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In a new starting role, Riquna Williams is proving to be type of player the Sparks want at the core of their team

Why Riquna Williams, shooting and defending with confidence, may be the key to another Finals run for the Sparks.

WNBA: Finals-Los Angeles Sparks at Minnesota Lynx Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES — Riquna Williams was acquired by the Los Angeles Sparks for a reason.

The sixth-year guard, currently playing in her second season with L.A., has started three consecutive games — her only three starts of the season.

”First, I just had to come in and get to know everyone. I always talked about not stepping on everyone’s toes, but it really wasn’t that because I was brought in for a reason,” Williams told Silver Screen & Roll earlier this month. “And when I went away from that, they always reminded me that I was brought in for a certain purpose: ‘Don’t be afraid.’”

Williams made two or more 3-pointers in 14 of 33 games in the 2018 regular season, something she did just seven times in 30 regular season and playoff games in 2017.

Williams was acquired by the Sparks in a trade with the Dallas Wings prior to the start of the 2016 season. Less than a month later, however, it was announced that she would miss the entire year after suffering a ruptured left Achilles tendon playing overseas. The Sparks went on to win the title that year as Williams rehabbed with a 2017 return in mind.

“The team was very disciplined and passionate,” Williams said of the 2016 team. “Just the style of play, the heart and the togetherness that everybody showed — I pretty much couldn’t wait to be a part of it.”

Williams averaged 17 minutes per game last season and started six regular season games. But she never quite looked to be all the way back. The explosiveness wasn’t there on a consistent basis, and Williams shot just 27% from deep. Nagging injuries also piled up — first her back, then her knee, then her groin — keeping her off the floor and sapping some of her confidence.

”It definitely was confidence and not knowing how behind I was,” Williams said. “So just trying to stay healthy throughout the entire course of last year and having that full season overseas and being in great shape coming back around it’s like I didn’t miss a beat.”

Indeed, she hasn’t missed a beat in 2018. Williams scored 16 points on 6-of-6 shooting in a June 15 victory over the Washington Mystics. Nine days later she poured in 25 and drilled seven 3-pointers in 15 minutes off the bench against the New York Liberty.

”It just happens, you don’t think,” Williams said with a smile, reflecting on that performance. “You hear coach on the sideline saying, ‘Shoot it!’ You just enjoy the moment, really.”

In the three games prior to her insertion into the starting lineup, Williams connected on 10-of-20 from beyond the arc, and area Williams has taken 67% of her shots from this season. She leads the team in both 3-point makes (48) and attempts (128). 3-point shooting isn’t everything, but it certainly is a welcome addition to a team that at times hurts for an outside shooting presence.

Riquna Williams 2018 shot chart via Positive Residual

In those same games, fans saw Williams contributing in plenty of other ways. Once again, she looks like one of the most explosive athletes at her position getting to the rim in a blur with just one dribble, leaping up high to deflect post entry passes, and tapping into her physical abilities to hound opposing guards.

”I’m just trying to focus on energy,” Williams said. “I understand the role as a bench player. If the energy is low, you bring the intensity up. If it’s high, you keep that high intensity. It’s not per se what I do great, or what I don’t do, or what others do, it’s about bringing that energy to get everyone else going.”

Sparks head coach Brian Agler has taken note, and has been eager to reward Williams for her efforts.

”She’s turning into the type of people that we want to be at the core of our team. That’s what Riquna is. She’s that quality of individual where she wants to do well individually but it’s more important how our team does. And I put a lot of value on that,” Agler said. “You want to reward great play, you want to reward great attitude, great teammate, positive person.”

Williams has added a lot of value to what the Sparks have been doing all season, and the early returns from her time with the other starters (Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Alana Beard and Chelsea Gray) have been quite promising. Per Positive Residual, the Sparks posted a net rating of 50.1 (128 offensive rating, 77.9 defensive rating) in the first 80 minutes the new starting unit played together.

L.A. will square off with the Minnesota Lynx — the team they’ve battled in the Finals each of the last two seasons — on Tuesday at Staples Center in a win-or-go-home, one-game playoff. In a single elimination format, one individual performance could alter the entire playoff picture. More minutes for Williams could give the Sparks a much-needed boost against such a familiar foe.

For a rivalry to flourish, new characters and fresh storylines need to continue to emerge. Though Williams was part of L.A.’s playoff rotation last season, she brings a new dynamic to this year’s team with her stellar shooting and steadily improving defense on the perimeter.

The player that until recently held the WNBA’s single game scoring record (51 points, broken by Liz Cambage’s 53 point performance last month) is far more eager to talk about the latter than the former.

”I try to be better with on-ball defense,” Williams said. “That’s a big challenge for me. Me and coach talk about it all the time. I’m great off the ball at roaming around. But once I can key in and focus on going from explosive player to guarding a player that only wants to go off screens and shoot, I’ll be much more dangerous.”

The Sparks face a much steeper climb as they set out to earn a trip to the WNBA Finals for a third consecutive season. The familiar faces remain — 2017 Defensive Player of the Year and 2018 All-Stars Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray.

Adding a confident Williams to that mix in an expanded role figures to make an already tough out even more dangerous.

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