Fourth team’s the charm: Nia Coffey fitting in with Sparks

Sparks forward Nia Coffey defends against Dallas Wings guard Tyasha Harris.
Sparks forward Nia Coffey defends Dallas’ Tyasha Harris on May 14. Coffey is averaging career highs in points (9.6), rebounds (4.4) and minutes (25.1) this season.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

More than half an hour after the Sparks wrapped up practice Tuesday, Nia Coffey was still on the court at the team’s Glendale practice facility. While others called it a day, the Sparks forward was working on additional drills. She used her T-shirt to wipe sweat off her face as she sat down in front of the camera for a planned videoconference.

Five years and four franchises into her WNBA career, Coffey knows the value of extra work, but she shouldn’t be depicted as just a determined role player who has finally carved out a spot in the pros through long hours in the gym.

Call her what she is: a good basketball player.

“We knew Nia was a hard worker, a great person, high integrity, high character,” Fisher said, “but I think sometimes that gets lost in how talented that she actually is.”

Coffey is averaging career highs in points (9.6), rebounds (4.4) and minutes (25.1) while ranking fourth in the league in blocks with 1.9 per game. She has become a versatile piece of the Sparks’ rebuilt roster after signing as a free agent from Phoenix and will face her former team in back-to-back games, starting Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. PDT at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Three of the Sparks’ next five games will be against the Mercury (5-6).

Coffey has started the last five games as the Sparks (4-5) have been shorthanded because of knee injuries to Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike. The Ogwumikes aren’t expected to return this week, forcing Coffey to reprise a power forward role that might be out of character for the 6-foot-1 former fifth overall draft pick whom guard Kristi Toliver said fits more into a small forward spot.

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Although Coffey is undersized at the four position, she hasn’t shied away from the challenge.

“She just has that mindset of whatever the team needs me to do, I’ll do. That’s been great for us,” Toliver said. “Just her spirit, her wanting to learn the game, her IQ. … She gets it.”

Coffey credits her winding road in the WNBA for her growing knowledge of the game. The Northwestern alumna understands opposing team’s personnel and style. The pace that used to overwhelm her is routine now.

“When you first come into the league, the game moves faster, but being able to see it now, I can understand certain things on an IQ level that I didn’t have my rookie year,” Coffey said.

Before her journeywoman career, Coffey starred at Northwestern, where she became the school’s highest draft pick and the fifth player in Big Ten women’s basketball history with 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in a career. As a sophomore, she led the Wildcats to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 18 years by averaging 15.7 points and nine rebounds a game. Her 103 blocked shots that season ranked seventh in program history.

Coffey, who is Northwestern’s all-time leading rebounder and ranks second in points and blocks, was drafted by the San Antonio Stars, which moved to Las Vegas the following year. She was traded to Atlanta the next season, then to Phoenix, where she averaged 2.7 points and 2.5 rebounds per game during the coronavirus-shortened season.

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This offseason, Coffey signed with the Sparks on a nonguaranteed training camp contract. The team was already packed with stars and Fisher, who is also the team’s general manager, couldn’t promise anything during the free-agency conversations.

But Coffey had a “quiet and humble confidence,” Fisher said. And she had the talent.

“I don’t think she’s surprised,” Fisher said, “and we’re not all the way surprised either.”