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Sparks’ newcomers are the talk of media day in wake of Candace Parker's injury

Sparks’ newcomers are the talk of media day in wake of Candace Parker's injury
Sparks coach Derek Fisher poses for a photo with sisters Chiney, left, and Nneka Ogwumike during media day. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Penny Toler sat at the Sparks’ media day and rattled off the names of all their new players and their contributions so far.

Chiney Ogwumike’s competitiveness, Kalani Brown’s infectious energy, Ashley Walker’s perseverance.

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“I look around and there’s so many new faces,” Toler, the Sparks’ general manager and vice president, said Tuesday at Los Angeles Southwest College. “I’m actually glad to see them, ’cause every team now and then needs energy boosts. You call it a blood transfusion, and it's been a great transfusion.”

There is something different about the Sparks this season, Nneka Ogwumike said, perhaps the product of so many fresh faces, including her sister’s.

“There’s a buzz that I hadn’t felt before,” Ogwumike said. “At least, in a long time.”

The infusion of energy and the team bonding quickly will be important because Candace Parker, the longest tenured Sparks star and a former MVP, will be sidelined several weeks because of a left hamstring injury sustained in Saturday’s preseason opener. She missed media day with an illness, a team spokesman said.

Nneka Ogwumike, another former MVP, attributed the change to the new coaching staff, led by Derek Fisher. The players have had to adjust to his approach, she said, and as a former NBA player he understands their perspectives and lets them hold each other accountable.

Fisher focused the first few practices on defense, pushing the Sparks to communicate better after finishing last in the league in rebounds (31.3 per game). He integrates life lessons with his coaching and provides a fresh perspective with his NBA experience.

Learning Fisher’s system has helped players bond, said guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, one of six new players signed in the offseason, including rookies Marina Mabrey, Cierra Dillard and Brown. The Sparks also traded for Chiney Ogwumike, a two-time All-Star, and Alexis Jones.

It helps that the Sparks’ core of returning players has been receptive to the new faces. The veterans spent training camp offering advice.

“They all want to see everybody get the best out of everybody,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “And that’s what I love being here. Whether it’s from the coaching staff, from the vets, even the young players speak up. Everybody wants to see each other grow and be the best version of themselves, because that only … helps the team be the best version that it can be.”

Toler has spent training camp studying the players and she and Fisher are encouraged not just by their talent, but also their attitude. Each player is eager to contribute to the team’s success — the Sparks have made the playoffs seven straight seasons, winning a championship in 2016 and reaching the WNBA Finals in 2017.

The Sparks play their second preseason game Friday at Pasadena City College against defending champion Seattle and open the regular season May 26 against the Aces in Las Vegas.

“They’ve won championships before. They want to win it again,” Fisher said. “And everybody here is bought into that.”

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