing everything humanly possible to be able to play, and not only play, but perform at a high level.”

“Everything” meant working with an osteopath, a physical therapist, a massage therapist, a track coach, a strength coach, a basketball coach – plus the Sparks’ staff.

Meanwhile, Brittany Sykes is working on all-league voters in pursuit of recognition as the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. As the instigator for a Sparks defense that had the league’s third-best rating both of the past two seasons, Sykes was named to the WNBA’s All-Defensive first-team last season and to the second team the year before.

But she’s coming for the “DPOY” crown.

“As long as I’m in this league, that will always be my goal: point, blank, period,” Sykes said. “… I’m gonna make sure, especially for a guard and for my team, that I’m the best defensive player this year, next year, in years to come.”

On the other end, Cambage and Carter’s jobs will be to boost the Sparks’ scoring after they recorded a franchise-low 93.7 offensive rating in 2021. Cambage is a career 16.3 points-per-game scorer and Carter averaged 17.4 points on 47.3% shooting as a rookie.

But last year in her second season, Carter played only 11 games for Atlanta before the Dream suspended her for “conduct detrimental to the team,” an experience she said made her wiser.

“I just learned it gets greater later,” Carter said at media day, where she was expressive and forthcoming, comfortable in her new purple jersey. “Sometimes you have to wait for great things to come your way; they don’t come easy, they don’t come quick, sometimes your story may be a little bit harder than people’s. It’s all about putting in the work, and I’ve been working since I was 6 years old. I’m 23 now, I’m still working.

“I believe my time is coming and … I’ma bring it to the L.A. Sparks and try to win a championship with everything I have in me.”

SPARKS at SKY

When: Friday, 5 p.m.

Where: Wintrust Arena, Chicago

TV: Spectrum SportsNet, NBA TV