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How shorthanded Sparks weathered early season illness, injuries

Sparks' Nia Clouden takes the ball upcourt during the second quarter of a game.
Sparks guard Nia Clouden controls the ball during a loss to the Las Vegas Aces on May 27.
(Steve Marcus / Getty Images)
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When Curt Miller looked at the Sparks’ schedule, the sight of three games in the first 14 days felt perfect. It was a “golden opportunity” to fortify the first-year coach’s system early in the season.

But as injuries and illnesses piled, it proved too good to be true.

After reconfiguring the roster enough to overcome lingering injuries to guard Jasmine Thomas (knee) and forward Azurá Stevens (back), the Sparks’ roster gymnastics reached a new degree of difficulty when an illness thinned the team’s personnel to the point Lisa Leslie jokingly asked on social media if she needed to suit up for a game in Las Vegas.

Three players were ruled out hours before the game that ended in a blowout. Forward Rae Burrell, who conveniently lived in Las Vegas after being waived after training camp, saved the Sparks from potential forfeiture by signing a hardship contract after shootaround.

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Through the player carousel and canceled practice days, the Sparks (1-2) have tried to maintain an unwavering focus on their larger plan in Miller’s first season.

“The big message is 40 games is a long season,” the coach said by phone Thursday. “Ultimately, we’ve just gotta keep grinding away and building the foundation that we desire to have for sustainable success long-term wise and just continue to really teach. … We’ve gotta continue to create the foundation that we want and desire to have in the organization.”

Approaching a stretch of five games in 10 days — starting with a back-to-back set in Phoenix on Friday and at home against the Seattle Storm on Saturday — Miller said all players battling the non-COVID illness returned to practice Thursday. Miller said everyone was “trending in the right direction” but, with a few instances of recurring symptoms, the situation is still “fluid.”

Rookie guard Zia Cooke has had a strong start to the season (14 points on five-of-six shooting), and hopes to keep the momentum against the Las Vegas Aces.

May 24, 2023

For a coach who prides himself on preparation, injury, illness or travel curveballs cause anxiety, Miller said. The Sparks were looking forward to significant practice time with their leisurely game pace to start the season. Instead, they had to take Sunday, Monday and Wednesday off this week to allow sick players to rest.

Despite the challenges, the Sparks are ahead of schedule with the most important pillar of their foundation, Miller said. Selflessness is the first piece of the team’s S.P.A.R.K.S. acronym used to define the blueprint, followed by Preparation, Accountability, Respectful, Konnected and Smile.

“Everyone has that one teammate that we’ve all played with that you’re like, ‘Dang, when they get the ball, they never pass it,’ ” guard Layshia Clarendon said after the Sparks dished 20 assists to just six turnovers in the season-opening win against Phoenix on May 19. “So far, we have not seen that and it’s very refreshing.”

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The Sparks had 43 assists to 17 turnovers in the first two games but, shorthanded because of the illness, unraveled for 19 turnovers to 18 assists against the Las Vegas Aces last Saturday.

Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike against the Phoenix Mercury on May 19 at Crypto.com Arena.
Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike, second from right, gathers her team against the Phoenix Mercury on May 19 at Crypto.com Arena.
(Jeff Lewis / Associated Press)

With their top two available point guards Jordin Canada and Clarendon out sick, the Sparks turned to second-year former first-round pick Nia Clouden to run the offense. She was the first piece of the Sparks’ early season roster gymnastics routine.

Clouden joined the team on waivers hours before finalizing the opening day roster. The second-year guard scrambled across the country after she was waived by the Connecticut Sun three days before the season opener.

Miller, who drafted Clouden with the Sun, knew how difficult it was to find point guards. With the Sparks devoid of much young, first-round talent and Thomas, 33, and Clarendon, 32, in the latter stages of their careers, Miller scooped Clouden off the waiver wire despite still recovering from offseason surgery to address a stress fracture in her shin.

Chiney Ogwumike scored 19 points, but the short-handed Sparks fell short against the defending champions Las Vegas Aces 94-85 at Crypto.com Arena.

May 25, 2023

In her first WNBA start, Clouden played a team-high 36 minutes against the Aces last Saturday, scoring eight points with five assists and six turnovers.

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“She’s got a lot of wiggle, as we like to call it, she can change directions, change pace at the point guard position,” Miller said. “She’s unselfish. She’s got the athleticism, ultimately after she’s fully back from these injuries to help us. I just think there’s an upside and a high ceiling for her. Now it’s hers to go grab it.”

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