The Sparks appeared to have their 12-player roster set heading into a yet-to-be-determined 2020 season, but they still made a flurry of moves on the league-wide cutdown date. Although the core of last year’s WNBA semifinalists remains in Los Angeles, enough has changed on the margins to evaluate how the offseason reshaped the Sparks.
Assistant general manager Michael Fischer made it overwhelmingly clear in an interview with Silver Screen & Roll that he wanted to prioritize the team’s culture in building out the bench. There is enough star power in Chelsea Gray and Nneka Ogwumike, as well as Candace Parker and Kristi Toliver, that fit could take precedent over talent in the final spots.
“There’s a difference between having too much talent and adding the right kind of talent, the right kind of fit,” Fischer said. “We came in with an objective and a mission to put the right people in the right places, and everybody to have their roles, and that’s what these 12 are.”
The key decisions revolved around the team’s frontcourt. L.A. started the 2019 season with two young bigs in Maria Vadeeva and Kalani Brown, but barely had time for either as the year wore on thanks to the presence of Parker as well as the Ogwumike sisters. That made it easier to ship out Brown at the start of free agency, especially because Atlanta sent back Brittney Sykes, who fit a need on the wing.
Both Sykes and Marie Gülich, the other player who came over from the Dream, are on their rookie contracts, allowing the Sparks to maintain financial flexibility heading into the 2021 offseason, when both Ogwumikes, Gray, and Parker will be free agents.
“I wanted to be sure that we filled in a couple of very solid pieces,” Fischer said about the trade with Atlanta. “Getting Brittney Sykes was huge for us because Brittney Sykes is someone who gets to the line, attacks the rim. Gülich is obviously huge for rebounding and defense.
“We needed some post defense out there too, and Gülich was two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.”
With Brown gone, the Sparks were hoping for a breakout from the Vadeeva in what would have been her first full season in Los Angeles. Fischer compared her potential to that of 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman, and says it’s a matter of when, not if, the 21-year-old becomes an All-Star.
Instead, coronavirus hit, and the Sparks braced for the possibility that Vadeeva would be unable to play the 2020 season altogether. Even with Gülich in the fold, the organization sought out a fifth big in its offseason planning.
The first opportunity to find that player came during the WNBA draft. Fischer said he wasn’t expecting to find someone to make an immediate impact since the team didn’t have a first-round pick, but the Sparks lucked into Miami’s Beatrice Mompremier, a first-round talent who fell to no. 20 after suffering a foot injury in her senior year. Fischer was well-connected with the Hurricanes coaching staff, and felt comfortable with Mompremier’s medical history to select her with L.A.’s first pick.
On the night of the draft, both Fischer and head coach Derek Fisher were over the moon with the selection of Mompremier. “We’re excited. We had no idea we’d get the chance to have those kinds of talents as late as we did,” Fisher said on a conference call. “We wanted length, we wanted versatility, Mompremier brings us both of things.”
The lone hiccup with Mompremier making the roster was her salary. Under the new CBA, Mompremier’s rookie contract would exceed that of Vadeeva or Gülich, who were both entering their third season. In order for L.A. to sign Mompremier, they would have to cut two players. However, the Sparks were confident that they could avoid that by waiving Mompremier and re-signing her at a lower number; there weren’t other teams in the market with an available roster spot and cap space to claim her off waivers.
It never got to that point. While Fischer was satisfied with Mompremier slotting into the frontcourt rotation and reiterated that the rookie center deserves to have a place in the league, another option became available in Kristine Anigwe.
“We had an opportunity to get somebody who already had experience in the league who was an even better fit,” Fischer said. “I’ve seen Anigwe shut down [Brittney] Griner, I’ve seen how she defends against other post players. Anigwe was also Defensive Player of the Year (in college), she had over 16 rebounds a game. The Sparks have never been a good offensive rebounding team... she gets us second chance points, something that we’ve been lacking.
“Anigwe also loves the Sparks,” Fischer continued. “I can’t explain it. Yes, she loves playing in the W, but she has a different connection to our team. She looks up to our players. Candace is her favorite player.”
Anigwe corroborated those sentiments on a conference call with media, adding, “I could not be happier, being back in California, and playing on a team that I dreamed of playing with on since I started playing basketball. It’s like a dream come true.”
It was also a dream come true for Fischer to assemble this collection of players to fill in the holes from last season’s roster. Toliver is another capable ball-handler who adds shooting and can play both with and without Gray; Seimone Augustus provides size at small forward upon the retirement of Alana Beard, and the re-signed Tierra Ruffin-Pratt is another glue player who can bottle up opposing perimeter players.
The Sparks conducted a virtual training camp, and the players are preparing as if a season will take place. Mechelle Voepel of ESPN reported last week that the WNBA is hoping to have a 22-game season starting on July 24 at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Per Voepel, the executive council of the Players’ Association held a call with team representatives Thursday to lay out the proposals, meaning the players and the league “could be near an agreement on the season”. Fischer sounded hopeful that a deal would be reached.
Even under the challenges posed by the pandemic, the Sparks are thrilled with the way they navigated their offseason. They have a core of stars surrounded by a deep bench of veteran role players, and throughout the offseason, every player has said that her priority is to help the team win. That’s what Fischer was looking for in putting together this roster, and that’s the culture the team wants to bring onto the court, whenever the opportunity presents itself.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen [a team] have 1 to 12 and balance at every position, with so many different skill sets without overlapping,” Fischer said. “You’re kinda pinching yourself, like, ‘wow, is this real?’”