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Te’a Cooper has become critical to the Sparks defense

Her suspension leaves L.A. without an important on-ball defender against Skylar Diggins-Smith.

Los Angeles Sparks v Washington Mystics Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

There’s an alternate timeline where Te’a Cooper is the fill-in point guard for the Phoenix Mercury on their two-game trip to Los Angeles to face the Sparks this week.

Cooper was drafted by the Mercury in 2020, and with Diana Taurasi out, could have been the replacement starter for tonight’s game. But due to the pandemic, Cooper had no opportunity to play for Phoenix in training camp before the team cut her. She instead joined the Sparks once Kristi Toliver opted out of the bubble season and has become a fixture of the L.A. roster over the past year.

The Mercury’s loss is the Sparks’ gain.

Derek Fisher has grown quite fond of Cooper, using her as a spot starter when other guards were injured last year and plugging in to the starting lineup in what appears to be a permanent shift this year. She’s provided instant energy off the bench and now that same level of activity in the starting lineup.

Alas, the second-year guard won’t be starting in tonight’s contest against the Mercury after “leaving the sideline check-in area and running to the area where an on-court altercation was occurring”, per a release from the WNBA. Here’s the play from Saturday’s game against Minnesota.

Although Cooper didn’t escalate any conflict, the league’s rule clearly states that she shouldn’t have been on the court, and the Sparks are thus without one of their lead ball handlers and better point-of-attack defenders Wednesday. That could be particularly problematic against a player like Skylar Diggins-Smith, who leads Phoenix in usage rate, assists, scoring, and plays nearly 35 minutes per game.

When the Sparks played the Sky two weeks ago, they put Cooper on Courtney Vandersloot, widely regarded as the league’s best point guard. Vandersloot struggled to just 7 points and 5 assists in 33 minutes, well below her season averages of 11.6 points and 8.2 assists per game, as L.A. earned the win.

“Coop is one of our better on ball defenders,” head coach Derek Fisher said after the game. “We thought that Coop would be able to do a good job on the basketball with ball pressure and activity, and we guessed right, I guess. Today, she did a really good job, and it’s hard to do, but she accepted the challenge and we’re really thankful that she’s with us and and can bring that force on the defensive end.”

The team’s current starting lineup of Cooper, Erica Wheeler, Kristi Toliver, Nia Coffey, and Amanda Zahui B. forces turnovers on 19 percent of possessions while only turning the ball over on 9.8 percent of their own possessions. That’s a huge numbers advantage to help a team that can struggle to score in the halfcourt. Cooper’s ball pressure would have been important in wearing down Diggins-Smith.

Chicago Sky v Los Angeles Sparks
Te’a Cooper can get into opposing lead guards.
Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

“Te’a does a lot of good things for us,” Fisher said after practice Tuesday. “Namely her defensive energy and activity. She makes a lot of things happen for us on the defensive end that gives us those additional offensive possessions that we need.”

Cooper came into the league with a defensive reputation, but her offensive contributions have been somewhat more surprising. She’s had to nearly double her number of field-goal attempts from last season due to the offseason departures and injuries, and while her shooting percentages have gone down, Cooper has made an impact by drawing fouls frequently. She has the highest free-throw rate on the team and shoots 80 percent from the line.

“My mindset was and — anytime I’m on the floor — is to be purposeful with what I’m doing, try to stay focused on every little detail, and give everything I’ve got and just exhaust myself,” Cooper said on the team’s last road trip.

Some of Cooper’s forays into the paint may look awkward, but good things happen when Cooper gets downhill. She collapses the paint and can kick out, and the Sparks take a higher percentage of their shots from 3-point range when she’s in the game. Otherwise, those extra shots all come from the midrange when Cooper is on the bench.

Fisher noted earlier in the season that one of goals in constructing this roster was to have multiple ball handlers who could put pressure on the basket and then create drive-and-kick opportunities. Cooper is the clearest embodiment of that mindset.

“Offensively, her usage rate is one the highest on our team, not because we call a lot of plays for her necessarily, but because she is really determined to get to the paint, to touch the paint, and be aggressive getting to the basket,” Fisher said about Cooper.

The Sparks entered this season at the start of a new phase of team-building, so having a young player like Cooper who is adding new facets to her game is an important step in the franchise’s growth. They’ll miss her for one game, but Cooper is solidifying herself as a key piece of this team’s future.