Los Angeles Sparks are quietly crushing WNBA free agency
All eyes are on the Aces and Liberty, but don't overlook LA.
For the second offseason in a row, the WNBA’s new CBA has fostered a free agency period chock-full of star-studded moves and major franchise shake ups. As the dust finally settles, three big unknowns stand out in the league’s new landscape.
The defending 2020 champions appear to be shifting their focus toward the future as opposed to maximizing their chances for a 2021 title. Since free agency began, the Storm have said goodbye to two key pillars of their recent dominance: Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard. Clark, a defensive menace who was the only unanimous selection to the 2020 WNBA All-Defensive First Team, was the cornerstone of the Storm’s stifling defense for both their 2018 and 2020 Championship runs. An extremely efficient three-point shooter on the opposite end, Clark signed with the Washington Mystics for 2021 as a free agent.
No better example of a player who transformed her game for @WNBA success than @Alysha_Clark. An undersized scoring sensation at @MT_WBB, she became an elite defender as a pro, and adjusted her offensive attack. She did it so well, she became a vital cog on a championship team. https://t.co/QclCiVr8bw— Mechelle Voepel (@MechelleV) January 29, 2021
Days later, Howard was traded by the Storm to the New York Liberty as part of a three-team deal. An inside-the-paint version of Clark on defense and a stretch five on the opposite end, Howard was the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year and is a three-time WNBA Champion (2017 with the Lynx, 2018 and 2020 with the Storm).
The latest goodbye was to Sami Whitcomb, a valuable bench contributor and proficient 3-point shooter, who was also traded to the NY Liberty.
So, what did the Storm receive on the intake side of the ledger?
As part of the Howard trade, the Storm briefly held the 2021 #1 draft pick, but quickly used it to acquire Katie Lou Samuelson from the Dallas Wings. Samuelson, a sharp-shooter from UConn and the fourth overall pick of the 2019 draft, has yet to match her collegiate level of production in the pros. A former teammate of Breanna Stewart, it appears the Storm are hoping that reunion will bring out her shooting magic and fill part of the gap left by Clark.
The Storm also acquired an even younger newbie in Mikiah Herbert Harrigan. The sixth overall pick from 2020, Herbert Harrigan got her feet wet with the Lynx in the Wubble last season, coming off the bench for limited minutes. She flashed promise as a rookie, but in a crowded Minnesota front court, had the potential to spend much of 2021 on the bench.
To offset that collective inexperience, the Storm signed unrestricted free agent Candice Dupree, a fifteen-year veteran and seven-time All-Star who is tied for fifth all-time in WNBA total career points and eighth in rebounds.
With Clark, Howard, and Whitcomb off the books and Samuelson, Herbert Harrigan, and Dupree added on, Seattle is a bit less intimidating than they were last season, especially on the defensive end. But with returners like Jewell Loyd, Jordin Canada, and (ahem) Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart, Seattle is still a 2021 title front runner until proven otherwise.
Yes, voids, as in multiple. Granted, Candace Parker’s void is ginormous and covers every inch of the court, but Chelsea Gray’s is a gaping one to boot. In a franchise-altering week, the Sparks said goodbye to both a living legend in Parker, who signed as a free agent with the Chicago Sky, and Point Gawd Chelsea Gray, who signed with the Las Vegas Aces. The enormity of these losses for the Sparks’ stat sheet, attractive style of play, and overall identity cannot be overstated. Add in the departure of Riquna Williams, who also opted to sign with the Aces, and the gaps start feeling insurmountable.
The new roster additions are Amanda Zahui B, a 6’5” center who posted the best stats of her six-year career last season with the Liberty, and Erica Wheeler, the 2016 undrafted free agent who has since established herself as a capable scorer. Needless to say, these new additions don’t come close to filling the shoes left behind, and no one is making the case they were ever intended to. It will really be up to the returning personnel to lead the way on forging a new identity both on the court and off.
The bulk of this responsibility now falls to Nneka Ogwumike. If anyone has the poise and skills necessary to usher the Sparks into the next era, it is “Madame President.” The current WNBPA President showed up in the league with a bang as the number one overall draft pick and Rookie of the Year in 2012. After nine years, she’s now a six-time All-Star, 2016 WNBA Champion, and 2016 League MVP.
