How Alana Beard is defining the Los Angeles Sparks

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 19: Elena Delle Donne
LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 19: Elena Delle Donne /

There were some crazy early numbers out of the WNBA so far this season. Maya Moore shooting just 31.6 percent through her first seven games. Sylvia Fowles up over 66 percent from the field. Jonquel Jones grabbing more than a quarter of available rebounds.

But the strangest number of all? Entering June, the Los Angeles Sparks, a Brian Agler-coached team, employing Nneka Ogwumike, Alana Beard and others, were eleventh in defensive efficiency, after finishing second en route to the 2016 WNBA title.

The Sparks have repaired that standing somewhat already, raising their standing to eighth in the league in defensive efficiency this year, and plan to continue their progress Tuesday night against the Dallas Wings, a game you can watch at 10 PM EST on ESPN2.

“I think that’s great progress that we’ve made,” Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike said in a conference call on Monday. “The first time I heard anything about our rankings was when coach told us we were eleventh, which is definitely up to our standards. From the inside, I would say that along with the strategy and identity that comes from our coach on the defensive end, we are led by Alana. And we really try to follow her lead. So over the past few games, I think you’ve seen individuals making more defensive stops that complement our collective defensive energy.”

So often, that begins in the backcourt, or atop a halfcourt possession, the place where even last year the Sparks did the bulk of their best defensive work, with a Beard strip and fast break. Her steal percentage entering Tuesday’s game this season is 3.6 percent, which would be her best mark since her 3.7 percent rate for the Washington Mystics back in 2009.

“In hearing that stat we were eleventh in the league, it wasn’t something that we enjoyed hearing,” Beard said. “But it was something that we needed to hear. And we had an extreme amount of room for improvement… we have standards that we set for ourselves, and we want to get there.”

Notably, should the Sparks rediscover their full defensive capabilities from last year, they may be ahead of the game, with an offense that’s producing significantly more efficiently than last year’s version. The Sparks scored 106.6 points per 100 possessions in 2016, good for third in the league. This year? 111.3 so far, best in the WNBA.

Interestingly, a big part of that story is Beard as well. The career true shooting percentage of Beard is 51.4 percent, with a 51.9 percent mark in 2016. So far this year, she’s at 65.4 percent, while getting to the line 3.1 times per game, about triple her 1.1 free throw attempts per game in 2016.

“To be honest, I’m not conscious of a lot of it,” Beard said. “Every time we come into a game, I’m just trying to take what the defense gives us. But the game is fairly easy when you have teammates like Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker, who can pass the ball extremely well.”

Precisely what Dallas gives Los Angeles, especially as the Wings continue to build their defensive identity themselves, will be a fascinating chess match between Agler and Dallas head coach Fred Williams. Rest assured, whatever it is: Alana Beard will be involved.