The defensive standout is adjusting to leaving the only WNBA franchise she’s known to this point.
To this point, the East Coast and the Washington Mystics are all Tierra Ruffin-Pratt has ever known.
She grew up in Washington D.C., was a star at T.C Williams High School in Virginia, played college basketball at North Carolina, and in her six previous years in the WNBA, she’s played for the Mystics. This offseason, however, she chose to sign with the Los Angeles Sparks as a free agent.
Change can be difficult, especially with such familiarity involved. It’s not just the basketball relationships she’ll be leaving behind, but her entire family is on the East Coast. They had become accustomed to being at every home game in D.C. since she’s been in the league.
“It’s tough, for me mainly because it was home. My family is there and I built a relationship with that organization over a six-year period of time. It was tough leaving, especially for my family. They live for the summer to come to games,” Ruffin-Pratt told High Post Hoops. “I got two young nephews, they’re about to be four and five soon. Coming to games was enjoyment for them. Leaving was tough in that sense in that my family won’t be able to be at every game, but they knew it was the best decision for me to make a change and do something different.”
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But despite leaving her family behind, she feels she’s ready for this change. Being one of the top defensive players in the WNBA the past few seasons, getting the opportunity to learn from one of the best defenders in league history in Alana Beard is something she felt she couldn’t pass up.
The Sparks general manager Penny Toler helped to sell her on the opportunities she could have outside of basketball, and she was intrigued by playing for Derek Fisher as well. But perhaps the main thing that made her decision easier was the support of her family.
“I think all of those wrapped up into one just kind of sold me. I’ve played at home for so long in D.C, it was different to be all the way on this side of the country, being on the West Coast,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “But my family was so excited when I told them that there was a possibility I could be coming to LA. I think getting their blessing and seeing that they’re just as excited, maybe more, I think that made it a little easier.”
Throughout her career, Ruffin-Pratt has carved out a role for herself as a defensive stopper. She’s both started and played off the bench for the Mystics and during that time she’s been known as one of the best defensive players in the WNBA.
She’s never averaged more than 7.4 points per game, and her career scoring average is 6.0, but she knows what her role is and what her coaches have asked her to do. She believes that playing defense is what’s kept her in the league for this long.
“It’s got me here to year seven. I came in the league undrafted, so I had to make my mark and learn my role early on in my career,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “I knew coming in I wasn’t going to be a leading scorer on any team, but I knew I could do other things. I knew I could be that defensive stopper, I knew I could rebound, so I just started to take pride in that early on. That’s how I lasted in D.C. for so long.”
Once you get to a certain level, basketball starts to become more about what else you can do besides score. At the pro level, everybody can score. Most players were probably used to being the main scoring threat in high school and even college as well. When players hit the WNBA, if you’re not one of the team’s star scoring options, you’ve got to find other ways to earn playing time.
In today’s game, defense isn’t always given its proper due. You’re never going to see a defensive stop get a feature on SportsCenter or shown in highlight reels. But defense is what earns you playing time. Defense is something that should never leave a player, especially on nights when your shot isn’t falling.
“You learn what you’re good at, and you learn what your role could be in any situation. Being a defensive player, that’s all about heart. Everybody will have off shooting nights or off scoring nights, but on the defensive end, you can bring that every night,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “That heart and that hustle, that’s what I learned early on that if I can do that consistently every day I can have a place in this league for a long time.”
One of the key factors in Ruffin-Pratt choosing to sign with the Sparks had to do with defense. It was the opportunity to learn and play alongside Alana Beard. Beard has solidified her status as one of the best defenders in league history. She’s the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, a five-time All-Defensive First Team selection, and a four-time All-Defensive Second Team selection.
That was an opportunity she felt like she definitely could not pass up.
“That’s why it’s so great being here with Alana because she has evolved her game. She was a scorer in the beginning, and she’s always been a defensive minded player, but she has transformed her game and learned her role and become that defensive stopper,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “I’m eager to learn from her. Every day I’m in her ear, I’m questioning, I’m asking her something different. She’s lasted 15 years in the league, so who better to follow.”
As far as her own role with the Sparks, that’s something she’s still trying to learn. There’s no shortage of new faces on the team, including the coaching staff. In the Sparks first three games of the season, she was getting about 20-22 minutes of playing time. In their loss to the Connecticut Sun, she only played 13 minutes. In their most recent game, a win over the Minnesota Lynx, she logged 35 minutes and had her best output of the season so far with 17 points, five assists, and three blocked shots.
The Sparks are currently without Candace Parker and Beard who have been dealing with injuries. They are also without Maria Vadeeva who is going to be overseas until July. With a new coach, a new system, and the team yet to have a full roster, it’s going to take some time for everything to fall into place.
“They have their core here, but all the new players bring something more, something that we can add on, something a little different. We’re all still kind of figuring it out. I know who I’ve always been, I’ve been a defensive player, so I know I’ll have an important role on the defensive end,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “I’m learning just like everyone else what Coach Fisher wants, what the team does well, where we lack, what we can be better at, I think it’s a learning experience. Every day we’ll get better, learn our roles as individuals, and bring it together as a team.”
The Sparks will head out to Phoenix for a game after completing a four-game road trip. They’re 3-2 to start the season with some solid wins over the Sun and Lynx thus far.
The team has looked different from game to game, but it’s probably best not to judge this team until everyone gets acclimated to the system and they’re able to implement their full roster. As cliché as it may sound, taking it day by day is really what’s best.
“There’s a lot of expectations on this team, but we take it in stride. Day by day we’re all learning. It’s going to be a process, it’s not going to be something that’s great overnight, no team works that way,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “But for myself, it’s kind of just taking it one day at a time. I know I have faith in myself, I know my teammates and coaches have faith in me and what they want me to do. They want to better me in any way that they can, and I’m just taking it day by day.”
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