The 2021 Sparks season has been a constant carousel of players in and out of the lineup, forcing younger, unproven players into larger roles than they’d previously been used to. Whether that was Nia Coffey and Bria Holmes at the start of the season, Lauren Cox in recent weeks, or Te’a Cooper throughout, L.A. has had to turn to the back end of its roster on numerous occasions to stay afloat.
With the news that Kristi Toliver could miss the final four games of the regular season with a broken finger, another opportunity has presented itself for a young player to take advantage — this time, Arella Guirantes.
Toliver’s veteran shoes are tough to step into. The Sparks offense is 5.1 points per 100 possession better with their starting shooting guard, the second-best differential on the team after Brittney Sykes. L.A. is 10-9 when Toliver plays, and winless in the nine games she has missed due to injury.
Guirantes wasn’t exactly up to the task of filling in for Toliver earlier in the year. At the start of the season, perhaps a consequence of barely attending training camp due to health and safety protocols, Guirantes looked the part of a first-year player. As a result, her minutes only increased by about three per game — essentially one shift — when Toliver was out, despite the 34-year-old guard averaging more than 27.
The Sparks rookie was a little too rushed whenever she got the ball, leading to some poor decisions on offense, such as rushed shots immediately after receiving a handoff or attacking the teeth of the defense when passing out would have made more sense.
Guirantes had a better handle of the game defensively, particularly within the team concept (she’s especially good at pinching in drives). She was sometimes targeted a bit one-and-one, as is the case with rookies, but she held up well against some tougher opponents, like against Las Vegas, when she managed to stay disciplined against noted foul magnet Jackie Young.
“All the personnel is new and game plans are new and you never played against these players before or maybe you played against them a couple of times or whatever, and so there’s a lot of thinking happening and not playing,” coach Derek Fisher said about the early part of Guirantes’ season. “I think for Arella, she’s better when she just plays, you know, and doesn’t think as much.”
The first-year guard had something of a breakout on July 7 against Seattle, when she helped power the Sparks to a double-digit comeback on the road. The team ultimately came up short against the defending champs, but Guirantes was able to make plays with the ball in her hands, both as a facilitator and scorer, against the third-best defense in the league.
Since that Storm game, the rookie’s individual stats haven’t changed much, but her impact has improved dramatically. The Olympic break, which began five days after that contest, also served as a second training camp of sorts for Guirantes so she could reset and regroup for the second half oft he season. Her net rating was minus-17.4 points per 100 possessions prior to playing Seattle and is plus-14.4 since, one of only two Sparks to even be positive in that stretch.
Without scoring, Guirantes has found a way to affect games mostly by understanding spacing. She knows to stay outside the 3-point line when she’s off ball but also makes timely cuts to bend the defense, and she runs the floor hard in transition, a necessity for an L.A. team that generates the most turnovers in the league by a mile.
Guirantes continues to show up in big moments. She had another standout game against the Connecticut Sun on the team’s recent road trip, albeit in another loss. She showed an ability to finish around the basket with some craft and sprinkled in some more tenacious defense against the No. 1 seed in the WNBA.
Follow Arella Guirantes on this possession. pic.twitter.com/mvWXBp1aDK— W Lead (@WNBALead) August 26, 2021
“The way her process happened, it wasn’t ideal but she’s here and she’s made it through,” Brittney Sykes said about Guirantes. “She’s been really good at just taking what everybody’s been giving her and just, you see that she’s starting to catch on to it and you see that she’s starting to understand what everybody’s been trying to tell her, and she’s just figuring it on our own too as a pro. So, for her, just looking for her to keep doing those things honestly, just playing within the offense and doing what Arella does.”
“AG however she can help, when she comes in the game, just staying ready,” Erica Wheeler added. “I think she’s been doing a great job with that these past couple of games coming off the bench and just giving us a little spark.”
It bodes well that Guirantes has been at her best against the toughest opponents, because the next two games for the Sparks come against the Sun (tonight at 7:30 p.m. on NBA TV) and the Storm. With L.A. one-half game out of the eighth and final playoff seed, the team still has a chance to extend its season, and Guirantes will be counted on to contribute in whatever way possible. She’s been able to do so in losses; now is the time to make her mark on wins.