WNBA midseason check-in: Los Angeles Sparks

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 20: Candace Parker
LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 20: Candace Parker /

The WNBA defending champs, the Los Angeles Sparks, are healthy and playing well heading into All-Star weekend. Perennial MVP candidate teammates Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike will be joined by point guard Chelsea Gray in representing the Sparks and the Western Conference as All-Stars.

Fans may be struggling to find new angles and wrinkles to follow closely with the Sparks or Minnesota Lynx before the playoffs begin. Some shared their frustrations with the schedule, which didn’t give us a Sparks-Lynx match up right off the bat.

With the Lynx, we hit on the three-point shooting, the emphasis on Sylvia Fowles and key reserves in their midseason check-in. Don’t give in to fatigue with these great teams. Lazy coverage wants us to be apathetic.

There are new angles and stories to follow with the Sparks, too. All-Star Chelsea Gray has flourished in a larger role. LA needed Gray to step up in the backcourt after losing Kristi Toliver to Washington in free agency. Gray has passed that test with flying colors. Her shooting splits are unreal (52% FG / 51% 3PT / 80% FT)  and she’s creating from all over the floor.

Chelsea Gray played 30+ minutes twice in 2016, playoffs included. In 2017, she is playing a shade under 33 minutes per game for the defending champs.

Parker and Ogwumike are still on top of the game. Ogwumike is just creating her own clubs at this point. Forget 50/40/90—she’s a handful of shots from 60/40/90. Ogwumike also looks even more comfortable shooting the three (12-29 in 2017).

Ogwumike has already eclipsed her 2016 number of 3PT attempts, perhaps in part at the urging of her sister, Chiney:

Maybe most important of all, Ogwumike is just always playing really, really hard. Go back and watch the 2nd quarter of the Lynx-Sparks game and count up all the ‘little things’ she does to chip away at that early deficit.

Candace Parker may be the one sacrificing a small handful of shots, but she’s somewhere between excellent and elite in so many other areas. The league’s 12th leading scorer is widely respected as one of the best (and just won the ESPY for best WNBA player). If you aren’t on the edge of your seat every time she pulls down a defensive rebound, you’re missing out:

Alana Beard is still on top of her game on the wing. She’s playing big minutes (nearly 33 per, would be her most since 2008) as she regularly takes on the toughest perimeter assignment. Known more for her defense, Beard is shooting 53% from the field. She’s shooting with confidence when the ball finds her and will wisely probe a defense off the bounce when defenders run her off the line.

Essence Carson is the fifth starter in LA. Carson really appears to have struck a nice balance and comfort with this team—she spots up, can beat a bad close out, hits open twos off the bounce, and defends multiple positions on the perimeter. She and reigning 6th Woman of the Year Jantel Lavender are playing very well in their roles. (Lavender was recently highlighted in one of our ‘Three Takeaways’ pieces following a Sparks-Fever game.)

If you still need a new angle, look to their backup guards. The Sparks were able to add Odyssey Sims, Riquna Williams and rookie Sydney Wiese. Each brings slightly different things to the table, giving Coach Brian Agler options.

Williams saw the biggest uptick in minutes when Carson missed some time to injury. She’s got a lethal first step. She’s an instinctual defender in space and can get up into people. And when she’s hitting threes, teams have little chance of stopping them from unlocking some beautiful passing sequences.

Sims is also quick to the rim. She is able to pressure ball handlers and move her feet well even beyond the three-point line. Wiese is a lights out shooter. She isn’t playing heavy minutes, but that could change as the season wears on or be simple as this: The Sparks have many good players at the position.

What are your thoughts on the Sparks? Are they in a favorable position to repeat at the halfway point? If not, what are you waiting to see from them in the second half of the season?