The Los Angeles Sparks’ season is underway and although the team has lost two of their first three games, there have been early signs of optimism in the Curt Miller era.
On defense, the Sparks have been feisty as they’ve averaged 9.3 steals a game (second most in the league) and have forced the opposition into shooting struggles. They held Diana Taurasi to just 4-15 from the field and then contained A’Ja Wilson to just a 4-12 shooting night. In their opener, the Sparks pummeled the Phoenix Mercury and held them to just 71 points.
Perhaps the biggest bright spot for L.A. early on however has been the play of their rookie, Zia Cooke. The 22-year-old not only scored 14 points in her WNBA debut but left her fingerprints all over the game.
Let’s take a closer look at her impressive performance and what it could mean for her and the team moving forward.
Defense comes first
From the first press conference of training camp, Sparks’ head coach, Curt Miller, stressed the importance of defense. Miller mentioned Cooke’s role on that end in particular and how her defense could fit his vision.
”I think in the draft, we viewed her as one of the players that was a two-way player coming out of college. You could see her in big games really compete defensively,” Miller said.
It seems Cooke took those words to heart as her initial minutes as a professional showed promise defensively. With so much focus on locking down the opposition, Cooke didn’t attempt a shot until the second quarter.
In her opening shift, the rookie anticipated a pass from Taurasi and nearly got the steal before the ball went out of bounds. In the following possession, Cooke stayed attached with the nimble Sug Sutton and forced her into a tough jumper. Glimpses of the potential the Sparks envisioned when drafting her.
Finding a rhythm
While defense is the quickest way to earn the trust from a head coach, offense is what often gets you noticed.
In the second quarter, Cooke’s presence on that end was undeniable. She was a perfect 4-4 from the field as she drilled both of her 3-point attempts and swished a pair of midrange jumpers.
Outside of just the efficiency, Cooke also flashed impressive technique as she used a rip-through move and then adjusted her shot mid-air to create separation.
2. Zia Cooke | @LASparks | @zia_cooke— Jas (@JasTayler) May 22, 2023
Zia Cooke provided the spark for LA in her debut. She showcased confidence, efficiency and played solid defense.
vs. Phoenix Mercury
14 PTS | 2 REBS | 2 AST | 83% FG | 100% 3PT#WNBA pic.twitter.com/eVYKM8lCwP
She finished the quarter with 14 points to help the team end the half on an 11-2 run which Miller later noted shifted the game.
“I’ll give a shoutout to our rookie...we may not be sitting here with this result without her first half,” Miller said.
Well on her way to what was shaping up to be a historic debut, Cooke suffered her first scare as a professional player as a knee collision forced her out of the game.
With the result all but guaranteed, it was a safe assumption to believe Cooke would be done for the night. However, she returned to the bench in the fourth quarter and after the Sparks had some slippage on defense, Miller brought his rookie back in to help right the ship.
Miller is notorious for never letting up and sticking to a tight rotation, which was once again proved one game into his Sparks’ tenure. But when asked about his decision to bring Cooke back in, Miller also stressed the importance of development.
“Trying to get her reps right now as a rookie is really important.”
While her debut was encouraging, patience will likely still be needed from Sparks’ fans as Cooke finds her footing in the league.
In her second game, Cooke managed just four points against the defending champions. She also didn't fare much better in the Sparks’ rematch with the Las Vegas Aces as she scored just seven points in her 23 minutes played.
Overall, however, the good has outweighed the bad. And once Cooke figures out her place and role, she looks to be on her way to being a key contributor and potentially finding herself in the race for Rookie of the Year.
You can follow Edwin on Twitter at @ECreates88.