Maria Vadeeva and the Los Angeles Sparks made for a great fit from the moment the team selected her with the 11th overall pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft.
In a loaded draft class, Vadeeva fell to a title contender that was already comfortable with its three player big rotation. Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike are the starters up front. Jantel Lavender spells one at some point in the first quarter and soaks up most of the minutes in the frontcourt playing alongside Parker or Ogwumike when the duo of former MVPs wasn’t playing together. In a sense, anything L.A. got from Vadeeva in her age 20 season would be gravy.
“Her basketball IQ is elite, her potential is off the charts. She can hit 3-point shots. Her learning curve is great,” Sparks head coach Brian Agler told the AP. “She knows the good players having played against them in Europe. She knows them better than the college players. Glad we have her. She’s a big time talent.”
All major mock drafts slotted Vadeeva in the 8-to-12 range of the first round. The AP had her going at No. 8 to the Indiana Fever. High Post Hoops slotted her at 10 with the New York Liberty. ESPN mocked her at 12 with the Phoenix Mercury. SB Nation ended up hitting the nail on the head, slotting her at 11 to land with the Sparks.
Vadeeva’s talent was never in question. The biggest query she had to answer may have been one that is often at the forefront with international prospects: Would she want to come over to play in the WNBA regardless of where she landed? Would commitments to her national team cause her to miss big chunks of time, if not entire WNBA seasons?
The Sparks activated Vadeeva on June 9, as visa issues prevented her from joining the team any sooner. She logged 204 minutes in 25 regular season games as a rookie, blocking 11 shots and shooting 52 percent from the field.
”I played with her for two years overseas, so I already know what she can do,” Ogwumike said after the team’s second-round playoff loss. “We saw spurts of that when she was out on the court. She’s a workhorse, she really likes to go out there.”
”She has a very serious skill set” Ogwumike added. “I’m not sure if you guys had enough time with the minutes that she played to see that, but she’s going to play at [UMMC Ekaterinburg]. She’s gonna get big minutes, I think she’s gonna be playing with [Brittney Griner].
”She’ll come back. She loves it. She was excited to come. She loves playing with the people that she’s playing with. I love playing with her. She’s gonna be huge for us as she develops.”
Vadeeva’s arrival comes at a good time for the Sparks. Parker will turn 33 next spring and Lavender, 30, shot a career-low 42.8 percent from the field in 2018. Vadeeva is also on a value contract. Players that can contribute on rookie-scale deals are a precious commodity in the WNBA, where teams must operate under a hard cap ($976,300 for the 2018 league year).
Though her minutes were limited, it’s important to take stock of what Vadeeva showed in her rookie season in the WNBA and what it could mean in the near-term for a team set on winning now.
Vadeeva brings something that the Sparks don’t quite get on a regular basis from the rest of their bigs. She’s got a high skill level and can bang around the basket. She knows precisely when she’s drawn a switch and acts quickly to drag that player down to a block where she can score on a quick post up or overpower her opponent on the boards.
Lavender has been more of a spot up player in recent years, and Ogwumike relies more on her explosiveness to beat bigger players. Vadeeva has flashed a nice blend of touch and physicality — she can attack quickly to knock you off balance, or stick a jumper off the catch.
If her minutes go up next season, it will be interesting to see how much Agler taps into Vadeeva’s stretch game. Vadeeva shot 4-of-12 from deep this season, and some of the attempts looked quite fluid, with her decisiveness shining through on an impressive two-dribble drive to beat a bad closeout.
As much as L.A.’s bigs may look to tap into their outside game even more in 2019, their entire team will need to continue to adjust to the rest of the league as opposing teams up their 3-point rates and inch closer to putting five shooters on the floor at all times. When the Sparks do manage to run good shooters off the line or get stretched too thin in pick and roll coverage, Vadeeva will be counted on to react quickly to get across the lane to take away easy finishes at the rim.
The Sparks are right to be excited about Vadeeva’s future. Simply put, there aren’t many bruisers that can also do this:
Vadeeva’s emergence could allow Agler to scale Parker’s minutes back a tad, and there’s plenty to tap into for her to be more than a rebounder and screen setter by next season. Vadeeva makes quick decisions and moves with a purpose, which will set her up to fit like a glove in an offense predicated on ball and player movement.
The Sparks have been most dangerous when defenses don’t get a chance to lock in on Parker, Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray. Vadeeva won’t lead the team in scoring anytime soon, but she could be the driving force of their efforts to keep up with the offensive uptick seen across the league.