The Sparks came into the 2021 WNBA Draft with a plan to upgrade at the wing spot, even moving up in the first round earlier in the week to make that possible.
They weren’t sure if the No. 7 pick would be high enough to get their preferred selection, but when Indiana broke script at No. 4, multiple premier wings were still available when the Sparks’ first turn came up. L.A. took advantage of that opportunity by selecting Jasmine Walker, a forward out of Alabama. Walker shot 39.8 percent from 3-point range in her senior season and showed steady improvement on her outside shooting throughout her college career. LaChina Robinson of ESPN said Walker “may be the best pure shooter in the draft at the wing position.”
Although Walker mainly played power forward in college, there is a belief that she can also function as a bigger 3. Her spacing ability makes her a clean fit next to the other frontcourt players as well.
Head coach and general manager Derek Fisher said the Sparks made the trade with the express purpose of selecting not just a player like Walker, but her specifically.
“One of the main reasons why we moved up to seven was, fingers crossed, that she would still be there,” Fisher said. “We didn’t know if it would work out for sure. But as the draft started to unfold, we continued to get more excited.”
Walker was a first-team All-SEC honoree in 2020-21 after making the second team the year before. She holds the Crimson Tide’s single-game scoring record at 41 points. Most mock drafts had her somewhere in the top 10, with the consensus landing spot in New York at No. 6. Even if she isn’t a prototypical small forward, the Sparks did well to select someone with her talent level with their first pick.
L.A.’s second selection of the first round was more of a surprise, however. They took Stephanie Watts out of North Carolina, a 5’11 shooting guard who was a somewhat inefficient scorer even if she has good size for the position. She shot 46.3 percent on twos and 30.5 percent on threes in her senior season. Perhaps the Sparks were more swayed by her junior year, when those numbers were 48.5 and 37.3, respectively, in a pre-pandemic season.
Even so, Watts was projected to go in the second round by every major outlet, and with other guards like Dana Evans, Destiny Slocum, Kiana Williams, and Didi Richards still on the board, this pick felt like a reach. At the very least, Watts probably would have been available with L.A.’s next pick at No. 22.
In Watts’ press conference, it became clear that she and Fisher developed a strong bond during the pre-draft process. Fisher liked that Watts, at 24 years old, has more maturity than other prospects. She may not have been higher on other team’s boards, but the Sparks saw something they liked in her pretty early on.
“I would say it was pretty unique,” Watts said of the relationship she and Fisher built. “I connected with him right away. (We) got to know each other as people. Our first conversation, we probably talked for 30 minutes and barely talked about basketball, and he got to know me as a person. I think I really connected with him, and I was just hoping that I would get the opportunity to come to L.A. and I did, so I feel more than fortunate to have that opportunity.”
A happy accident of the team’s first-round selections was that they faced off against each other in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, so they were able to give early scouting reports on their new teammates. Walker called Watts a special player who gave the Tide a run for their money, and Watts was equally enthusiastic about her foe-turned-friend.
“Y’all will see for y’all’s selves,” Watts said about Walker. “She’s a tall, long player that can shoot the ball, that can defend, that can do it all, so I feel so fortunate to be able to play with a player like her. We got to play her in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and she’s a special player. I don’t know how many people that long and athletic and tall that can shoot the way she does, so I’m fortunate to have her as a teammate.”
The Sparks feel similarly fortunate to have executed their plan and ended up with both players, even if their player valuations differed from those around the league. Now comes the hard part: Finalizing who will actually make this team.