Luckily, she’ll have some strong supporting cast members in returners Seimone Augustus, Sydney Wiese, and Brittney Sykes. But the x-factors for the Sparks getting off to the right start in 2021 will be getting Kristi Toliver and Chiney Ogwumike back into the groove and back to high production numbers.
Both Toliver and the younger Ogwumike sister opted out of the 2020 Wubble season due to physical wellness concerns. Toliver is a three-time All-Star and two-time WNBA Champion point guard. A Sparks alum, she spent the previous three years playing for the Washington Mystics and took them all the way to the 2019 WNBA title before transferring back to the Sparks.
Chiney Ogwumike, Nneka’s younger sister by two years, lived up to the family name by also going number one in the 2014 draft and backing it up with the Rookie of the Year award. Playing three of her first five seasons with the Connecticut Sun (the other two she missed due to injuries), she was reunited with Nneka upon being traded to the Sparks in 2019. A two-time All-Star herself, it’s yet to be seen how bright her star could shine if she could string together a few injury-free seasons. And while she is expected to re-sign with LA, the move hasn’t been made official.
The simple truth is there will be no filling of the voids in LA. There can only be change and transformation into something new. It’s not something that will happen easily or quickly, but hopefully Derek Fisher, the Sparks head coach and GM, can use 2021 to get the ball rolling in the right direction. With the high-profile location and big name support the Sparks enjoy, having a consistently strong team in LA isn’t just good for the franchise, it’s good for the league as a whole.
For the first time in WNBA history, one team holds the top two picks in a single draft. In the league-wide shuffling that took place last Wednesday, the number one draft pick started the day with the New York Liberty, then went to Seattle as part of the deal for Natasha Howard, only to be traded away from Seattle to Dallas in exchange for Katie Lou Samuelson and a 2022 second-round pick.
While many were surprised Samuelson garnered the number one pick, Dallas wasn’t going to question it. After all the dust settled, the Wings were left holding the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 7th, and 13th overall picks for the 2021 draft. For a team that had the 2nd, 5th, and 7th picks in last year’s draft, it will be back-to-back years that the Dallas Wings are in a position to make franchise-altering decisions on draft day.
The @DallasWings will be the first team in @WNBA history to hold the top-two picks in the same draft.— espnW (@espnW) February 10, 2021
They hold five of the first thirteen picks ????
No. 13 pic.twitter.com/mrviwrvn8d
In the 2020 draft the Wings were able to snag Satou Sabally, Bella Alarie, and Ty Harris by not trading any of their picks prior to draft day. This left the Wings with an extremely young roster with a high potential payoff a few years down the road. Currently, their most veteran players have just five seasons in the league (Kayla Thornton and Astou Ndour).
Heading into the 2021 draft, it would be surprising if the Wings didn’t use some of their assets to add more veteran experience to support their young talent, especially seeing that they’ll need to clear some roster space to add more pieces on draft day. However, it will be hard for the Wings to pass on the chance to use their top overall pick to draft center Charli Collier from Texas and put some sure firepower into the paint. That is, if she opts to leave college a year early.
Texas’ Charli Collier, a draft-eligible junior who has been projected as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2021 WNBA draft, said she doesn't expect to make a decision on whether she will leave Texas early until after she has completed this college season. https://t.co/NzGAwL7myG— ESPN Women's Hoops (@ESPN_WomenHoop) February 11, 2021
The downside for the Wings having so many high-ranking picks this year, as opposed to a different year, is the number of unknowns leading into the draft. With the chaos of the pandemic, the NCAA has granted all 2020-2021 senior student-athletes an extra year of eligibility. What the class will look like come draft day is very ambiguous. Even without the extra layer of fog, many consider this 2020-2021 class to be on the shallower end of the talent pool.
Even so, the Dallas Wings are sitting in an enviable position, and the franchise’s future looks bright. With Arike Ogunbowale, the league’s reigning top scorer, at the helm and Satou Sabally just scratching the surface of her dynamic skill set, as well as the loads of young talent in their supporting cast, the Wings have the chance to significantly fast forward their development in becoming a Championship contender.
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