View Original Notice ? Sparks can’t catch Atlanta, suffer 1st loss

Whatever baggage Chennedy Carter was presumed to have brought with her to L.A. this offseason, the Sparks want her to unpack and get comfortable. It’s Derek Fisher’s intention that the flashy 23-year-old guard who goes by “Hollywood” stay awhile.

A couple of hours before the Sparks’ 77-75 loss to Carter’s former team in Atlanta on Wednesday, L.A. exercised the fourth-year rookie scale option for Carter worth $86,701 next season, per herhoopstats.com.

And although Carter struggled in her first game against her former squad, the Sparks harbor high hopes for her role in seasons to come.

“We just feel like she’s been over the top with gratitude, with respect for her teammates and just a willingness to learn and get better every day,” Fisher, the Sparks’ coach and general manager, said via Zoom. “She’s hungry though, and she wants more, but we like that.”

After the first loss this season – despite trailing by as many as nine points in the first and fourth quarters, L.A. gave itself two cracks at tying the score in the final seconds but neither Chiney nor Nneka Ogwumike was able to convert – the Sparks all will be eager for another taste of success.

Carter, especially, after she was held scoreless on 0-for-7 shooting against the Dream, with whom she’d spent two turbulent seasons. She earned WNBA All-Rookie recognition, dealt with a season-ending injury that same year and then missed the latter half of last season after being suspended by the team.

“She wants to be better, she talks to us about it,” Nneka Ogwumike said, noting how much the Sparks value Carter’s talent and potential and, certainly, her “fire.”

“Obviously tonight, if you look at the box score, that’s not up to her standard, and she communicated that to us after the game. But like JC (Jordin Canada) said: It’s not just one game.”

No, there will be another on Saturday, when the Sparks’ fourth and final stop on their season-opening road trip will be in Connecticut, against a rested Sun team that will have played only one game.

On Wednesday, Fisher said he thought his squad looked “a little lethargic.” After L.A. shot 49.2% in the season-opener in Chicago and 47.9% in a victory in Indiana, it finished just 34.7% against a revamped Atlanta roster that includes former Sparks Erica Wheeler and Nia Coffey – and No. 1 overall draft pick Rhyne Howard.

The rookie from Kentucky led all scorers with 21 points on 7-of-18 shooting, including going 5 for 10 from deep before a crowd of 3,138 who came to greet her at the Dream’s home opener at Gateway Center Arena, where they improved to 2-0.

Canada – another of the Sparks’ key recent acquisitions in the backcourt – led L.A. with 19 points, including draining a couple of critical free throws (she’s 16 for 16 from the foul line this season) to bring her side within 77-73 with 49 seconds left.

On Atlanta’s next possession, Brittney Sykes stepped in the passing lane, picked off a pass and ran it back for another two points, cutting the Dream’s lead to just two with 33.5 seconds left.

Then Lexie Brown (eight points, including back-to-back 3-pointers that kept the Sparks within striking distance in the fourth quarter) drew a charge on Howard – Atlanta’s third consecutive possession with a turnover – to give the ball back to L.A. with 16.3 seconds left.

But after a Sparks timeout, Chiney Ogwumike couldn’t convert on a contested layup deep beneath the basket and after Nneka Ogwumike corralled the rebound, she missed her look from 14 feet at the buzzer.

Nneka finished with her first double-double (and 80th of her career) with 17 points and 15 rebounds; Liz Cambage finished with 16 points, two rebounds and five blocked shots.

For her part, Carter came in shooting 52.9% through two games as a Spark, but she struggled against her former team – although she recorded three assists, a steal and a block in 14 minutes of work.

In 2020, the Dream drafted Carter No. 4 overall out of Texas A&M. As a rookie, an ankle injury limited her to 16 games – in which she averaged 17.4 points on 47.5% shooting, became the youngest WNBA player to score at least 30 points in a game (she dropped 35 at age 21 years, 9 months).

Last season, she played only 11 games (and averaged 14.2 points) because she was suspended in July for what Atlanta deemed “conduct detrimental to the team.” At the time, The Next reported she and another Dream player had a verbal exchange during what proved to be Carter’s last game with the team.

The Sparks acquired her in a February trade that sent Wheeler, a 2022 second-round draft pick and a 2023 first-round pick to Atlanta.

Fisher said Wednesday that it was his intent to send a signal that Carter figures into Sparks’ plans for the long haul.

“We can’t continue to just rely on free agency every time to go out and save the day, so trying to build a bit of a group of young core players that can spend some time together over the next few years,” he said. “When we start to think about Jasmine Walker and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, and Chennedy Carter and drafted Amy (Atwell) this year, and Rae Burrell – a good, core group of young players that for two, three, four years, as they get better.”