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Free agency has left Sparks ‘ahead of the curve’ in WNBA

Sparks coach Derek Fisher greets guard Riquna Williams as she exits the court during the first half of a WNBA playoff game against the Sun on Sept. 17, 2019, in Uncasville, Conn.
(Jessica Hill / Associated Press)

Derek Fisher tries to shush his dog in the background during a conference call Monday and keep the echo of his voice to a minimum. The Sparks head coach speaks about what responsibilities his players would have right now “if things were normal.”

Very little about this situation is normal, though.

After the WNBA indefinitely postponed the start of its season last Friday amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sparks, who made free-agency splashes by adding veteran guards Kristi Toliver and Seimone Augustus, and re-signing point guard Chelsea Gray, are hoping to still strengthen the bonds of a new team even when there are no practices on the horizon.

Training camps were supposed to open on April 26 with the league’s 24th season tipping off on May 15. The WNBA will proceed with a virtual draft on April 17.

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“The biggest piece of the puzzle that a lot of times gets left out regardless of this kind of unique set of circumstances is the mental aspect of preparing for a season and how that has obviously been majorly disrupted,” Fisher said. “So a lot of it is not just workouts but also mentally, emotionally, psychologically helping everyone continue to work through different experiences.”

Assistant general manager Michael Fischer said the Sparks have been in close communication with all players since the coronavirus outbreak halted sports around the world during the last three weeks.

Seven Sparks played overseas during the WNBA offseason, but many have returned to the United States since the pandemic canceled seasons in Europe. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt returned from Poland. Chelsea Gray, Riquna Williams and Brittney Sykes traveled from Turkey. Sydney Wiese was playing in Spain, one of the hardest-hit countries of the global pandemic.

Wiese said on March 27 she tested positive for the novel virus. Fisher said Monday the former Oregon State star is in good spirits while recovering in Phoenix, and he doesn’t anticipate “any major delay” in Wiese’s ability to get ready for training camp.

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The free-agency period, the first under the league’s new collective bargaining agreement that increased the salary cap, reunited experienced players on the Sparks, who had the third-best record (22-12) last season, and advanced to the semifinals of the playoffs before getting swept by the Connecticut Sun.

The WNBA draft will be held April 17 as scheduled via video conferencing. Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu is expected to be the first overall pick by New York.

Toliver returned to L.A. after a three-year stint in Washington after previously playing with Gray and current Sparks stars Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike during the team’s 2016 title run. Augustus, a 14-year WNBA veteran, won Olympic gold medals with Parker in 2008 and 2012.

Fischer believes the pre-existing relationships among players puts the team “ahead of the curve” when it comes to gaining chemistry for a season that has no immediate timetable to begin. Fisher, the team’s second-year coach, said there will still be “urgency to create some of those things virtually to make sure we don’t feel like strangers when camp starts.”

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The transition is made easier by a player like Augustus, who Fisher called a “super vet.” The 35-year-old spent the entirety of her career with the Minnesota Lynx before signing with the Sparks on March 20, racking up four WNBA titles, eight All-Star appearances and six All-WNBA honors. With a talented roster in L.A., Fisher said he didn’t guarantee Augustus playing time or a starting role. The veteran didn’t shy away.

“To think about someone that has won four championships in the WNBA and has a resume as powerful as anybody’s, it was all about wanting to be a part of something bigger than her,” Fisher said. “Wanting to be able to finish her career accomplishing really special things and it didn’t have to look a certain way. Those were the type of players that we wanted to add.”


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