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Sparks have plenty in reserve with Riquna Williams and ‘bench mob’

Sparks guard Riquna Williams talks strategy with coach Derek Fisher during a game against the Fever on Saturday.
Sparks guard Riquna Williams talks strategy with coach Derek Fisher during a WNBA game against the Fever on Saturday in Bradenton, Fla.
(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

Reserve guard Riquna Williams saw an opportunity when starter Tierra Ruffin-Pratt injured an ankle. It likely wasn’t the one most players would ask their coaches for.

“I don’t know what [Derek Fisher’s] plan is,” Williams told assistant coach Latricia Trammell before the Sparks’ game against the Liberty on Aug. 11, “but make sure he keeps me on the bench.”

After beginning the season in the starting lineup, Williams has blossomed coming off the bench and helped the Sparks (7-3) win four straight games entering Wednesday’s matchup against the Phoenix Mercury that marks the halfway point of the regular season. After averaging 9.4 points in four games as a starter, Williams is averaging 14.7 points in the last six games as a reserve.

It’s her comfort zone, she said. But why would a former All-Star pass on the starting role most people covet?

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“I’m not most people,” Williams said with a smirk.

Williams, an eight-year pro, uses her speed to pester opponents on defense despite her relatively small stature. Her compact release on three-point shots is so smooth and consistent that Fisher said every shot she fires seems destined for the bottom of the net. Williams leads the league in three-pointers made with 30 on 50.8% accuracy.

When asked of her recent hot streak, Williams said it stems from a renewed joy on the court after last season was marred by a domestic violence incident. She was arrested in April 2019 after allegedly attacking a former girlfriend, and charged with burglary and aggravated assault. Less than a month after the arrest, the Sparks re-signed Williams, who was an unrestricted free agent at the time, and she was later suspended by the league for 10 games.

Nikola Vucevic scored a playoff career-high 35 points and had 14 rebounds, and the Orlando Magic stunned the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks 122-110 on Tuesday.

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In 23 games with 14 starts, Williams averaged 12.3 points last year and shot 39.1% from three-point range. The charges were dropped in February.

“Having my incident last year hanging over my head, it definitely took a toll after a while,” Williams said. “But this year, I came in free. Nothing’s hanging over me and I’m able to give my all to my team.”

Williams’ best performances come off the bench because she thrives after being able to observe the game first.

“When you start, you kind of have to create the flow as opposed to coming off the bench, you can see it,” said Seimone Augustus, the four-time WNBA champion from Minnesota who is also coming off the bench in her first season with the Sparks. “You see what’s needed. You can see what things you can kind of attack and things like that, so that’s where Riquna has been great in finding out where she can attack.”

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Augustus said the Sparks’ “bench mob” is beginning to learn how to watch the game and respond accordingly. The group huddles on the sideline after every tip-off and evaluates the game as the starters get to work. The bench is prepared to bring whatever is needed, whether it’s Williams’ scoring, forward Kristine Anigwe’s rebounding or rookie guard Te’a Cooper’s aggressive on-ball defense.

The Sparks have “two starting fives,” All-Star forward Nneka Ogwumike said, and the success of the second unit is motivating the first group.

“Quite frankly, the first five, we gotta get our stuff together,” Ogwumike said.

The Sparks’ reserves are averaging 33.8 points per game, which is on pace for the third-best bench output in WNBA history. This season’s Las Vegas Aces, with 34.2 bench points per game, led the category as of Monday, ahead of the 2008 Minnesota Lynx’s 33.9 bench points.

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“The bench in this league separates the contenders from pretenders,” Augustus said, “and we feel like we have a bench that can take us a long way.”


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