After three seasons in Atlanta, the 26-year-old was set to embark on the next chapter of her pro career. A surprising offseason trade was sending Sykes and fellow Dream player Marie Gülich to Los Angeles to join the three-time champion Sparks, and Sykes was over the moon about the move.
“I wanted to throw my phone down the steps because I was so excited about going to LA,” Sykes told Silver Screen and Roll. “I was ecstatic, so it was a moment of just like, oh my gosh I gotta get home, I gotta tell my mom.”
Atlanta finished 8-26 last season, a full 14 games behind Los Angeles. While the Dream were last in the Eastern Conference, the Sparks were first in the West. Joining any new team would be a change, but coming to Los Angeles marks a dramatic turnaround for Sykes and Gülich.
“I’m blessed for it because I go from one great organization to another, and I’m around a lot of veterans who have had the experience of winning championships and being with Team USA and also just having that type of demeanor where you come to work, you come to business and you come to play hard all the time,” Sykes said. “Not to say that Atlanta didn’t have that, but now I’m in a whole other situation, I’m in a whole other realm of basketball, and I love it.”
“L.A. has always been a team with so much talent and just really, really inspiring and amazing athletes, like Candace Parker and Nneka [Ogwumike], and now Chiney [Ogwumike] and Chelsea Gray,” Gülich said in a separate interview. “When I would watch last season, I would just be so fascinated by the things they would do sometimes, like what the hell, how do they play like this.”
Sykes and Gülich were traded to the Sparks for Los Angeles’ 2019 first-round pick, 6’7” center Kalani Brown. Brown came to the WNBA after winning a national title at Baylor and has the potential to be one of the most dominant bigs in the league, but she got lost in a crowded Sparks frontcourt.
Sykes, meanwhile, fits an immediate need for Los Angeles. The team has a superstar at point guard in Gray, and just added another star at guard in Kristi Toliver. They also have two former MVPs starting in the frontcourt in Parker and Nneka Ogwumike. The wing is where the Sparks were lacking someone who could create her own shot, and Sykes could be that player.
The former Syracuse wing’s best skill is attacking the basket and earning trips to the foul line, something L.A. struggled with significantly last season. The Sparks had the worst free throw attempt rate in the league in 2019, drawing fouls on 20.9% of their possessions, per Positive Residual. The league average was 25.2%, but that includes frontcourt players who make a living near the basket and naturally generate more free throws.
Sykes’ free-throw attempt rate was 25.9%, higher than Gray and Nneka Ogwumike, as well as every shooting guard and small forward on last season’s roster. Given her size at 5’9”, that’s an even more impressive figure.
When Sykes was on the floor for Atlanta, the Dream got 35.4% of their shots at the rim, compared to 30.5% with her off, according to Pivot Analysis. The team also had improved efficiency at the basket when Sykes was in the game, converting 50.7 % of their shots at the rim compared to 42.7% with her out of the game. On the whole, the Dream were 10 points better per 100 possessions with Sykes on the floor.
Where Sykes needs to improve is her outside shooting. Atlanta was the worst shooting team in the league last year, and the former Syracuse wing was not exempt. She shot 41.2% on 2-pointers and 25.9% on 3-pointers. She knows that she’ll have to become more consistent from long range in order to keep her driving lanes open.
“Knowing that I can get to the basket, that is a god-given ability that I am grateful for, being able to make them respect not only my first step but also my shooting range coming off of screens,” Sykes said. “I know what I’m capable of, and I know for a fact that I did not reach that capability that I know have within me, especially from the 3-point line.”
Gülich, on the other hand, is enticing as a prospect for Los Angeles because she has 3-point range. She can stretch the floor and also collect offensive boards, which she does at twice the league-average rate.
However, the former Oregon State big, who is already on her third team entering her third season, understands that she has an uphill battle to earn playing time with the Sparks.
“I want to continue to grow as a player, work on my shot, getting my 3-point shot really down,” Gülich said. “Last season, I already kind of showed that I’ve been working on that, I had a couple games where I really knocked down the three, but I want to get that more comfortable and more comfortable playing behind the 3-point line.”
L.A. didn’t really have a stretch big last season, though Nneka Ogwumike shot the three more frequently than at any point in her career. If Gülich can stay on the floor, she provides a different dimension to a talented frontcourt.
“She’s an amazing stretch four, she goes to the o-boards, she thinks basketball and playing with RiRi, it’s fun,” Sykes said about Gülich. “When she really gets going, she really gets on.... When she came to Atlanta, I saw the potential in her, and I can’t wait to see her grow more and to be on the same team again with her.”
Another person who will be rooting for Gülich’s immediate success is her former college teammate, Sydney Wiese. The two have remained close since their Oregon State days, and Wiese got a call from Gülich the day of the trade to share the news.
“When Marie told me, I was like, ‘it’s not real, April fools, it’s not happening,’” Wiese said on Instagram Live on March 27.
The chaotic nature of WNBA free agency meant that neither player was sure they would still be teammates by the start of the season, but after a couple of weeks, they were willing to be excited once more.
Wiese’s career path provides an interesting template for Gülich. Although Wiese has spent her entire time in the WNBA with the Sparks since being drafted in 2017, it took her two full seasons, and a coaching change from Brian Agler to Fisher, to earn consistent playing time. Gülich might also benefit from a new coaching staff to showcase what she can bring to a winning team.
“I think at first sometimes being traded can be a bit disappointing or frustrating, but I guess I’ve come to the acceptance of that part, and I think that’s just my path,” Gülich said. “I think at the end of the day maybe it’ll help me have a better perspective and learn a lot. It’s not always easy, but I love the challenge, the opportunity. I’m really looking forward to it.”
“Obviously I want to win games and play well,” Gülich added, “but I think that comes from having a good culture. I just want to be part of something bigger.”
Unfortunately for the newest Sparks additions, the start of the WNBA season remains in flux due to the coronavirus pandemic. Wiese, who played overseas in Spain during the winter, announced Friday that she had tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the first WNBA player to publicly acknowledge a positive test (though Theresa Plaisance believes she contracted the virus in China).
Commissioner Cathy Engelbert hasn’t postponed the season yet, even as the NCAA Tournament was cancelled and the Olympics pushed back. The WNBA Draft will proceed as scheduled on April 17, though it will be conducted remotely. Beyond that, the status of the preseason and the regular season remains unclear.
The Turkish League, where Sykes was playing, shut down on March 20. Gülich was playing in Poland and has since returned to Germany, where she holds citizenship. Both remain in contact with the Sparks, presumably ready to segue into the WNBA calendar.
Sykes and Gülich aren’t strangers to uncertainty. Sykes tore her ACL twice in college and bounced back to be a first-round pick in the 2017 draft. Gülich has yet to find a permanent home in the league but continues to persist and maximize each opportunity. Both will be ready if and when basketball resumes, eager to embrace the challenge of playing for a championship contender in Los Angeles.
“I’m a fan of being uncomfortable because that’s when true growth and true people get to show,” Sykes said. “Get to show what I can do now.”
Note: The interviews with Sykes and Gülich were conducted before American professional sports leagues were suspended due to the coronavirus.