Among the half-dozen useful English phrases 6-foot-8 Zheng Haixia has mastered in the second week of her Los Angeles Sparks career--besides “Good morning, Coach,” and “How are you?” is this one: “Sparks will fly.”
Possibly the four-time Chinese Olympian picked that one up from General Manager Rhonda Windham, who utters it almost every time she hangs up a telephone.
And there appears to be some substance to the slogan.
Scan the Women’s NBA rosters and you don’t find another team with two dominant post players, like the 254-pound Zheng and 6-5 Lisa Leslie.
Coach Linda Sharp readily admits they will be asked to carry the main load in getting the Sparks off to a fast start in the WNBA season, which begins Saturday when Los Angeles meets the New York Liberty at 1 at the Forum.
A week ago, in the team’s final scrimmage against Phoenix, the Sparks had a 20-point lead in the second half but Phoenix fought back, cutting the gap to four.
At that point, Sharp turned things over to her twin towers.
With Zheng and Leslie down low, pass after pass went in to them and the ensuing surge of baskets and free throws carried the day for the Sparks.
“I think we’re a very good team with those two big players underneath, but I think we’re also very good with Lisa outside, throwing the high pass in to Zheng,” Sharp said.
“One overlooked part of Lisa’s game is that high pass she makes from outside. She’s got the angle covered, for one thing.”
The only major shortcoming visible so far is Zheng’s speed, which is glacial.
Both Sharp and Leslie have said this week the team needs to find ways to cover for her in the transition.
Overall? Deep up front, deep in the backcourt and a bit thin at the wings.
That’s how Sharp sized up her team Thursday, 48 hours before the start of a 28-game season. A look at the Sparks:
In Leslie, L.A. has arguably the world’s best player. At 24, her game is virtually complete. She can score in the key and had the team’s highest percentage from the three-point line in preseason practice. She can pass, plays aggressive defense and can even dribble.
Zheng has a good shot from up to 14 feet, takes up space under the basket, and seemed to be at her best last weekend, during the pressure of the Phoenix comeback. Sharp wants her to be more of a shot-blocking threat and to rebound more.
A big benefactor of the twin towers is Daedra Charles, a product of Pat Summitt’s program at Tennessee. She’s 6-3 and overweight, but was assigned to a dietitian and Sharp expects her to become a scorer, playing next to Leslie and Zheng.
“Anyone playing next to those two who doesn’t increase their scoring. . . . ,” Sharp said. “Daedra is going to love it.”
Linda Burgess, at 6-1, will provide support help on the offensive board and defends against post players well, Sharp said.
Travesa Gant was drafted specifically to challenge opponents’ third and fourth players. Sharp likes her quickness and rebounding, but wants her to learn to draw fouls.
Katrina Colleton, from Maryland, is one of the team’s best defensive players as well as a three-point threat. She’s also an excellent passer to the post, which is a major reason she was drafted.
Mwadi Mabika, 20, is young and inexperienced, but Sharp likes her versatility. A native of Zaire, she is being sponsored during her U.S. stay by the NBA’s Dikembe Mutombo.
“She’s the rawest talent we have,” Sharp said.
Leslie and Burgess will swing out to play on the wing when needed.
No. 1 college draft pick Jamilla Wideman will start at point guard. Penny Toler, who played against Sharp’s USC teams years ago at Long Beach State, will start at shooting guard and will back up Wideman.
Another rookie, Tamecka Dixon of Kansas, backs up Toler and is the No. 3 point guard. Toler, Sharp said, is a scorer with great court vision.
And then there is leadership.
“The thing I like best about Penny is her competitiveness, her attitude about winning,” Sharp said.
“She’s serious about winning. She likes to be fully involved in how we win, about making things work correctly.”
Already, Leslie and Toler seem to work well together in the transition game.
Dixon, after a one-on-one game with Sharp, has improved her defensive shortcomings, the coach said.
“I took her aside early in camp and told her if she wanted me to notice her, then she had to show me she could play defense,” Sharp said.
“She made steady progress after that, and then did an outstanding job on Bridget Pettis in the Phoenix scrimmage.”
As for Leslie, she said her team’s quashing of the Phoenix second-half rally has raised her expectations.
“We suddenly realized we were standing around a lot, and we stopped it,” she said.
“We very quickly raised the intensity level, and for a team that had been together only two weeks, I was very impressed by that.’
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SPARKS AT A GLANCE
Player Pos. Ht. Wt. Age College/Previous Linda Burgess F 6-1 173 28 Alabama, ’92 Daedra Charles F-C 6-3 225 29 Tennessee, ’92 Katrina Colleton G-F 5-10 138 27 Maryland, ’93 Tamecka Dixon G 5-9 148 21 Kansas, ’97 Travesa Gant F 6-0 181 26 Lamar, ’94 Lisa Leslie C 6-5 170 24 USC, ’94 Mwadi Mabika G 5-11 165 20 Zaire Penny Toler G 5-8 132 31 Long Beach State, ’89 Jamila Wideman G 5-6 135 21 Stanford, ’97 Zheng Haixia C 6-8 254 30 China
* Coach: Linda Sharp
* Assistants: Wanda Szeremeta, Julie Rousseau
* General manager: Rhonda Windham
* President: John Buss
DATE: OPPONENT (TV)
Saturday: New York at Sparks, 1 p.m. (Channel 4)
Monday: Sparks at Utah, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Wednesday: Charlotte at Sparks, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, June 27: Sacramento at Sparks, 6 p.m. (Lifetime)
Monday, June 30: Sparks at Houston, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Thursday, July 3: Sparks at Cleveland, 4 p.m.
Saturday, July 5: Sparks at Charlotte, 11 a.m. (Channel 4)
Monday, July 7: Cleveland at Sparks, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, July 11: Utah at Sparks, 6 p.m. (Lifetime)
Sunday, July 13: Phoenix at Sparks, 6:30 p.m.
Tuesday, July 15: Sparks at Sacramento, 7 p.m.
Wednesday, July 16: Houston at Sparks, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, July 19: Sparks at New York, 1 p.m. (Channel 4)
Monday, July 21: Sparks at Charlotte, 4:30 p.m.
Wednesday, July 23: Cleveland at Sparks, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, July 25: Sparks at Phoenix, 6 p.m. (Lifetime)
Sunday, July 27: Sparks at Sacramento, 6 p.m.
Wednesday, July 30: Utah at Sparks, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Aug. 1: Houston at Sparks, 6 p.m. (Lifetime)
Sunday, Aug. 3: Charlotte at Sparks, 6:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Aug. 5: Sparks at New York, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Thursday, Aug. 7: Sparks at Cleveland, 4 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 9: Sparks at Houston, 11 a.m. (Channel 4)
Saturday, Aug. 16: Sparks at Utah, 6:30 p.m.
Monday, Aug. 18: Phoenix at Sparks, 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, Aug. 20: New York at Sparks, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Aug. 22: Sacramento at Sparks, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Aug. 24: Sparks at Phoenix, 6 p.m.
All home games at Forum. Ticket information: (310) 412-5000