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The Sparks need Chelsea Gray to lead them

After a career year in 2019, the All-WNBA point guard is poised to take the next step on and off the court.

WNBA: Los Angeles Sparks at Minnesota Lynx Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Star power is nothing new for the Los Angeles Sparks. In a city that runs on stars, in a building fueled by the same, the Sparks have become arguably the WNBA’s most popular team because of the icons that have suited up for them.

There was Lisa Leslie. There was (and is) Candace Parker. There was (and is) Nneka Ogwumike. Those three have combined to give LA six of the league’s 23 MVP trophies.

And now there’s Chelsea Gray.

The Sparks brought in Gray — then a second-year player out of Duke — in 2016, and expectations were modest. But she’s grown every year, culminating in an All-WNBA First Team selection a year ago, while just 26.

Now, as a coronavirus-truncated WNBA season prepares to get underway, the Sparks will find themselves relying heavily on Gray, who just may be the best player on a team with multiple future Hall of Famers.

“She is the face of the franchise, along with Nneka and Candace,” assistant general manager Michael Fischer told SB Nation.

The 2019 season, which ended in an elimination in the semifinals, brought tremendous growth for the three-time All-Star. Nearly every aspect of her physical skillset took a step forward, but the largest growth came in a different department: leadership.

Having established herself as the same caliber of player as her MVP teammates, Gray became more vocal and more confident. She directed traffic on the court, and set the tone in the locker room. She began to embrace her role within the league, and showed up to the All-Star Game in Las Vegas with charisma and confidence to match the city.

While Parker and Ogwumike are still among the best players in the world, that growth from Gray is vital this year, especially with fellow stars Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver opting to sit out for the season. That leadership growth isn’t meant to replace that of her accolade-laden teammates, but rather to complement it.

“Sometimes when you add people that are new on the team, they don’t want to step on anybody’s toes,” Fischer said. “I’ve given her the keys to the team, and she’s the point guard, and therefore they’ll listen to her. Because she’s gonna get the players to the right spot, where they need to be.

“And Chelsea has that amazing chemistry with the returning players we have, like Candace and Nneka. They know each other’s games inside out, they know the spots to be, they know exactly what they’re thinking. Chelsea is always a couple steps ahead of everybody else. So that’s why she’s very, very difficult for players to defend. You don’t know if she’s gonna fall back, you don’t know if she’s gonna attack the rim, you don’t know if she’s gonna make that sweet pass, you don’t know if she’s gonna go all the way to the basket, you don’t know if she’s gonna take a step back for three … She has so many great pieces to her game.”

The Sparks brought in Toliver — who mentored Gray in 2016 before leaving for the Washington Mystics — this offseason to put another ballhandler and playmaker in the backcourt. Gray was brilliant a year ago, but struggled in the playoff series loss, when the Connecticut Sun built an entire gameplan around getting the ball out of her hands. Once that was accomplished, the Sparks offense sputtered and stalled, which led to Gray forcing the issue.

With Toliver making the decision to opt out of the upcoming season, the Sparks will need to address that issue on the fly. Part of it will come through the continued evolution of Gray’s game, and part of it will come from her leading her teammates to better positions.

“I’m giving her the keys to the team,” Fischer reiterated, after labeling Gray the league’s top point guard. “Now it’s time for her to lead the team both on the court and off the court. And I expect a lot of people are going to see a big leadership style change with Chelsea moving forward.”

That leadership change was abundantly visible a year ago, even to fans and media members. But for a team that falls short of their championship aspirations, more is always needed.

If the Sparks intend to overcome the loss of their two All-Stars who are opting out, they’ll need even more from Gray, who may not be as recognizable as Parker or Nneka Ogwumike, but might be more important.

Neither of those three seem to mind that dynamic. After all, they won a championship together in 2016, with all three playing different roles than they’ll be asked to play in 2020, as they search for a fourth ring in franchise history.

“Everybody knows what the mission is,” Fischer said. “And that’s a championship. And they all know that we need each other.”

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