Success of Los Angeles bolstered by a deep bench and newcomers
The record-setting Minnesota Lynx (12-0) and Los Angeles Sparks (11-0) will meet for a historic showdown of undefeated WNBA teams on Tuesday, June 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBA TV. Minnesota and Los Angeles are off to the two best starts in WNBA history, and their matchup is the first in the WNBA, NBA, NFL, MLB or NHL between teams with 10 or more wins, no losses and no ties.
With a roster that includes standouts who have played together for several years, it may not be a surprise to some that the Los Angeles Sparks have started the season 11-0. But veteran stars Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Alana Beard and Kristi Toliver along with reserve Jantel Lavender are buoyed by productive newcomers including former New York Liberty forward Essence Carson and a bevy of foreign players.
The abundant talent of the Sparks plus great chemistry has produced impressive results. The team leads the WNBA in field goal percentage (49.8), three-point shot percentage (37.9) and is second to league-leader Minnesota Lynx in points per game (86.9). On the defensive end, the Sparks are currently first in the league in points allowed per game (71.4).
Carson, in her ninth year as a pro, is having her best season since 2013 when she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. She has started in every game this season averaging 7.7 points per contest. Her season-high 15 points came against her old team, a 100-77 victory for the Sparks at home on June 7.
“Essence brings so much,” Ogwumike said about her new teammate in a conference call with media on the eve before the Sparks were set to host the Lynx.
“She is incredibly valuable for us. She obviously asserts herself on the defensive end, but offensively you can’t sleep on her and I think that she brings a lot to our backcourt, especially with the combination of Alana Beard. The two of them of them, the combination that they bring on defense really helps. I think that she is an incredible addition to our team as well as a lot of the players that we have coming off the bench.”
In Friday’s win 77-71 home win versus Phoenix Mercury, Carson scored in double figures for the fourth time in her last five games, with 12 points.
Sparks head coach Brian Agler is also pleased with Carson’s production and the leadership that she brings to the team.
“When she speaks people listen. She gets people’s attention,” Agler said. “She is a mentally and physically tough player. She has great focus, a very smart player. Her presence defensively is exceptional. I think that she’s playing very efficiently at the offensive end as well. I think just her toughness has been a great addition to our team.”
In addition to Carson, the Sparks also rely heavily on Lavender, who both Ogwumike and Agler indicated, is a player that is good enough to be a starter.
“We have a combination of people that can start,” Ogwumike said. “Everyone knows what Jantel can do. I think that’s what so special about our team. Everybody understands that you know it’s not about who starts the game. It’s not necessarily about who is expected to score the most points. I think the beauty of our team is that it can be anybody’s night on any given night.”
Lavender is in her sixth season in the league. She is averaging 9.1 points per game and 2.6 rebounds per contest.
The international contingent of the Sparks includes Evgeniia Belyakova (Russia), Ana Dabovic (Serbia), Jelena Dubljevic (Montenegro) and Ann Wauters (Belgium). Dabovic, a member of the Serbian national team, will participate in the Rio Games, alongside her sister Milica, the squad’s captain. She will be the only Sparks player competing in the Olympics.
Wauters, a center who has played off and on in the league since 2000, has been even more prolific. She averages 10.4 points per game and 5.3 rebounds per contest.
“A lot of people want to call us the United Nations because of how many foreigners we have on our team,” Ogwumike said. “They may be new to the league or rookies in different respects but at the same time we have a lot of people that have been playing overseas for years and the knowledge and experience that they bring to the court really contributes to our chemistry.”
Looking around the league, the only team that compares to the Sparks in depth of talent is the Lynx. According to Agler, there have been no grumblings among the reserves about their roles.
“They have perspective and they understand the bigger picture and they know that they next game it could be their night and so they are always ready to play.”