Sparks to launch WNBA title defense with key weapons missing

The Los Angeles Sparks will open the 2017 WNBA season as the defending league champion, with the circuit’s reigning MVP, Nneka Ogwumike, in the lineup and a roster that includes most of the nucleus that helped them to last year’s title.

But the Sparks might begin the year with more of a whimper than a bang, and jumping out to a repeat of last season’s 11-0 start is going to be a tall order, especially without one of the team’s tallest, and best, players for the first game.

Finals MVP Candace Parker is overseas, still competing in the Turkish League’s playoffs, along with Sparks starter Jantel Lavender and top reserve Essence Carson. Parker and Lavender are teammates in Turkey, and their team is facing Carson’s, which means they all will miss Saturday’s opener at Staples Center against the Seattle Storm.

“We can hold it down for them until they come,” Ogwumike said.

Last season, Ogwumike averaged 19.7 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting a league-best 66.5%. She said she was not worried about the Sparks having to adjust when Parker and company return to the team without the benefit of training camp.

“[Parker] and I, it really doesn’t take much time for us to get our gel back,” Ogwumike said.

Ogwumike is coming off quite a year. Along with the Sparks’ championship and her league MVP award, her Dynamo Kursk team won a EuroLeague title. So what could she do as an encore?

“Statistically speaking, you would say there’s not much to improve on, but there’s always more to improve on,” Ogwumike said. “Overseas, I always make it a point to sharpen another facet of my game. In my own opinion, I thought it was midrange scoring. So I’ve become more comfortable with scoring off the dribble and shooting threes.”

While the Sparks will miss a trio of players for at least one game, they also lost a major piece for good when point guard Kristi Toliver signed with the Washington Mystics in the offseason. Toliver averaged 13.2 points and 3.7 assists last season.

To fill that void, the Sparks traded their Nos. 4 and 23 picks in the draft for Dallas Wings point guard Odyssey Sims and the No. 11 pick, which they used on Oregon State’s Sydney Wiese.

“Odyssey is more of a true point guard and distributor, a penetrator in the lane who can pressure the ball,” Sparks Coach Brian Agler said, “where Kristi is sort of a cerebral-type point guard — shot the ball extremely well from the three-point line, really crafty defensively getting in the right spot. So they’re really totally different players.”

Sims has never averaged fewer than 14 points in three WNBA seasons, but she shot a career-worst 35% last year.

“This is a great opportunity for me,” Sims said. “I’m in a better situation, and I’m just really excited to be here. Not just to be in California, but to actually be playing for L.A. They just won a championship, and Brian [Agler], he knows what he’s talking about.”

Another important addition, Agler said, is Riquna Williams, an athletic guard who missed last season because of a torn knee ligament. She averaged 15.6 points per game for the Tulsa Shock in 2015.

In his career as a coach, Agler won a WNBA championship with Seattle in 2010, and back-to-back titles with the Columbus Quest in the late 1990s as part of the American Basketball League. To repeat this year, he said he was leaning on those experiences while staying mindful of the additional challenge his team will face right off the top.

“To win consecutive championships it takes a lot of mature leadership, not only from the coaching staff but from the players,” Agler said. “The way I look at it, it’s always the hungriest teams that have the most success. Can we have that hunger? I don’t know. I won’t know that until we get into the season with everybody here that we’ve had in the past.”

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