Sparks’ roster crunch means Amanda Zahui B. won’t play this year

View Original Notice ? Sparks’ roster crunch means Amanda Zahui B. won’t play this year

The Sparks’ tough 2021 season – which ended without a playoff appearance for the first time since 2011 – did a lot to inform how Derek Fisher approached his second offseason as the team’s general manager.

For one thing, he realized the Sparks desperately needed more players with the ability to go and get a basket and the confidence to shoot 3-pointers and stretch the floor.

For another, they needed availability.

Because of that – and rookie forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa’s successful training camp – Fisher opted Thursday to place veteran center Amanda Zahui B. on the suspended-for-the-season list.

That reduced the Sparks’ opening-night roster to 13 players total – 11 of whom will be available Friday for their first game in Chicago. After that, Fisher will have to make one more cut to get the total to 12 once Kristi Toliver and Katie Lou Samuelson return from their respective obligations coaching the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA playoffs and playing abroad.

Thursday’s decision to suspend Zahui B. came a day after the Sparks waived returning guards Te’a Cooper and Arella Guirantes, as well as rookie guard Kianna Smith.

Fisher – who is also the Sparks’ coach – suggested Zahui B.’s overseas commitments could have kept her away for “double-digit” games, potentially leaving a costly hole in the Sparks’ roster during the compact, 36-game schedule.

A player on the full-season suspended list doesn’t get paid and their salary is no longer on their team’s cap sheet, but the player’s team will retain her rights.

Fisher also noted that several of the Sparks’ newcomers – including Liz Cambage, who signed in free agency for $170,000 – agreed to come aboard for less than they could have in order to facilitate fielding a full roster under the constraints of the WNBA’s $1,379,200 salary cap.

“Going through what we went through last year and seeing the way our players suffered, with eight to nine players carrying the responsibility that 12 players should be able to carry, we just didn’t want to do that to our players again,” Fisher said.

In 2021, the Sparks especially felt the absence of Russian center Maria Vadeeva (she’d indicated she planned to join the team following the Olympics but didn’t) because they were hammered by injuries. Jasmine Walker, the No. 7 overall draft pick, missed all but two games and two-time All-Star Chiney Ogwumike missed all but seven. Also, Nneka Ogwumike, the 2016 league MVP, missed 14 games and two-time WNBA champion point guard Toliver was sidelined for 13.

And because the Sparks scored a league-low 72.8 points per game last season, Fisher signed Jordin Canada and traded for Chennedy Carter, both speedy, hard-to-defend guards.

He also drafted and retained Amy Atwell, the third-round pick out of Hawaii who proved her 3-point shot could translate to the WNBA with a 6-for-6 showing from deep in a preseason victory over Phoenix. Fellow rookie Rae Burrell, the No. 9 overall pick, also made the team, along with Nelson-Ododa, whom L.A. drafted 19th overall.

But making room for more firepower meant Fisher had to make some difficult cuts.

He looked almost pained sitting down for a Zoom video conference with reporters on Thursday: “The human part of this business, it does kind of suck,” he said.

He said he would welcome a developmental avenue that could help teams navigate a roster crunch that can leave veterans such as Zahui B. in the cold or stymie the progression of prospects such as the popular Cooper, a third-year guard with 1.5 million Instagram followers.

Earlier this week, Chiney Ogwumike posited that the WNBA would benefit from something like the NBA’s G League: “I was just looking at some of the names that have been cut or waived, like, high draft picks. In no circumstance should we have a league where high draft picks aren’t on a roster,” she said.

“It would be nice to have more time with our players,” Fisher agreed. “Or in situations like (Zahui B.’s), we could bring up a developmental player or two that can hold the fort down while the more veteran player is overseas, playing and competing.

“Right now, teams have to make the choices and I realize that I’m not gonna always make the right choice as far as the player individually is concerned,” Fisher added, noting that the calculus could change in 2024, when the WNBA will implement a prioritization policy requiring players with at least three years of service to play the entire WNBA season or be deemed ineligible and forfeit their WNBA salary.

“I care about our players, personally and professionally, but I get paid to do a job that is what’s best for the Los Angeles Sparks organization as a whole, even if I personally don’t like the decision I have to make. That just comes with the job.”