‘I’m just getting started’: Sparks’ Lexie Brown proves importance of WNBA role player

Sparks guard Lexie Brown brings the ball up court.
Sparks guard Lexie Brown is shooting a career-best 46.1% from three-point range this season.
(Kamil Krzaczynski / Associated Press)
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The WNBA’s third-best three-point shooter watched the league’s annual three-point contest on a TV in Las Vegas, more than 1,700 miles away from the All-Star festivities in Chicago. Lexie Brown would have loved to have been there, but she didn’t receive an invitation to the contest that, in theory, was created to highlight the exact skill the 45.7% three-point shooter has mastered.

To say the Sparks guard was “a little” disappointed was an understatement, Brown said.

The All-Star Game was touted as a passing of the torch, evidenced by 25-year-old A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart, 27, handing flowers to retiring legends Sue Bird, 41, and Sylvia Fowles, 36. But the weekend’s other events mostly recycled names from the readily available All-Star pool or players who were already in Chicago. The six-player field in the three-point contest included five All-Stars, one player shooting better than 40% from three-point range and a sentimental fan favorite in Chicago native Allie Quigley.

Two days after Quigley won her record-setting fourth three-point shooting crown, Brown was back in the practice gym with the Sparks working the way she’s always done. She has no problem proving on the court why she deserves a slice of the limelight next time.

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The 5-foot-9 guard is averaging career highs in points (eight), rebounds (2.7), minutes (27.9) and three-point percentage entering Thursday’s rematch with her former team, the Chicago Sky, at Crypto.com Arena. She jumped back into the starting lineup after Brittney Sykes tested positive for the coronavirus July 1 and helped the Sparks (10-13) win three straight games while averaging 12.8 points and sinking 11 of the team’s 23 made three-pointers during Sykes’ four-game absence.

For years, Brown was telling peers that she’s the best shooter in the league. On her fourth team in five years, she’s finally getting a chance to show it.

“She’s been this shooter,” said Sykes, who recalled a game when Brown dropped 31 points on Sykes’ Syracuse team as a freshman at Maryland. “I’m not surprised. I’m happy that everybody else in the world can see her shine.”

Sparks guard Lexie Brown pursues a loose ball alongside Lynx guard Moriah Jefferson.
Sparks guard Lexie Brown pursues a loose ball alongside Lynx guard Moriah Jefferson during a game earlier this season.
(Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)

The ninth overall pick in 2018, Brown’s journeywoman career isn’t uncommon in the WNBA, even for first-round draft picks. Because of the quick turnaround between the NCAA season ending in March and the draft in April, there aren’t predraft interviews or combines. Most teams just draft based on the best available player, not always on best fit, Brown said.

While players aren’t necessarily set up to fail, the situation doesn’t set most up for success either.

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“You kind of just have to put your head down and work and hopefully find yourself in a position where you can be successful,” said Brown, who went from the Connecticut Sun to the Minnesota Lynx for two seasons to winning a championship with the Sky before settling with the Sparks. “For a lot of players, that probably takes throughout your entire rookie contract to figure that out. … To get to this point, Year Five, I feel like I’m just getting started.”

After averaging 1.6 points in 9.5 minutes in 17 appearances off the bench during the Sky’s championship season, Brown received a qualifying offer to stay in Chicago. She turned it down. But tabling the contract wasn’t just a feel-good story of a quietly confident player who believed in her abilities. It was a business decision.

While the league’s salary cap increased by 31% under the latest collective bargaining agreement in 2020, Brown knew the agreement didn’t benefit each player equally. The max salary for top players increased from $117,500 to $215,000 in 2020, an 83% jump. The rookie minimum increased by 35.8% from 2019 to 2020.

As a result, the middle tier of players often get squeezed out.

Brown, a 27-year-old aspiring general manager, understood the Sky’s salary-cap situation meant she could have been the best player in training camp and the team still wouldn’t have had the money to sign her for the season.

The WNBA progresses from its philosophy of encouraging players to be conventionally feminine to seeing players in crisp tailored suits and mini dresses.

“That’s just life,” said Brown, who is equal parts realistic about her role in the league and optimistic about opportunities for growth.

Brown wasn’t offended when she received Chicago’s qualifying offer at the veteran minimum. She was grateful that Chicago’s James Wade and former Sparks general manager and coach Derek Fisher could work out a trade to send Chicago the rights to Chinese center Li Yueru.

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When Brown arrived at training camp with a nonguaranteed contract, she looked at the roster and understood her assignment. It was to shoot.

Despite Brown’s primary responsibility being three-point shooting, it was a defensive play during training camp that thrilled Sykes the most about her new teammate. The guard who earned first-team all-defense last year watched Brown leap into a passing lane and intercept a pass. Sykes locked widened eyes with assistant coach Latricia Trammell, recognizing she finally had a defensive partner in the former ACC defensive player of the year, who earned the title after transsferring to Duke.

“You have two players like that, it’s like having two great defensive backs in football,” Sparks interim coach Fred Williams said.

The Sparks are fourth in the league in steals, led by Sykes’ league-leading 2.1 per game, and fourth in points off turnovers.

Brown said she’s fully embraced the three-and-D role for the seventh-place Sparks. The specialized job is ubiquitous in the NBA, where even role players become common names, but WNBA players in the same position have yet to gain the same recognition.

The WNBA instead has focused its marketing on identifying and promoting its next era of megastars, possibly limiting the league’s growth potential.

“If you market other players, and not just big names, not just kids that came out of BCS schools, you’re going to continue to grow the market with people that see themselves in us,” said Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud, who once recruited Brown to Maryland before Cloud transferred to St. Joseph’s. “By expanding marketing in the W, it will only continue to grow our league.”

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Sparks' Lexie Brown reacts after scoring a three-point basket against the Phoenix Mercury.
Sparks’ Lexie Brown reacts after scoring a three-point basket against the Phoenix Mercury at Crypto.com Arena on July 4.
(Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)

Cloud and Brown got a glimpse at a marketing blueprint in Athletes Unlimited. They praised the fledgling league’s commitment to sharing the stories of all its players, who signed up for an unproven format that doesn’t rely on coaches or general managers.

Athletes Unlimited players assume bench and front office duties by drafting teams each week and determining playing time and rotations. Brown flourished in the sideline role, getting an early shot at her future goal of being a WNBA or NBA general manager. On the court, she shot 46.9% from behind the arc during the five-week league and finished fourth on the individual leaderboard where players accumulate points similar to fantasy football performances.

No longer needing to answer to coaches or general managers, players felt empowered. Brown credited the league with building confidence for all the WNBA players who found their new offseason homes.

Cloud said Brown was repeatedly disrespected early in her WNBA career and “it took away her confidence, it took away her confidence in her game, her ability.

“I think Athletes Unlimited for all of us, it gave us a sense of freedom to just go out, find our love for the game again and play free,” said Cloud, who finished second on the AU leaderboard and now leads the WNBA in assists with 7.2 per game.

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Brown has continued her impressive play on both ends of the court into the WNBA season. After her 38 steals ranked second among AU players, she had seven steals in two wins while guarding Sabrina Ionescu and Skylar Diggins-Smith on back-to-back nights. She also made six-of-nine three-pointers.

The Sparks allowed Elena Delle Donne to score 26 points in the 94-81 loss to the Mystics on Tuesday at Crypto.com Arena.

Considering her unheralded history in the league to this season, some may have been unsure of Brown’s true shooting prowess.

“But I think as the season has continued,” she said, “people are like, ‘OK, she’s a shooter.’ ”

The next step is just making sure someone in the league office knows.