The Los Angeles Sparks made arguably the biggest splash of WNBA offseason when they signed Kristi Toliver to a three-year max contract on the first day of free agency, bringing the former Spark back to Los Angeles after three years in Washington.
Now, they will have to wait at least one more season to see Toliver suit up again in a Sparks uniform, as the All-Star guard has announced that she will be sitting out of the upcoming season, set to begin on July 24 in Bradenton, Fla.
In the team’s release, Toliver noted the health risks of playing, both due to the coronavirus and general injury concerns:
“Though I want very much to compete with my team, to be a leader and show up for them, I am not comfortable with the risk to my physical health — short-term and long-term — given the many unknowns of COVID-19 and the risk of injury,” Toliver said. “For me, the right decision under the circumstances is to opt out for the year.”
“During my time away I will get myself mentally and physically prepared for the 2021 season, and in light of the many social justice issues that are finally and rightfully front and center, I will find new ways to make a positive impact in my community,” Toliver added. “I look forward to rejoining my teammates in LA next season and wish them good health and safety this season. Go Sparks.”
Toliver is already starting to find ways to make an impact in the social justice arena. She recently took part in a Juneteenth march in Washington, DC alongside her former Mystics teammates and fellow Spark Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, as well as players from the Washington Wizards, where Toliver is an assistant coach. It was also reported that Toliver was on the call with Avery Bradley, Kyrie Irving and other players to discuss the ramifications of resuming basketball in the midst of this movement to address systemic racism.
The Sparks will also be without one of their frontcourt players for the upcoming league year, as Chiney Ogwumike has elected to sit out the 2020 season. Ogwumike has previously missed two full WNBA campaigns with injury (one microfracture knee surgery and one Achilles tear), and also referenced the health concerns of the proposed season in her statement, via the Sparks:
“If you know me, you know that I have overcome some of the biggest challenges an athlete can face on the court,” Ogwumike said. “My previous injuries have given me strength and built character, but unfortunately they require me to be careful with my preparation leading up to a season. This year is unprecedented in many ways, therefore my team and I have come to the decision to be proactively cautious and put my body first.”
Ogwumike has also been active in advocating for equity for the Black community over the last month and is one of LeBron James’ partners in the More Than A Vote initiative.
The Sparks’ managing partner Eric Holoman and head coach Derek Fisher each expressed support for their players’ decisions.
Toliver was supposed to be the starting shooting guard for the Sparks this season and Ogwumike the first big off the bench. Now, the team has two open roster spots and a dwindling pool of free agents since players started opting out as early as last week. L.A.’s top draft pick this season, Beatrice Mompremier, would have been a perfect substitute for Ogwumike, but she has already signed with the Connecticut Sun after Jonquel Jones elected to sit out this year.
The Sparks have a glut of wings, but they need a backup point guard to feel comfortable heading into the 2020 season. They can at least take solace in the fact that all 10 of their other players have confirmed their participation.
Candace Parker will play in 2020, sources tell me. All 10 Sparks players other than Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver have opted in.— Brady Klopfer (@BradyKlopferNBA) June 27, 2020
The team may take a second look at its third-round draft pick from this past draft, Tynice Martin, for some guard depth. Erica Ogwumike, a point guard at Rice, is also available after being waived by the Minnesota Lynx. In the event a true floor general is unavailable, Fisher employed Sydney Wiese as a pseudo-point in 2019, and Candace Parker has always been comfortable as a lead ball-handler.
Whatever happens between now and the start of the season, arguably the deepest roster in the league just lost some of its luster. Assistant GM Michael Fischer said he was pinching himself when the team assembled its final 12; as it turned out, that group was too good to be true.