Name: Te’a Cooper
Contract status: Cooper made $57,000 on a one-year rookie deal, per The Next’s salary database. She is a free agent for the 2021 season.
Stats: Cooper played in 20 of the Los Angeles Sparks’ 22 regular-season games and started three times. She averaged 7.0 points, 1.0 rebound, and 2.0 assists in 17.3 minutes per game, while shooting 45.1% from the field and 34.4% from three-point range.
In L.A.’s playoff loss to the Connecticut Sun, Cooper played 21 minutes and had 3 points, 2 assists, and 1 steal.
Preseason expectations: Cooper had enormous shoes to fill, but wasn’t expected to really fill them.
She was drafted 18th overall by the Phoenix Mercury, but waived before the 2020 Wubble season had been finalized. The Sparks, who didn’t have a pick until taking Beatrice Mompremier with the No. 20 selection, waived all of their rookies due to a lack of roster spots.
When the coronavirus-altered Wubble season was announced, the Sparks were left scrambling to fill two roster spots, as veteran All-Stars Kristi Toliver and Chiney Ogwumike opted out of the season.
L.A. scooped up Cooper to replace Toliver as a ball-handler who could play alongside or in place of All-Star point guard Chelsea Gray. Again: enormous shoes to fill, but she wasn’t really expected to fill them.
What went well: Cooper did a lot of things well in her first year in the pros. Her strong defensive reputation was on display from the start, as she constantly hounded opposing guards when defending on-ball.
She was skilled bringing the ball up against pressure, and was comfortable maintaining her dribble against good defense.
*cough* Te’a for ROTY *cough*@TeaCooper2 | #GoSparks pic.twitter.com/bQd8VLTefO— Los Angeles Sparks (@LASparks) August 15, 2020
But perhaps the most successful part of Cooper’s rookie year was the chemistry she developed with veteran MVPs Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike. She established a strong rapport with those two, as she quickly clicked in the pick-and-roll and learned their spots.
Coop Nneka @TeaCooper2 | @Nnemkadi30 pic.twitter.com/cxdY2q3Rd2— Los Angeles Sparks (@LASparks) September 12, 2020
And while the on-court success might be most important, it’s worth noting that Cooper had a great year off the court as well, as she won the hearts of her teammates and fans. The rookie seemed to always be equipped with a smile, a laugh, some good vibes, and a killer dance move or three.
Heading into the weekend like @TeaCooper2 | #GoSparks pic.twitter.com/S0Nw3Z6lfV— Los Angeles Sparks (@LASparks) October 9, 2020
An incredible introduction from L.A.'s newest signee, @TeaCooper2. Born to be on the @LA_Sparks. https://t.co/vDTxg0PcIC pic.twitter.com/taqMqWau5F— Sabreena Merchant (@sabreenajm) July 2, 2020
And last but certainly not least, Cooper endeared herself to fans of the other purple and gold team from L.A. After the Sparks’ season concluded, the rookie headed over to the NBA bubble to cheer on fiancé Dwight Howard and the Lakers as they marched to the 2020 championship.
#LakeShow | #GoSparks pic.twitter.com/9uW5t8CW02— Los Angeles Sparks (@LASparks) October 12, 2020
What needs to improve: While Cooper flashed skills across the board, she also had plenty of areas where it was clear that she was a rookie. While the defense was often strong on-ball, she occasionally got lost off-ball, or seemed taken aback by the speed of the WNBA game. There were plenty of times when she gambled and came up empty, leaving her teammates scrambling behind her.
Cooper said midseason that the hardest part of the game for her was navigating ball screens on defense, something she didn’t face in college. She felt that opposing teams targeted her in the pick-and-roll to take advantage of her lack of familiarity in those actions as a rookie.
And while she showed veteran comfort bringing the ball up against pressure, she had nearly as many turnovers (1.5 per game) as assists (2.0), which will need to change going forward. She also didn’t look all that comfortable playoff off the ball, though it’s worth noting that she got better in that department as the season went on. She’ll need to continue that progression, as the league is moving in the direction of combo guards, and the Sparks have plenty of ball handlers.
Future with the Sparks: Cooper is not under contract for 2021, and the Sparks will be getting Toliver back, so their need for a point guard isn’t as strong.
That said, the Sparks clearly valued Cooper’s contributions. The veterans spoke highly of her and showed chemistry with her on the court. Coach Derek Fisher regularly relied on her, and gave Cooper far more minutes than he gave his 2019 rookies a year ago.
If she returns to L.A., she might have to take a hit in the minutes department, but she could learn a lot playing next to Toliver, and continuing to learn behind Gray. And the Sparks could use her on-ball defense.