On Sunday, just five days before the start of the 2021 WNBA season, the Los Angeles Sparks shook things up with a trade that will negligibly impact their upcoming season, but a deal they hope will serve them well for many seasons to come.
The Sparks traded Stephanie Watts — a rookie they drafted with the No. 10 overall pick less than a month ago — and the rights to international player Leonie Fiebich to the Chicago Sky. In exchange, the Sparks received Gabby Williams, the No. 4 overall pick in 2018.
Williams will not play for the Sparks this season, as she’s on the suspended list for the year while she honors her Olympic commitments for the French national team. But sources familiar with the situation told SB Nation that the trade was made after consulting with Williams and her agent, and a contract extension is expected to be agreed upon prior to Friday’s opener against the Dallas Wings.
Derek Fisher, in his first year as team GM and third year as coach, said on Monday that the team had been interested in Williams for a while. But the timing surely played a big role in getting the move made. Though the Sparks lack the front end talent to be considered a strong title contender, they have one of the deepest training camp rosters in the league, which needs to be trimmed to 12 players by Thursday.
With Bria Holmes and Nia Coffey having strong camps, and projected lottery pick Arella Guirantes falling to L.A. in the second round, the Sparks are going to have to waive some talented players, a fact that Fisher has repeated numerous times during camp. Watts was a player who ran the risk of being cut, and swapping her for a suspended player allows the team to essentially hoard an extra asset for future years without negatively impacting this year’s team.
In essence, the Sparks parlayed their inevitable roster crunch into a long-term play. Seen through that lens, it was a shrewd move.
“Gabby’s a player that I think every team in the league has had their eye on, because she’s really good at 24 years old,” Fisher said on Monday. “And the potential that she has to get better each year is a really great opportunity for us, to add someone we feel like can continue to help us grow and build this team into a team that’s competing for championships year in and year out, not just on paper or because of what her name is, or our names, but because of how we play.”
The timing worked perfectly for the Sparks. Williams had recently been suspended by Chicago, and rumors swirled as to whether team and player saw eye to eye on matters. Shortly after the trade, Sky head coach and GM James Wade explained that the team wanted Williams to join Chicago for their training camp and the start of the season, before her national commitments kicked in. According to Wade, Williams refused and requested a trade, saying she wouldn’t play for Chicago again.
Chicago needed more players, L.A. needed fewer players, and everything came together, but only after the Sparks had a few weeks and preseason games to figure out who might be expendable, and who might take Watts’ place on the roster.
Now the question becomes whether or not it will still look like a shrewd move when viewed through a basketball lens in future seasons. Williams hasn’t quite lived up to the lottery pick hype that followed her after a brilliant career at UConn. In three WNBA seasons she’s averaging 6.8 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.2 steals per game, while shooting 42.4% from the field; solid role player figures, but nothing approximating a high-level starter.
But her playing time has been erratic and her role not clearly defined. And while she’s played a bit in the interior during her career thus far, the Sparks see the 5’11” Williams as a wing player with untapped potential.
Since promoting Fisher to GM over the offseason, L.A. has overtly targeted positionless players who can excel in a more modern system. They’re all in on players who can defend multiple positions, score from anywhere on the court, get out in transition, and hunt mismatches.
Only time will tell if Williams can fit that mold and thrive, but Fisher is optimistic, saying that “Gabby is the type of player that plays the game the way we want to play it. She’s physical, she’s strong, she can play different positions, she can guard and defend different positions. She’s a winner at the highest level. She’s been coached by some of the best coaches.”
If the Sparks can tap into what made Williams one of the top prospects in the 2018 draft class, they’ll have a young piece on a long-term contract to add to their core. The price was right to make that type of gamble.