The Sparks bench had a disappointing start to the season.
In the season preview of the Los Angeles Sparks, the major strength of the team that I highlighted was the Sparks’ high-end talent. When L.A. had multiple All-Stars on the floor last year, they were a championship-caliber team, but when only one All-Star was playing, the team’s level of play dropped of dramatically.
Head coach Derek Fisher clearly trusts his depth more than Brian Agler did last season. At the very least, he is playing a long game to keep the Sparks fresh late in the year, which may prove fruitful at some point down the line. After all, Los Angeles did look noticeably worn out its final game of the 2018 season, a blowout loss in the second round of the playoffs to Washington, though travel and a condensed schedule may have contributed to that factor.
Fisher told High Post Hoops before the opener that he would love to play a deep rotation both because of the talent pool on the roster and to help bring people along during the season, whether that’s after a long overseas stretch or simply adjusting the WNBA from college.
“We have a roster of 12 players we all feel comfortable putting on the court,” Fisher said. “I think it’s important over the course of a season that everybody gets an opportunity to see what they can do.”
More from Los Angeles Sparks
- Bet $5 on Sparks vs. Sky, Win $150 Instantly with Limited-Time DraftKings Promo
- Los Angeles Sparks name Curt Miller next head coach
- Your Day in Women’s Basketball, November 2: Shakeup in the ACC with Bollin commit, UNC retool
- Your Day in Women’s Basketball, September 14: Mystics are going dancing
- Your Day in Women’s Basketball, September 10: Dream are (mathematically) stayin’ alive
Unfortunately, what the Sparks saw in the season opener is that not everyone is ready for the WNBA quite yet. Against the Las Vegas Aces, Los Angeles played ten players 15 minutes or more, resulting in 18 different five-player lineups, per Positive Residual. The least successful of those units included five bench players: Alexis Jones, Riquna Williams, Marina Mabrey, Chiney Ogwumike, and Kalani Brown. That grouping was outscored by 11 points over 15 possessions, most of which came at the start of the second quarter when the game was essentially lost.
The Sparks were up 19-15 when Chelsea Gray took a rest with 3:54 remaining in the first quarter. When she came back in five and a half minutes later, L.A. was down 11 and never got the ball again down single digits.
Ogwumike (who didn’t play overseas) had a night to forget, shooting 1-of-10 from the field and earning no free-throw attempts. She and Riquna Williams both finished minus-19 for the game as the pair combined for more fouls (7) than points (6). As the veterans of the second unit, their production has to be stronger and more consistent while the Sparks bring their younger players up to speed.
Jones is in her third year in the league but hardly received an opportunity to contribute, while Brown and Mabrey are both rookies. All three looked out of sorts to start the game, and the decision to have the trio share the floor together for extended stretches didn’t exactly ease their transition.
Brown was significantly more comfortable in the second half once she adjusted to the activity level of the Aces, specifically Dearica Hamby, and got to play next to Maria Vadeeva, a returning player. Brown collected a couple of blocks and a steal before scoring her first WNBA points at the foul line. Mabrey also seemed invisible on offense when the game started, though her energy on defense was palpable. When Mabrey started to figure out her spots, not surprisingly once she played next to Gray, her jumper looked as good as it did at Notre Dame.
With so much turnover beyond the core four (Candace Parker, Alana Beard, Nneka Ogwumike, and Gray), it will take some time for the Sparks to figure out what their role players have. Against Las Vegas, Fisher tried to let all of his newcomers go at it on their own instead of stabilizing each lineup with more veterans. Distributing the minutes load will be a priority for this team, and this coaching staff, but there might be a more efficient way to stagger than what we saw in the first game.
Love our 24/7 women’s basketball coverage? Join our Patreon now and support this work, while getting extra goodies and subscriber-only content for yourself.