When training camp began last year, things looked pretty grim for the Sparks.
They had a new coach, three-time WNBA most valuable player Lisa Leslie had retired, and more than half of the team was still playing overseas.
This year, with audible tinges of excitement in her voice, Sparks General Manager Penny Toler said everything will be different when camp opens Sunday.
All 15 players will be in attendance, including 2008 WNBA MVP and rookie of the year Candace Parker, Tina Thompson (the league’s all-time leading scorer), Ticha Penicheiro (the league’s all-time assist leader) and two-time WNBA champion DeLisha Milton-Jones.
“We have a good opportunity to build some good chemistry,” Toler said.
Most important, they’re injury-free.
After Parker suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and guard Betty Lennox decided to have knee surgery halfway through the 2010 season, the Sparks were sometimes so short-handed that Coach Jennifer Gillom had to suit up at practice in order for the team to have enough players to scrimmage.
Gillom said she’s done being the team’s 10th player. “Very much so,” she added, laughing.
Toler is quick to point out that despite the setbacks, the Sparks clawed their way to a first-round playoff appearance against the Seattle Storm, which won the WNBA title.
After that accomplishment, Toler said, “I’m looking to go out blazing this year.”
In the off-season, the Sparks addressed one of their biggest concerns: rebounding. With the fifth overall pick, they drafted 6-foot-4 center Jantel Lavender, who averaged 22.8 points and 10.9 rebounds for Ohio State.
“Lavender can also run the floor very well,” Gillom said. “Our post players can move to the guard position and our guards to the post position.”
Before having to trim their roster to 11 by June 2, the Sparks will play exhibition games on May 25 (against Seattle) at Cal State Dominguez Hills and May 28 (against Phoenix) at Albuquerque, N.M. They open their season June 3 against WNBA No. 1 draft pick Maya Moore and the Minnesota Lynx.
Gillom may have many reasons to be excited, but she acknowledged that she still has one concern.
“Last year you pretty much knew who your starters would be,” she said. “This year, it’s not that way.”
After a long pause, she added, “Those are great problems to have.”