CHICAGO — Nneka Ogwumike received the same message ad nauseam after the LA Sparks revamped their roster. “That’s all people were texting me in the offseason: How are you going to deal with all the personalities?” she said.
Los Angeles, a land historically void of shrinking violets, became home to a few more headliners this winter. The Sparks are almost completely unrecognizable from last season, bringing in megawatt star Liz Cambage from Las Vegas and dynamo playmaker Chennedy Carter, whose court time last season with Atlanta was limited because of injury and suspension. There’s intrigue with the Sparks, for sure. But the insinuation — as if all this individual talent wouldn’t or couldn’t become an ensemble — bristled Ogwumike the wrong way.
“You’re not in the locker room,” she said when asked about her response to skeptics’ questions. “It just made me understand who was real and who wasn’t. People said that about teams I’ve been on before. I really just don’t know what it is. They just don’t like Los Angeles.”
Ogwumike and her new cast of teammates are determined to remain in the conversation but alter the narrative and win over fans.
Ogwumike, who’s played with the Sparks since 2012, is one of only a handful of currently available Sparks players who competed together last year. The Sparks seemed unsettled in their first season in more than a decade without Candace Parker. They were upended by injuries, including to Ogwumike, and missed the playoffs — the first time since 2011 — with a 12-20 record. Coach and GM Derek Fisher examined the roster’s weaknesses, which were many, and found solutions that have the Sparks off to a 2-0 record with wins against the defending champion Sky on Friday and the Fever on Sunday.
Cambage, a 6-foot-9 four-time All-Star, in the frontcourt potentially became the most obvious salve when the Sparks acquired her in free agency. LA also signed guards Jordin Canada (a two-time champion with the Storm) and Lexie Brown, traded for Carter (Dream) and Katie Lou Samuelson (Storm), and drafted Rae Burrell from Tennessee where she was the second-leading scorer. Now, it’s a matter of putting them all together.
Enter the critics: pointing to Cambage’s outspokenness and Carter’s suspension with the Dream last season as well as the overall lack of players’ experience competing together. Is it fuel for a playoff launch? Gold has fuel mixture?
“It’s a narrative for no reason, just trying to paint negative for no reason when I’m surrounded by girls I love, girls who understand me, girls who are going to push me to be better,” Cambage said. “I feel like it’s just people wishing us bad. WNBA Twitter can say what they want. But y’all not in the locker room, y’all ain’t with the team.”
What the Sparks revealed in two narrow wins — a 98-91 overtime win at Chicago, in which they benefited from a controversial foul call at the end of regulation, and an 87-77 win at Indiana in which they pulled away in the fourth quarter from their young opponent — seems like the start of their own statement. Fisher’s found versatility with multiple players and different players contributing each night: Five double-digit scorers in each game.
Last season, the Sparks ranked last in shooting (39.9 percent) and points per game (72.8). Through two games this season, they’re shooting 48.5 percent and are outscoring all but two WNBA teams. Small sample size, sure. But it’s a start.
“For a new group and not having a lot of experience together, (that) they would have a level of composure and still remaining calm through adversity on the road,” Fisher said Sunday. “Often it takes a little time for a team to stay together on the road, the home team is making a run and the crowd is getting into it. … I think our veteran leaders are setting a great example of how to stay the course and continue to play one possession at a time. We didn’t know what to expect in that regard, but we’re seeing some good things so far.”
The Sparks remain a team of intrigue and questions will abound.
• Can Carter be the dynamic playmaker who left any drama in Atlanta? She’s scored 12 points off the bench in each of the two games and dished five assists against Indiana. Along with mainstay Brittney Sykes, fellow newcomers Brown and Canada could make a potent backcourt, which will see another boost later this season when Kristi Toliver joins LA
• Will Cambage reshape the Sparks frontcourt and solidify herself as one of the WNBA’s most important players? Despite calling her 12-point, four-steal debut performance Friday “a shamble” because of her limited time with foul trouble, Cambage is already showing her impact. She’s shooting 50 percent, and against the Fever recorded her first double-double (22 points, 11 rebounds) with LA Her usage rating (31.8 percent) is third, according to HerHoopStats.
“Her size around the basket,” Fisher said Friday, “even if she doesn’t get the credit for the blocked shot, you have to think about it when driving to the rim.”
• How will Canada handle her role as the lead point guard after playing backup in Seattle? She led the way with 21 points, sinking critical free throws, to beat the Sky and has 14 total assists. “We’re really happy for Jordin that she’s getting this opportunity to show how much game she really does have,” Fisher said.
Everything isn’t perfect yet, of course. The Sparks, who struggled shooting 3s last season, were only 1 of 10 against the Fever. They also struggle holding onto the ball, with an average of 19.5 turnovers, perhaps errors that can be chalked up to developing chemistry.
But so far? “We’ve only spent three weeks together, and I think we’re showing out,” Cambage said Friday night.
Indeed, that’s why Cambage was all-in during a preseason chat with the Sparks’ public relations department about the marketing slogan this season: “Time to Show.” In training camp, she passionately shared with her new teammates how the team could personify those words.
“She explained it in a way that makes sense to me,” Ogwumike said. “We have a lot of players on this team who have been … great individually and deserve time to show what they can do. So it’s a combination of all of us, whether it’s the three of us that are returning athletes together (in LA) or new players who have established themselves in the league but still have more to show. I think that’s what’s really kind of creating the chemistry that we’re developing.”
The players appeared to have formed bonds by their first game. During the postgame news conference after beating Chicago, Brown and Canada took a selfie while they waited for reporters’ questions. Brown shimmied her shoulders in celebration when teammates’ flashy stats were mentioned. Ogwumike said she’s wanted to play with Canada for years. When Carter sliced to the basket, Cambage, on the bench, turned and said to herself, “She’s sooo fast!”
“I’m surrounded by so many great women,” Cambage said in the locker room after beating Chicago. “We just focus on working hard and winning.”
The Sparks play eight of their first 10 games on the road. And starting off with the defending champs didn’t feel like a favor from the WNBA. They don’t play consecutive home games until the end of June. But for a team getting to know each other, an extended road trip might do wonders — or at least that’s the silver-lining spin the Sparks are putting on their cross-country season start.
“There’s an advantage to us starting four games on the road,” Ogwumike said. “There’s no harder adversity than that. We (had) to start with the defending champs in what was an electric crowd, and also playing an overtime game in the first game of the season. We’re getting a lot of opportunity to fuse together.”
Ogwumike took notes during a preseason meeting with Fisher, who on the verge of a new season called on players to “be here to serve.” LA, she said, is a far cry from a me-first team. She called it a “no-judgment zone” and wants the Sparks to develop a tight-knit culture of honesty with a keep-it-in-house attitude.
“I think we finally have a group of people where it’s like, yo, our goal is to just win,” she said. “How can I serve as a teammate? If it’s not your night, maybe it’ll be someone else’s night. The whole point is we want to get to the same place together.”
Getting there might not always be smooth. But players said they have the talent and the compass to reach the Sparks’ potential — one that might be higher than many believe.
“I don’t think there is a ceiling,” Cambage said. “I can see this team celebrating in September. Watch and see what we do, and then say something.”
(Top photo of Liz Cambage: Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images)