How do you replace a WNBA player who earned four Olympic gold medals, three most valuable player awards and led the league in career points (6,263) and rebounds (3,307)?
“You don’t,” Sparks General Manager Penny Toler said of Lisa Leslie. “You build a new team.”
That’s exactly what first-year Coach Jennifer Gillom has in mind going into training camp, which opens Sunday. The Sparks resigned themselves to half-court play last season. This season, they’re planning to be a high-energy running team.
For the first few days of camp, however, the Sparks may look more like a college team than one flush with WNBA stars.
Candace Parker, Betty Lennox, Tina Thompson, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Shannon Bobbitt will all be overseas for a bit longer, finishing their playing stints in Europe. Center Vanessa Hayden was also playing in Europe but was injured, though Toler declined to give details or tell how long the former Florida star might be out.
“The good thing is we’ll have five or six days to see what these other players will do,” Toler said, referring to a roster that has four rookies.
Gillom agreed and said that if all the Sparks’ veterans were present, the rookies “would probably be thinking, ‘I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.’ This way, their minds can be freed.”
One of those rookies is guard Andrea Riley, the Sparks’ eighth overall draft pick out of Oklahoma State and the nation’s second-leading scorer last season with 26.7 points per game. But she wants to work on a different skill.
“I don’t have to shoot as much,” Riley said by phone. “I’ll make smart decisions.”
Gillom, a former gold medalist and WNBA veteran, has a tall task ahead of her in the next few weeks before the regular season begins May 15. The Sparks last season were projected to win the title but struggled, finishing with an 18-16 record. Though they made the playoffs, they lost the Western Conference finals to eventual champion Phoenix.
“This season will be different,” Gillom said. “We want to bring the excitement back into the game.”
With so many changes to the team, herself included, she knows that’s not going to be easy.
“That’s what makes me thrive,” Gillom said. “I love challenges.”