A challenging start to the 2021 season has taken a turn for the worse for the Sparks.
The team announced Thursday that Nneka Ogwumike would miss the next 4-6 weeks after suffering a Grade 2 left knee sprain Tuesday in Dallas. Ogwumike is the team captain and has started all five games for the team, averaging 16.4 points and 7.0 rebounds in 29.6 minutes per contest. All three figures lead the Sparks.
Ogwumike’s timeline conservatively puts her out until the Olympic break (a total of 14 games), which begins on July 12 for L.A. She could return earlier, but as one of players on the short list for Team USA this summer, it might make sense for Ogwumike to sit out a little longer to prioritize an Olympic gold medal, which would be a first for her.
In her absence, Chiney Ogwumike would presumably fill in as the starting center. Alas, the younger sister is also listed as week-to-week after missing the last two games with right knee soreness. The team said she will be re-evaluated before the Sparks head on the road for a June 10 contest in Washington.
Chiney Ogwumike didn’t play in the 2020 season and indicated on Instagram that this injury is a result of her ramping up to play too quickly after not being on a court since September 2019.
Without both Ogwumikes, the Sparks are running out of frontcourt options. The team carried five bigs each of the last two seasons, which is standard practice in the WNBA with 12-player rosters, but they elected to carry only four in 2021. One of those frontcourt players is Jasmine Walker, the seventh-overall pick in this year’s draft, who is missing the season due a torn ACL.
That leaves Amanda Zahui B. as the lone healthy big at the moment. Zahui B. also missed the first two games of the season with back soreness, but she has been averaging 24.3 minutes in the three contests since returning, including 35 minutes in an overtime win against Chicago. She told the media after shootaround Tuesday that she is fully ready to go.
The Sparks will have to play small to fill in the power forward spot next to Zahui B., and Nia Coffey and Bria Holmes seem like prime candidates to play the 4 as big wings. Derek Fisher already used a three-guard lineup in the team’s last game, starting Te’a Cooper next to Erica Wheeler and Kristi Toliver, so downsizing is definitely an option. The team’s other rookie Arella Guirantes is primed for more minutes and can toggle between the 2 and 3.
The team’s fourth big, Maria Vadeeva, won’t be returning to Los Angeles until after the Olympic break. Until then, the Sparks could use a hardship exception to sign a player since they have fewer than 10 available. Two names that immediately come to mind are Kristine Anigwe, who spent 2020 with L.A. and was in this year’s training camp, and Kalani Brown, who was drafted by the Sparks in 2019 and spent her rookie season under Fisher in Los Angeles. Both players were recently waived by Dallas and Atlanta, respectively. L.A. could also take a look at young bigs Natasha Mack and Megan Gustafson, who were second-round draft picks in 2021 and 2019.
Going younger would be ideal since this figures to be a rebuilding season. Should the team want a more veteran center, 2020 Spark Reshanda Gray is a free agent. Emma Cannon, who had a strong postseason with Las Vegas last year, is also on the market.
Those decisions will have to be made quickly, because the Sparks play tonight and again on Saturday, and having only one big for those games will not suffice. Fisher had his work cut out for him putting the roster together this offseason, and the job isn’t getting any easier.