When the Sparks drafted Kalani Brown seventh overall in April, the expectations were high. A few weeks earlier, Brown led the Baylor Bears to an NCAA title and was chosen an All-American for the second time in her college career.
The 6-foot-7 center was difficult to slow down in the paint, shooting 61% from the field and averaging 15.8 points and 8.2 rebounds her senior season.
When Brown arrived at Los Angeles Southwest College for her first WNBA practice, she faced a new set of challenges. She wouldn’t be the focal point of the Sparks, who featured newly acquired Chiney Ogwumike and former league MVPs in Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike in the frontcourt. She would also have to learn a new offense while guarding opponents comparable in size and strength to herself.
“Just being aggressive and snatching boards, that comes with time because they’re just as big as you are and just as strong as you are. Literally, you’re not getting anything easy,” Brown said of the transition to the WNBA. “And I am not afraid to say it, I think that’s what I struggled with the most. The things I got away with in college, I’m not getting away with here.”
Heading into a game Sunday at Atlanta that finishes a three-game trip for the Sparks, Brown has put together two solid games. She scored eight points and had five rebounds in 16 minutes during a loss to Dallas on Tuesday and came back Friday with nine points and five rebounds in 15 minutes during a win over Indiana.
Brown, 22, could play more minutes Sunday against the Dream because Parker (ankle), Alana Beard (hamstring) and Maria Vadeeva (knee) have been ruled out for the game. The Sparks will also be without guard Alexis Jones (knee).
“I am the baby enforcer right now,” she said recently. “I’m still learning the game, which is why I said baby, but I think I will be the enforcer on this team in the future.”
She dealt with a calf injury during training camp that limited her time on the court, then head coach Derek Fisher adjusted his starting lineup to include Riquna Williams, which shuffled his rotation of reserves.
Brown said she takes it one day at a time. At practice, she often finds herself guarding the Ogwumike sisters or Parker during drills and scrimmages. Brown, who once struggled to keep up with them, said she has improved her mobility.
When Fisher decided to rest Nneka Ogwumike during a game last month against Las Vegas, he called on Brown, and she answered. Brown held Aces center Liz Cambage to six second-half points and finished with a season-high 12 points and four rebounds.
She even dealt with a little hair-pulling incident.
“It’s taken [Kalani] a little time to get herself together as a professional player, and you’re starting to see the things that we knew she was capable of,” Fisher said. “But she’s now learning how to generate the energy, the intensity, the physicality that she’s capable of playing with on a daily basis.”
Her improved play has earned her praises from veteran players.
“I threw a pass at her, and I think she should have caught it. She came to me and was like, ‘Keep throwing it, I’m going to catch it next time,’” Parker said after the 86-74 defeat of the Aces. “The next time she did. To me, that shows her growth and her ability to adjust.”
Brown followed up her performance by scoring six points and blocking three shots in a 94-69 win over the Chicago Sky on June 30. With her two solid outings earlier this week, Brown is averaging 5.0 points and 3.9 rebounds in 14½ minutes a game. While dismal compared to her college numbers, Brown remains optimistic about her future in the WNBA.
“Maybe I can one day be where Candace is. Candace is a great player. She’s done a lot for our game and for me. I grew up watching her. She hates when I say that,” Brown said laughing.
Off the court, Brown’s transition has been a lot easier. A last-minute invite to the 2019 NBA Awards show on June 30 allowed her to experience the professional side of life off the court. She took pictures with “Uncle Shaq,” whom she remembers from the NBA playing days of her father, P.J. Brown.
“It was a great way to connect and be among basketball players,” Brown said. “I felt in my element and not the odd one out.”
She watched Chiney Ogwumike conducting several interviews for ESPN, witnessed Parker present Robin Roberts with the Sager Strong Award, and watched players address key issues regarding the WNBA.
“Just talking about different topics such as gender equality, the pay gap, marketing for the WNBA … and how to answer that [question],” Brown said. “It’s a little frustrating for us women. And just how they answered it and they were so poised with it. They showed me how to be a professional.”