Los Angeles Sparks players in sync, healthy and ready for 2011

Photos © Sue Favor. Coaches photo courtesy of the LA Sparks

LOS ANGELES – There are a whole lot of things different about the Los Angeles Sparks’ training camp this year.

To begin with, all on the roster are present due to Euroleague teams finishing at the same time, and the WNBA beginning later. Forward Tina Thompson, the only player left who has been with the league all 15 seasons, says it’s the first time for 100 percent attendance since the first two years of WNBA existence.

“It’s crazy, surreal,” said Thompson.

And in the wake of last year’s long list of injuries, returnees are pinching themselves that everyone is healthy.

“If we’re able to stay healthy, we’ll be off to a great start,” said guard Noelle Quinn.

But beyond that, players say there are other major factors contributing to great team chemistry so far. The first is cohesiveness.

“Last year the coaches were new and we had some new players, and it was all new to everyone,” said veteran forward Delisha Milton-Jones. “Now there’s a sense of comfort from head to toe. People know their roles and what to expect, and it’s a good thing.”

Thompson said last year’s team wasn’t united in its vision.

“There was frustration due to the high expectations early on, and that we were faced with so much adversity,” she said. “Players were put in positions on the floor that they weren’t comfortable with, and if you can’t find that chemistry, it’s not going to happen.”

“If everyone isn’t on the same page with the same goal, a team will easily fall apart. But that’s not an issue this year; now we seem to have the same goal.”

Another major difference for the Sparks this year is Coach Jennifer Gillom’s two new assistants: Sandy Brondello and Joe “Jellybean” Bryant. Brondello, a former WNBA guard, has coached with the San Antonio Silver Stars the last several years, as an assistant and then a year as head coach. Bryant previously served as an assistant coach with the Sparks. Players say both are exactly what the doctor ordered.

“Sandy and Joe are taking some of the load off of Jen so she doesn’t have to do everything,” said Milton-Jones. “We’ve been getting a lot of technical instruction in practice.”

Milton-Jones said all three coaches create an effective balance.

“Sandy is very technical and detail-oriented,” she said. “Jellybean can make an adjustment that opens up a world of opportunity for you—it can be the smallest thing. They both have an incredible level of knowledge about the game.”

At Friday’s practice, those differences were apparent. Gillom managed a scrimmage, yelling out instructions. When players came off the court, Brondello got in their ear, giving them some tips. Bryant stood under the defensive basket watching, making occasional comments. Players say it works.

“We’ve been getting focused and are having a good time,” said Quinn.

There are plenty of newcomers on the roster right now, and the old-timers say it’s been smooth.

“We have a good mixture of veterans and young players,” said veteran point guard Ticha Penicheiro. “Some of the young players are thinking too much, because we’re trying to give them a lot of information. But we’re trying to help them.”

Jantel Lavender, who the Sparks drafted in the first round from Ohio State, admitted that the first practice was “brutal,” but said that she quickly adjusted to the pace.

Sessions are intense because the competition is fierce: 15 players must be cut to a roster of 11 by June 2, and the Sparks camp is loaded with talent at every position. At point guard, for instance, there are returners Penicheiro and Kristi Toliver, as well as newcomers Loree Moore and Natasha Lacy. There is also a wealth of forwards besides Thompson, Milton-Jones and Candace Parker: Lavender, Ebony Hoffman, Courtney Paris, LaToya Pringle and returner Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton.

This is undoubtedly why several players are emphasizing their versatility.

“My game has changed so much over the years,” said Hoffman, whom the Sparks signed as a free agent in February. “I used to be strictly a back-to-the-basket player.”

Lavender said she learned how to transition between the 4 and 5 during her time with the Buckeyes. And she can make the jump shot.

Moore said she can play the 1 or the 2.

“I’m just happy to be wherever I fit in,” she said. “My strength is the versatility I bring—not whether I start or I don’t start.”

But even though the competition is stiff, the camaraderie is great.

“Being the lively personalities that we are, we talk so much trash in practice, but then afterwards it’s like ‘girl, let’s go get dinner,’” said Hoffman.

The former Indiana Fever forward said everyone knows they have to ‘bring it all’ to each practice.

“Don’t come to a gun fight with a knife,” Hoffman said with a laugh.

Another difference in the beginning of Sparks’ season this year is something that’s missing: the lack of championship talk. For each of the last two years, team management has brought in much talent, leading to promises of winning the WNBA title. And both times, the team struggled mightily and fell far short of its goal.

This year, all is quiet on the championship-promising front. Thompson likes it that way.

“That’s my pet peeve, is hearing that,” she said. “That self-imposed pressure is unnecessary. You don’t need to say it, just do it. That makes it much easier to come to work.”

The Sparks have their first pre-season game Wednesday May 25 against the Seattle Storm, at Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson at noon PT.

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Los Angeles Sparks players in sync, healthy and ready for 2011

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